The disappearance of the original mind

By the time he was 22, Jack London, author of The Call of the Wildand White Fang, had variously:

    • Worked in a cannery, electrical plant, and laundry
    • Taught himself to sail and become an oyster pirate
    • Lived as a tramp and spend a month in jail for vagrancy
    • Travelled the pacific on a seal hunting schooner
    • And had ventured to the Klondike looking for gold

A life, I think it’s fair to say, more rich than most of us will live in 90 years, let alone 22.  What’s remarkable about this is that, in comparison to his contemporaries, it was completely unremarkable.  Adventurous and varied lives like his were ordinary in those days: each different in detail, but similar in colour.  An article on this subject went into detail on the escapades of various other well-known names: Steve McQueen had been amongst other things a lumberjack, Marine, and door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman.  Hemingway won the Italian Silver Medal for valour working as an aid worker, getting shot in the process.  Ralph Ellison did pretty much every job you could imagine from shoeshine boy to baker to dentist’s assistant.  Heck even Sean Connery was a milkman in between war heroics and body building gigs.

We might say, reflecting on such examples, that original lives created original minds – an idea I wanted to reflect more on today.

You see if that’s true we have a problem, since the prospects of leading an original life have become quite slim in modern society.  Our paths, relative to those in the past, have become somewhat pre-ordained, and increasingly homogenous.  For most of us here, I dare say it was something like: “grow up in the suburbs, go to University, get a corporate job in the city, and then maybe start our own thing”.  Barring the odd flash of divergence this must hold true for 90%+ of the middle classes – with any departure from it probably being reflective of tragic rather than heroic circumstances.

There are positives to this I’m sure, but diversity of experience isn’t one of them.  And as as a result, rich and original perspectives on the world may be getting a bit short on supply.

The author of that piece certainly thought so.  He suggested that the bland lives of modern artists and authors may contribute to their somewhat shallow outputs.  There are actors with the looks of McQueen, but how many are there with the grit and gravitas?  There are authors who can spin a sentence, but how many new books are entering the canon rather than disappearing from history the second they drop off the bestsellers list?

Naturally there are other factors at play here, but I think he has a point.

You see in order to create something great, something that *clicks* with people, something that lasts – whether it be a movie, book, or indeed business – you need to find a way for it to form a relationship with the world around it.  And this means you need to know a thing or two about the world; to be worldly.

Living a sheltered life – or worse, a life just like everyone else’s – hampers your ability to do this.

It’s not so much that we know very little about the world these days (although this may be true) – it’s more that we all know the same things.  We all have remarkably similar experiences, we all read the same news, we all have the same opinions, we all consume the same trash which beats its way to the top of the algorithms.  This means that the things we create are inevitably tailored to this narrow reality – a reality which rapidly becomes rather crowded.

I vaguely recall someone making an argument against standardised curriculums based on this point.  They felt – rightly in my view – that if you put everybody in a country through precisely the same education then the points of potential leverage would dwindle.  We might even say that the more standardised education becomes the less fair it is; because in the absence of divergent knowledge and experience the only real way to get ahead is money and contacts.

As a strategist I’ve come to realise that my responsibility is often simply to broaden reality for clients so they can find new ways to integrate their companies with it.  It’s a bit like acting as some sort of “intermediary” between companies and the world they occupy.  My job isn’t to know lots of things about their product, their financials, or even their industry.  That’s their job.  My job is to know things about the world; things perhaps the founders might not know but which are relevant to what they’re up to.  If I was just like them then this would be pretty difficult.

The moral then is simple: if you want to improve your strategic thinking you need to improve your knowledge of the world – and moreover to make it as divergent as possible from your contemporaries.

It would be great if we could achieve this kind of eclectic knowledge by going to sea for a few years, or smuggling tulip bulbs or whatever they did 100 years ago.  However I appreciate this generally won’t be possible.  Heaven knows I’ve not had a Salinger-esque life; mine’s been as formulaic as they come (I mean seriously, I even worked for EY).  But regardless of how cliched a path you’ve walked, anyone should be able to recognise when they are leaning into conventional knowledge, and when they are leaning away from it.  With each experience one can ask: “is this embedding me deeper into the hive mind, or is it breaking me away from it”.  There’s nothing wrong with either experience in principle: but if you never experience the latter then you’ll struggle to conjure insights when you need them.

A bit banal?  Maybe.  These kinds of things aren’t going to make you a polymath exactly.  But they may draw your circle of knowledge just that little bit wider.  And in such a homogenised world, a little bit should be more than enough.

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