Sensibility and capacity for receptivity are the qualities that allow us to pay attention to, learn from, and act in the world—they are sources of wealth.
There are many ways to be as a person. Each of us expresses their appreciation for being alive in different ways. But one of the ways some people express their gratitude is to put something out there for everyone to enjoy.
I’m paraphrasing the late Steve Jobs. Some days my eyes fill with so much beauty and love of the craft that it’s hard to contain. There are so many marvelous things to describe and put out into the world.
Many of you I’ll never meet. Maybe I’ll never shake your hand or hear your story. Somehow though, I feel that working with a great deal of care and love transmits something. It’s my way of expressing my deep appreciation to the rest of humanity.
“We need to be true to who we are and remember what’s really important to us.”
Steve Jobs, 2007
Lauren Powell Jobs said that, “The best way to understand a person is to listen to that person directly.” What we say is a window into what we think. Thinking has been something I’ve worked on to do the best work. I’ve thought the most about what it means to be human and to express it.
I don’t know if I chose liberal arts and education in the classics because that’s the lens I use to view the world, or if a lucky choice gifted me with the ability and capacity to filter that way. As I learned from physicist Carlo Rovelli cause and effect are connected in time—the order of time is a mystery we’re still working on.
There’s a gravitational field that pulls humans toward exploring, building capacity for learning, experimenting, connecting. “You appear, have a chance to blaze in the sky, then you disappear,” as Jobs said. I’m driven to my work because I believe it might contribute to human progress. It’s my notion of what it means to be part of the arc of human existence.
In a world filled with stuff, much of which we hardly need, it’s important to learn to see what’s not there. To sense what could be there. True inner freedom is hard-earned. But it’s worth pursuing. Because it comes with a real sense of possibility. What we do with it is up to us.
We can do better, we must.
I don’t know if this is true for you. But I find that most of what I’ve ended up working on throughout my career started with a small seed, a tiny idea or intuition I had as a child. That origin story was in the background amidst the practical preoccupations of life, but never forgotten. Idleness was often the trigger that brought it to the fore. When I had a moment of reflection, a pause, the creative spark followed.
The culture of the 21st century – on an increasingly planetary scale – is oriented around the practical principles of utility, effectiveness and impact. The worth of anything – an idea, an activity, an artwork, a relationship with another person – is determined pragmatically: things are good to the extent that they are instrumental, with instrumentality usually defined as the capacity to produce money or things. Bright young people are shuffled into a narrow set of lucrative ‘changemaking’ career paths in business, consulting and law; so-called ‘relationship experts’ counsel status-based courtship, the acquisition of a ‘high-value’ mate; guides to ‘productivity’ – the cardinal virtue of the 21st-century US, now exported globally – top nonfiction bestseller lists. Ways of being together, including religious worship, are ‘social technologies’; knowledge of how to do something, even to quietly contemplate the strangeness of being, is a ‘life hack’. For today’s luminaries and wisdom-peddlers, it’s instrumentality all the way down.
I call it building the social infrastructure our species needs to progress.
Contemporary culture is rushing towards high entropy, as Rovelli would put it. We gain energy in the exchange, but at what cost! For the world it’s global warming—for us it’s meaning, purpose, peace of mind, sanity.
Our calculations about the future are part of the evolutionary design. We would be very good at elaborating possible alternative futures if the present were exactly as it is, except for some detail, projected onward. Do we know that it will be?
Can we choose well between different futures?
It’s hard to say when we don’t have direct awareness of the vast mechanisms of the brain. But we can improve our odds by reconnecting with our bodies. Our mind plays tricks on us, and it spins tales our bodies cannot cash in. That’s where we truly know—in our gut, in our hands, the entire surface of the body, our drive. Children know that learning is all about the body. Idleness brings drive to the fore.
We’re not aware of all the factors that influence our perceptions, how we remember experiences, make judgements, and act. The mind at work is a black box. Neuroscientist Leonard Mlodinow says it’s Subliminal:
we are aware only of our conscious influences, and so have only partial information. As a result, our view of ourselves and our motivations, and our society, is like a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing. We fill in blanks and make guesses, but the truth about us is far more complex and subtle that than which can be understood as the straightforward calculation of conscious and rational minds.
In The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (1939), Abraham Flexner wrote that ‘most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.’
He could have used ‘humankind’ in that sentence. We’re so used to accepting only utilitarian data, overlooking nuance in favor of automatic mode, that it’s a special effort to notice—a better word exists. I call what Flexner describes and my linguistic addendum: doing the work.
It’s a calling, something we cannot stop even if we wanted to. Of course, goals help and we do need to attend to the necessities of life. However beyond food, clothing, and shelter, our human needs are much broader. The overflow of our creative pursuits is life-saving.