Just who do you think you are?
It’s a simple question. If you aren’t sure, you’ll find the answer on your driver’s license.
Not really. You are quite a lot more than a name, address, and identifying number. You’re a complex collection of memories, opinions, habits, skills, abilities, and relationships. You’re the result of random chance, pure and simple: You can no more take credit or accept blame for who you are than for the weather.
Unless, that is, you chose your genes, parents, teachers, mentors, and everyone else who had a hand in your becoming who you are, before you became you.
Our choices define us. The choices we make today depend on who we are, which depends on the choices we each made before that, which depended in turn on earlier choices, with no moment separating our own choices from the age at which others, or sheer randomness, chose for us.
Makes your head hurt, doesn’t it? And yet, we’re each still responsible for the choices we make from now on.
Whoever we are, however we got here, we are who we are and have to figure out the rest for ourselves.
That it’s more complicated than we usually consider it to be doesn’t let us off the hook.
I know I’m the result of random chance: In second grade, in the school library, I ran across the Mushroom Planet series of children’s novels. They hooked me on science fiction.
Without that random encounter I’d have never chosen to read the Tom Swift Jr. series, from which I decided scientists were cool people to be.
Which is why I chose to enter graduate school. In addition to sociobiology, I learned what it means to understand a subject in depth, and, by extension, how to recognize when I don’t.
Mostly, I don’t, because everything is more complicated than we usually accept. Take the entire world. You and every other human being have a square plot of dry land less than 500 feet on a side to call your own. Some is arable, some mountainous, some frozen, desert, prairie, or jungle. It has to provide the living space and work space you occupy, grow all the food you eat, provide all of the energy and raw materials you use, and absorb all of the waste and garbage you create.
“Complicated” is an anemic description of just how unlikely it is that this can work. And yet we all have friends who know the solutions to our problems are “really very simple.”
I’m certain of nothing, but I’m pretty sure of something, which is that very little that matters is really very simple. There isn’t a problem that faces us that has a solution that’s really very simple. Those who think so have fallen prey to a common, all-too-human pattern, which is the inverse correlation between knowledge and level of certainty.
It’s why, every time I hear the phrase “speak truth to power,” I wonder: How is it that the speaker has access to truth? None of us knows the truth, except maybe Stephen Hawking. And he was wrong about whether the information that enters a black hole is lost. If Stephen Hawking can be proved wrong, how can you or I be certain about anything?
We can’t. Another physicist, Richard Feynman, once wrote, “Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt … It is necessary, I believe, to accept this idea, not only for science , but also for other things; it is of great value to acknowledge ignorance. It is a fact that when we make decisions in our life, we don’t necessarily know that we are making them correctly; we only think that we are doing the best we can – and that is what we should do.”
Not knowing truth, we can’t speak it to power. We can, however, ask a question. I recommend this one: About what do we all agree?
Leaders build consensus by first finding common ground and building on that shared foundation. Rabble-rousers encourage anger and hate by identifying where we are different from them, and building on those differences.
Please: Starting today, begin every discussion about every important issue by asking, where do we agree?
We need to know where we agree, because every problem that faces us is complicated, we can’t be certain of anything, and we need to find a path forward in spite of the complexities and the inevitability of doubt. To figure out answers to our big challenges we need leadership, not rabble-rousers.
So … where do we all agree? The answer tells us who we are. I’m concerned we no longer know the answer. Without it we aren’t we anymore.
I’m going to miss us.