Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#9) — On aiming higher and higher

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Wilbur Wright pilots a full-size glider down the steep slope of Big Kill Devil Hill in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on October 10, 1902. (First Flight with the Wright Brothers, The Atlantic)

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

On aiming higher and higher

I was just thinking about how to politely say “no, thank you” to a request from a startup to help them ‘revolutionize’ whatever it is they want to revolutionize, when Leandro Herrero’s Daily Thoughts popped up in my mailbox. “I’m now of an age when I only want to work with people who want to change the world,” it read. Precisely, I thought.

Too often we work with people who say they want change, but what they actually want is ‘the appearance of change’ — a false façade. Look, we have an innovation lab (but it only produces ‘more of the same’). Look, we have a diversity program (but there’s no ‘different thinking’). Look, we are a digital company (but it’s just a customer interface). Appearance without depth and substance. Change and innovation without doing all the hard work.

As I wrote in my Working Notes of a Practicing Neo-Generalist (#5) — On false façades and smoke screens, apart from these physical façades, there is often also a fictional façade — a smoke screen of words, of empty vocabulary. “But we do all that,” I often hear. To which my answer almost always is, “No, you talk about it, but that’s not the same.” Most executives and their teams have embraced all the ‘right’ the words. Some have even erected a façade. At the end of the day, though, it is all pretend — nothing more, nothing less. It may fool people, for now, but it won’t last.

Herrero writes, “We don’t do small change. […] My company does not aim at incrementalism, yet that may be a very legitimate goal.” Indeed, there is nothing wrong with trying to improve what you are currently doing, as long as you don’t mistake this for ‘changing the world.’ These are the things we need to do to keep the motor running — to make it more ‘fuel efficient.’ But at the same time, we need to think about what it takes to create a different, better world; not just a more efficient one. One without cars, for example.

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Who Needs Convertible Slippers? Ian Bogost on the obsession “revolutionizing” products. Not everything has to be reinvented, though.

With despair I sometimes watch the effort and money put into startups and other ‘world changing’ initiatives that, in the end, only serve humanity’s ‘one per cent.’ Or even, as in the case of Elon Musk’s plans for terraforming Mars, its 0.014035087719298244 per cent. Musk’s vision certainly isn’t incremental. It’s bold and straight out of a science fiction novel, but also estranged from most people’s everyday reality. Well, those outside Silicon Valley anyway.

Most innovators have a less grandiose vision, though. They are focused on ‘the next big thing.’ Not on Mars, but here, on Earth. But according to Tom Goodwin, senior vice president of strategy and innovation for Havas Media US, “we’ve got the questions wrong. It shouldn’t be how are you innovating or which project is doing new things, but why are you doing it and on what level.”

In Innovation is in all the wrong places, he writes:

“I live a pretty cosmopolitan futuristic life atop a glass skyscraper in New York City, but I’ve yet to get a pizza delivered by drone, order a taxi from Alexa or open a hotel door with my smartwatch. I’ve also not booked a hotel from a bot (because trying that drove me crazy) nor consumed news from one, because that’s a terrible way to do it. In a world where what’s possible is advancing at breakneck speed, it’s odd that British Airways has developed an emotionally aware smart blanket, but doesn’t ‘do’ email. It’s strange that IKEA has VR to help you experience your kitchen, but struggles with the basics of e-commerce. My car rental company has invested millions in onsite video-calling kiosks, but their app loses 50 percent of the bookings I make.”

Most startups and innovations seem to be driven by what’s possible, rather than by what’s meaningful. And although, at first sight, this may seem to have nothing to do with Herrero’s remarks about incrementalism — after all, these innovations may require profound technological development — their impact on people’s lives is often, well, just that — incremental.

In an article for The New York Times, Solving All the Wrong Problems, Allison Arieff wonders if innovative companies that promise to make the world a better place, are actually succeeding. We are currently overloaded with new discoveries, patents and inventions all promising a better life, but that better life has not been forthcoming for most. In fact, Arieff writes, the bulk targets a very specific, and tiny slice of the population. For most people working on such projects, the goal is basically to “provide for themselves everything that their mothers no longer do.”

“The impulse to conflate toothbrush delivery with Nobel Prize-worthy good works is not just a bit cultish,” Arieff writes, “it’s currently a wildfire burning through the so-called innovation sector. Products and services are designed to ‘disrupt’ market sectors (also known as bringing to market things no one really needs) more than to solve actual problems.”

“When they go low, we go high,” Michelle Obama said during the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

So, on the one hand we have established companies saying they want to innovate and change, but actually not that much. On the other hand, we have all these startups that claim to ‘revolutionize the world,’ but, at closer inspection, don’t seem to make things more meaningful. Far from it. And then, of course, there is Elon Musk. (The startup I mentioned at the start of these Working Notes falls firmly into the second category of hot air.)

Where does that leave me, and the things I do? First, like Herrero, I don’t do incremental. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. Second, I only do meaningful. I could do otherwise, but I don’t want to. What I want is to build a ‘beautiful world’ — better cities, empowering democracies, beautiful businesses, equal opportunities, meaningful work... I know, a daunting task, but like Herrero, and dare I say Michelle Obama, also I am left with only one option — to aim higher and higher (while keeping Icarus’ misfortune in mind).

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Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, now seen as a good early copy of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s original. (ca. 1560, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium)

“Michelle Obama’s line in the US elections, ‘when they go low, we go high,’ was for me a Michelangelo-like moment, I confess. When we see all going lower and lower, whether in the politics of selfishness or the disrespect for truthfulness, or an increasing Homo Homini Lupus fabric of society, that ‘man-is-wolf-to-man’ world, I am left only with an option: higher and higher.” — Leandro E. Herrero

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