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A holiday card to the industry, 2009

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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.

Comments (9)

  • First, a minor piece of pedantry – “not even wrong” is generally attributed to Pauli not Heisenberg – there’s a good Wiki article on the subject. Otherwise, I’m very much in agreement – if you want certainty, study mathematics. But maths can only take you so far – if it can’t provide an exact solution for three bodies freely falling under Newtonian gravity, there’s precious little chance of developing an accurate model of society (even though Asimov wrote an excellent series of novels on the subject).
    Which reminds me of another excellent quote from John von Neumann on the limitations of computer modelling: “If you allow me four free parameters I can build a mathematical model that describes exactly everything that an elephant can do. If you allow me a fifth free parameter, the model I build will forecast that the elephant will fly.”
    Next time someone tells you that they’ve built a computer model that can predict the climate twenty years hence, ask them how many free parameters it has!

  • I think part of the problem is that the solutions to really big problems often actually are very simple to see. It is the implementation of the solution that is difficult. The solution to having 500 by 500 feet of ground per human is easy, reduce the number of humans. But how do you do that?

  • It’s a sad commentary on the “we” but I’ll have to say I am in whole hearted agreement. I have never before seen so many pieces of email expressing anger and hatred. These don’t just come from the loonies but more often from people who should know better. Even when the information contained within is not real, it doesn’t seem to matter. Tolerance and independent thinking is definitely in short supply.

  • Concur…between the multiple “me” generations and the most current flavor “develop your personal brand”…most of our interactions have become all about what’s best for “me”…and the everyone becomes mere spectators…or supplicants.

    I would blame it on “kids nowadays”, but actually it crosses all age ranges…and I see “kids” of all ages misbehaving regularly. I guess we’re seeing the truest measure of ourselves…when things are toughest…how do we rise to the occasion?

    Thanks for another year’s worth of thought-provoking columns, Bob! The best to you in 2010!

  • Bob
    It is nice to see someone else who feels as I do about this. I have long said that my fondest wish is to be certain about something. Anything. The more I learn the more I know how much less I know.
    The tough part about starting with “where do we agree” is that often what we agree on is wrong. To me, leadership is taking us from where we are to where we need to be. That frequently means changing what we “know” and substituting a new “where do we agree”.
    Thanks for all of your insights over the years and best wishes for the holidays for you and yours.

  • Starting with “where do we all agree” is an excellent holiday sentiment, a simple answer to a simple problem 🙂

    It is fraught with complexity still. One of the things folks who are emotionally focused do is focus on how we all have the same basic sentiments and let’s have a friendly discussion. But that only ensures a discussion, it still doesn’t solve the disagreement. Same with agreeing on goals. Finding agreement there is easy as long as we’re arguing about tactics. Finding agreement on tactics is easy as long as folks have different (unexpressed and unexamined) goals in mind.

    What I see the question doing (I use it often) is getting to the heart of the disagreement in the fastest way possible. It is efficient to keep the argument focused, but it doesn’t solve the fundamental argument: making the best choice given an uncertain future.

  • There is only ONE kind of people in the world: the kind that thinks there are two kinds of people in the world.

    (Except me, of course.)

  • With respect to the human life, I think almost all would agree we are created. Agreement quickly disintegrates with the question “how or by Whom?”

  • I think the Tibetan Book of the Dead suggests that we do choose our parents [and thereby our genes]. That choice is of course conditioned by the choices we made in our previous life. The whole Wheel of Karma thing which would presuppose some free will. But I suppose there’s little point in talking about choice if you don’t believe in free will and an agent to make the choices.

    I guess we could agree that we want something to eat fairly regularly and our life shouldn’t be too interesting or too dull. Are most politicians corrupt? Are taxes too high?

    Would people who can answer “No” to the last two questions please post what country they live in?

    And what planet?

    Meanwhile I guess we have no choice but to act as if we have some free will even if it is only an illusion. Let’s get back to that comfortable world[view] that has ‘bottom lines’ and ‘stakeholder expectations’ and get on with our ‘real’ lives.

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