IN THIS ARTICLE
✨ Has the American enterprise lost its sense of #wonder?
🧠 What’s going on with our #SocialBrainCapital?
🗣️ Is #poetry the fingerprint of our #collectiveintelligence?
The fact that 9 of 10 #startups fail is market intelligence that something is amiss
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The Problem of a Tattered Sail
Imagine you are the captain of a ship. The ship rests at a bustling dock, its sail flapping in the wind, catching only parts of the breeze through tattered edges – threadbare echoes of past adventures. With a new journey on the horizon, your first instinct may be to fix those frayed ends, right? It’s a common response – mend what’s visibly broken. But now, think deeper. What if the real snag isn’t the worn sail at all? What if, while your hands work on those ragged tears, the compass that’s supposed to steer the ship has become rusted under its bright, brassy sheen, slowly losing its ability to point North?
This scenario in America’s Grand Challenges mirrors how we often tackle problems. We’re quick to focus on what’s right in front of us, just like sewing up that sail while the compass goes unchecked. We’re adept at dealing with the obvious, but what if the real solution lies in questioning the compass’s reliability – the thing that sets our course? So, how do we genuinely solve the problem of a tattered sail? It starts by not just patching up the obvious but by probing the integrity of our compass, the force that ensures our efforts sail in the right direction. After all, facing challenges requires more than cosmetic repairs; it demands understanding the unseen forces guiding our journey.
In pursuing America’s Grand Challenges, scientists and businesses fervently seek solutions. However, should we not also prioritize the act of asking profound, insightful questions? A recent discourse on MIT Press by Herlinde Koelbl with the renowned geneticist Paul Nurse emphasizes this perspective, suggesting that progress often emerges from dismantling preexisting ideas. Nurse’s reflections on his journey, punctuated by his Nobel Prize achievement and encounters with failure, highlight the delicate balance between posing questions and seeking answers.
For me, a standout feature of Koelbl’s “Fascination of Science” series is the intimate practice of asking scientists to encapsulate the essence of their research by writing it on the palm of their hand—a symbolic merger of simplicity and depth. It’s an approach that brings out the genuine, almost childlike curiosity at the heart of scientific exploration. Through intertwining creative expression with science, Koelbl nudges us to contemplate the human being behind our era’s groundbreaking discoveries.
As America bears down to address its multi-dimensional transition to the future of work, I offer that we must anchor our big bets – the so-called “Grand Challenges” – in what it means to be human. This is the only approach for ensuring that our questions lead to deeply meaningful solutions. After all, the ultimate end-users are us. We humans being here, together, on planet Earth.
Over the last three decades, my professional path has woven through the interconnected tapestry of America’s arts, science, business, and academic institutions. I’ve delved into their unique lexicons, navigated their intricate architectures, and gauged their risk-to-reward mechanisms. Each expedition was fueled by hope, inquisitiveness, and the allure of personal growth. While every experience enriched my reservoir of knowledge, a feeling of incompleteness lingered. Across these diverse terrains, I constantly felt a chasm, a palpable disconnect. Despite the grand promises and eloquent narratives, I’ve perceived a glaring, growing, and ironic omission in our American blueprint. In our relentless stride toward progress, the systems we’ve built often seem to ignore the complex truth of what it means to be human.
Whose Job Is Truth?
The question of “what it means to be human” has been contemplated by philosophers, theologians, scientists, artists, and thinkers of all kinds for millennia. The answer is multifaceted and varies depending on cultural, philosophical, and personal beliefs.
Here are a few perspectives on being human:
- Biological Perspective: At a basic level, being human means belonging to Homo sapiens. It involves certain biological characteristics such as walking upright, having a large brain relative to body size, and the ability to speak.
- Cognitive and Emotional Perspective: Humans are known for their complex cognitive abilities. We have the capacity for abstract thought, understanding concepts such as time and morality, self-awareness, and the ability to experience a range of emotions.
- Social Perspective: Being human also means being social. Humans inherently seek connections with others, create communities, establish norms and values, and have the ability for both conflict and cooperation.
- Existential Perspective: Philosophers have often focused on the existential aspects of humanity. Questions of purpose, freedom, mortality, and the nature of existence are central to understanding the human experience.
- Cultural Perspective: Throughout history, cultures worldwide have defined what it means to be human in various ways, often tied to religious or spiritual beliefs, traditions, and customs.
- Moral Perspective: Being human often involves questions of morality and ethics. Concepts of right and wrong, justice, and the greater good are deeply intertwined with human nature.
- Growth and Exploration: Humans have an innate curiosity and drive to explore, learn, and grow. This drive has led to advancements in science, art, literature, and more.
- Creativity and Expression: One of the defining features of humanity is the ability to create and express oneself, whether through art, music, literature, or other forms of expression.
At its core, the truth of being human is both universal and deeply personal. It’s a question without a definitive answer; perhaps this quest for understanding defines our humanity more than anything.
In contemporary society, “truth” is often reserved for the domain of scientists, whose work is portrayed as the relentless pursuit of objective realities. Yet, artists and entrepreneurs share this quest, each within their unique spheres of influence, shaping our collective understanding of truth in myriad ways.
While scientists undoubtedly strive for objective truths, the confines of a single discipline can limit their view. Just as peering through a keyhole offers only a limited perspective of what lies beyond a door, a scientist confined to one discipline sees but a slice of the vast tapestry of reality. Though deep and insightful, this narrow viewpoint misses the interconnected richness that a broader, interdisciplinary view might offer.
Like opening a door wide to grasp the full scene beyond, scientists embracing insights from varied disciplines gain a larger understanding – an imperative in a complex phenomenon like being human. Today, I am excited to see many scientists beginning to take this step. It requires them to hold a paradox of extreme confidence with radical humility. It’s hard work, but, ultimately may be the best visible indicator for separating transformational scientists from transactional ones. It seems that could be a pretty valuable indicator for investors.
Science isn’t the sole custodian of truth. Artists delve into the depths of human emotion and societal reflections, painting, sculpting, or performing truths that data can’t capture. Their work often serves as mirrors, reflecting aspects of humanity that are sometimes ineffable yet undeniably real.
The best entrepreneurs, too, are centered on human-centered truth. They discern gaps in the market, innovate solutions, and shape the industries that shape our human thoughts, actions, and relationships. The market’s response validates their truth: the embrace or rejection of a product or idea. Their search for genuine needs, effective solutions, and genuine value aligns them with the same principles of truth that artists and scientists cherish.
Two intertwined principles are central to the job of truth: “passion for discovery” (motivation/mindset) and “truth-seeking skills” (actions/abilities).
The former celebrates the joy of exploration, the thrill of venturing into unknown terrains, whether uncharted scientific phenomena, novel artistic expressions, or groundbreaking business opportunities. It’s the journey and the exhilaration of uncovering the new that captivates. It’s a signifier of humans who are motivated by change itself.
“Truth-seeking skills” are the actions that move a person forward with authenticity. This skill set requires being able to distinguish the genuine from the superficial. For a scientist, it may manifest as rigorous experiments; for an artist, it’s found in capturing honest emotions or societal reflections that resonate with an audience; and for the entrepreneur, it might be seen in their validation of business ideas against real-world feedback.
Whether a human is a scientist, artist, or entrepreneur, how they define the job of truth is a pivotal part of the work. We each offer a unique lens, widening society’s collective perspective, challenging accepted norms, and striving to shape a richer, more nuanced understanding of our shared reality. The word “shared” is the key here. As much as the American system rewards the presentation of confidence and assuredness, the one thing that I am most confident about is that scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs need each other. Our problems today are too complex for any one group to go it alone, and believe that there is no value for them in collaborating with others who approach problem-construction and problem-solving differently.
Art & Science of Wonder
Life, in its essence, is a harmonious blend of art and science. In our human journeys, there’s a place for logic, emotion, and mystery. The existence of one does not diminish the uniqueness or value of the other two. All three are necessary to make sense of our individual and collective experience of humans being here together. Your “here” may be as an artist, scientist, entrepreneur, healer, or teacher. Each of us has all of these possibilities within us and embodies facets of them all as we navigate our daily lives.
Yet, within the American ethos, we often find ourselves pigeonholed. Our systems nudge us to select a singular label to wear professionally that defines for others who we are— our identity. In this singular focus, the allure of choices can eclipse the destination. In other words, we let choosing our label become the goal. Instead of being this or that, what if our goal was to become the journey that will unlock the fullness each of us has within us?
When have you paused to contemplate the boundless potential that can unfold if you don’t confine yourself to one label?
How would your life be different if you could access the wisdom in all your choices not made? Each new question that we are brave enough to ask is an evolutionary possibility.
In a world unfurling around us at what seems to be an increasingly accelerating rate, it is easy to get scared. When this happens, the brain’s cognitive biases tell us that sticking with the status quo is the best choice — even when we know the status quo is no longer working. What propels our motion forward as humans? What is the source code for transformational breakthroughs? I posit it’s an enduring, timeless human spiritual technology: wonder.
John O’Donohue, a poet, priest, and philosopher, brilliantly describes wonder as the “beginning of all wisdom.” Our capacity for wonder distinctly sets us apart among the myriad traits that define us as humans. This wonder, this inquisitive spirit, not only characterizes our essence but also fortifies communities during challenges – aiding in conflict resolution, fostering communication, evolving shared languages, and nurturing trust.
Let’s simplify various scientific disciplines that investigate wonder into an understandable metaphor and liken wonder to an airplane. This plane embodies the combined creative capacity of a group of people, its passengers. On one end of the plane’s route is a sense of awe, where passengers reflect deeply, contemplating their place in the universe and recognizing their shared bond. This state is continually expanding, eluding final comprehension. On the other end of the plane’s route is curiosity – representing the void between what the group knows and what it wants to know. Curiosity, when pursued, satiates the seekers. It’s like an itch that can be scratched with effort.
As the creativity plane oscillates between the two ends of the route, its passenger composition is in perpetual flux. Think of this like your team at work. In any team-level creative effort, some team members are like the plane’s crew and frequent fliers. They remain quite constant. Others – transient passengers – briefly join the core team in passing through on their own creative journeys. All of the humans, however, become part of the intertwined stories that ultimately shape a group’s collective wonder – the art and science of being human.
Sensemaking of Wonder in Business: Six Habits of Transformational Innovators
At its core, business represents a communal venture, and like any collective pursuit, it thrives on shared wisdom. Yet, this wisdom blossoms only when businesses embrace the dual-core drivers of wonder by acknowledging the transformative powers of beauty and love. As businesses grapple with monumental challenges, it’s apparent that conventional approaches might only suffice with the innovative fusion of shared wisdom and the often undervalued energies of beauty and love that drive us to wonder.
The tapestry of America’s professional milieu echoes a forward-moving but fragmented trajectory. Many, firsthand or through others, have felt the discordance of fitting into traditional frameworks and wonder if there’s more to it. In our relentless quest for efficiency and productivity, have we overlooked the profound influence of beauty and love, deeming them inconsequential in the pragmatic business world?
Drawing a parallel with single-disciplinary science, corporate America often pigeonholes us, blurring the convergence of logic and emotion or the spritely interplay between tradition and innovation. A demanding contemplation emerges: Can our business models harmoniously integrate beauty and love without sacrificing productivity? Wonder may well hold the answer for navigating to harmony.
Wonder has forever spurred human progress. Imagination birthed every facet of human knowledge. Whether in a research lab, theatrical stage, or corporate boardroom, the combination of wonder and imagination promises revolutionary progress. However, to harness this vigor, we must acknowledge the essence of what it means to be human in these places while steering a research team, directing a cast, or managing a corporation. Namely, we humans require beauty and love as core components of the contemplative action of wonder.
In the emerging business environment for the future of work, here are six habits I have found in some of the world’s best-known, wonder-prone innovators that all leaders should consider:
- Embracing Artistic Infusion: Top innovators recognize the power of art to spark wonder and drive revolutionary thoughts. Whether through visual masterpieces or avant-garde expressions, they understand that art has the capacity to shatter conventional boundaries, opening up new realms of possibility and imaginative exploration.
- Celebrating Cognitive Diversity: Rather than adhering strictly to traditional ways of thinking, these innovators value the rich tapestry of human cognition. They welcome diverse intellectual perspectives, knowing that varied brains light up novel problem-solving avenues, leading to more inclusive and groundbreaking solutions.
- Engaging in Digital Storytelling: Leading innovators don’t just employ technology; they harness it to tell captivating stories. Utilizing platforms like virtual reality and generative AI, they’ve found powerful ways to unify audiences, craft compelling narratives, and foster a shared sense of purpose essential for influential innovation.
- Nurturing Soulful Connections: Beyond the confines of logic and process, these innovators understand the deep-seated value of spirituality and its role in fostering empathy, unity, and a more holistic view of progress. By rooting their innovations in these soulful connections, they ensure that advances benefit humanity and resonate on a deeply personal level.
- Championing Cultural Custodians: Recognizing entrepreneurs as the torchbearers of societal evolution, these innovators laud and support those who venture forth with wonder-driven initiatives. Nurturing these guardians of progress ensures a constant influx of visionary ideas that shape our collective future.
- Pooling Collective Wisdom: Realizing that future challenges are multifaceted, these innovators steer clear of insular solutions. Instead, they champion a holistic approach, bringing together diverse minds united by wonder and a shared vision. Together, this collective brainpower crafts innovative solutions that resonate with the many, not just the few.
In essence, transformational innovators don’t just adapt to change; they intentionally hone and use their skills in analytical and creative thinking, curiosity, resilience, and collaborative cognition to shape it. They draw from a rich arsenal of artistic insights, cognitive diversity, technological prowess, spiritual connections, entrepreneurial spirit, and collaborative wisdom.
The Fresh Glitch: Cultivating Creative Tension in Business
Over thirty years of professionally navigating the cultural systems of the American enterprise —arts, business, science, and academics— I’ve come to a vital realization: there is always a “fresh glitch” lurking, waiting to be noticed. These are not anomalies to be brushed aside but rather potent indicators signaling opportunities for transformation. However, the efficacy with which an organization responds to these glitches— or even notices them— depends on its members’ curiosity in working together and their self-awareness to hold within the nonlinear balance of creative tension comfortably.
As comforting as it might seem, a linear strategy often needs more nuance and adaptability than today’s business systems may allow. While we fascinate and fiddle with vast amounts of data and insights, the real magic lies in our ability to discern the depth and nuances of emerging challenges. At the crux of this discernment is the principle of wonder—an element continually pushing my teams and me to probe, question, and dissect challenges from multifaceted angles.
Yet, how does a leader shape a culture attuned to detecting the ever-present fresh glitch? First, they must learn to value a wonder-full environment. Only then will it be possible to embrace creative tension comfortably. Creative tension is not about friction or discord but a harmonized state where diverse ideas, experiences, and perspectives coalesce, tugging and pulling against each other in a dance that brings forth innovative solutions. In my experience, teams that have mastered this balance are astutely aware of their environments, quick to pinpoint deviations, and agile in their response mechanisms.
Take artists, for instance, who have, over millennia, excelled in the art of exploiting unintended strokes or aberrations, turning them into cornerstones of iconic masterpieces. Drawing parallels to the corporate realm, I see that visionary enterprises possess a similar ethos. Instead of veering towards panic or retreat when faced with a fresh glitch, they delve into its depths, understanding its genesis and crafting strategies that address and capitalize on it.
For an organization to truly harness the potential of the fresh glitch, it must embed this creative tension into its fabric. It requires a transformative outlook that isn’t merely content with navigating the status quo but is invigorated by the allure of the uncharted. This ethos, in turn, necessitates leaders and teams to be in continuous learning, adaptability, and proactive exploration.
In my ongoing journey through the institutional intricacies of arts, business, scientific, and academic systems, I’ve come to view the fresh glitch as more than a transient variable. It’s the consistent pulse of imminent innovation – a testament to the ever-shifting paradigms that shape what we humans see as possible and valuable between us. For leaders and teams adept at holding the reins of creative tension by tending to the collective power of an organization’s “social brain capital,” each fresh glitch is not just a challenge to be addressed but a clarion call to wonder, reimagine, and evolve with renewed vigor.
Investing in the Art & Science of Being Human
Amidst the unprecedented flux of culture and technology, the art and science of being human stands as our best compass, guiding us through uncharted territories of change. Acknowledging and harnessing this common ground isn’t just noble; it’s a strategic necessity. Investors and corporate leaders play influential roles in shaping our collective destiny. Thus, I call upon you to transcend incrementalism and embrace transformational innovation. Invest in wonder as the catalyst for igniting curiosity, creativity, and collective wisdom — all necessary for reshaping any trajectory.
It is time to invest in scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs as fiercely interested in problem construction as they are in selling their problem solutions. When will we begin to see the fact that nine out of ten startups fail as market intelligence that something is amiss? In our current systems, there is a lack of imagination and a deficit of skills somewhere.
Conventional investment models often yield incremental improvements and slight adjustments within established frameworks. Yet, in an era of exponential cultural and technological change, we must strive for transformational innovation that dismantles old norms and ushers in fresh paradigms. A wonder-rooted approach compels us to challenge the familiar, explore varied perspectives, and unearth novel solutions. It nurtures an environment conducive to disruptive innovation, which, in turn, reaps significant returns on investment.
Moreover, fostering an environment of wonder within companies fosters employee inspiration, elevates job satisfaction, and amplifies productivity. This inclusivity extends to solutions resonating with diverse clientele, enhancing market impact. By embracing the nexus of neurodiversity, diverse life experiences, and the intricacies of human existence, your enterprise can emerge as a trailblazing beacon. The potential to materialize this vision rests within us, and the time for action is now.
Wonder Fingerprints of Our Collective Mind
John O’Donohue’s words, “Wonder is the dawn of all wisdom,” encapsulate our journey toward the future. We embark on this voyage, recognizing that intellect alone is insufficient. Our collective human experience, the journey of individuals sharing the same realm, mandates that we harness wonder. It propels us to question, empathize, create, and evolve. Our venture to embrace and shape the future is more than mechanical or technological. Shaping the future requires us to be immersed and intentional in the present while acquiring new fire to gather around – narrating dreams, aspirations, and stories. The future of work is a call to action, beckoning a holistic innovation approach – one embracing the wisdom of problem construction and discovery alongside our celebration of actions in problem-solving.
Across the cosmos, the fact that we are sharing a journey as humans being here together at this moment in time is extraordinary. Our navigation, our collective wisdom, depends upon a functioning compass. Only with direction will our collective acts of courageous imagination begin to mend the tattered sails capable of holding the wisdom required to catch the good wind. Remarkable voyages emerge through wonder.
In the opening section of this article, I shared how Koelbl’s “Fascination of Science” series uses the intimate practice of asking scientists to encapsulate their research’s essence on the palm of their hand—a symbolic merger of simplicity and depth. I love this idea!
In America’s unfolding narrative, the metaphor of a hand resonates profoundly. We are a diverse nation grappling, indeed, with grand challenges. Our nation’s map is a metaphorical hand marked in hatching lines of interwoven lives, cultures, and histories. We are a hand that bears the scars of past struggles and holds the unfathomable possibilities of our collective wisdom.
America’s hand holds logic and emotion with wonder and complexity. America’s hand is a poem. Only through the lens of poetry can we capture the myriad shades of this land. Poetry is our vessel, cradling the vastness of our challenges, aspirations, and identities. It’s the solace in adversity and the spark of the revolution. Poetry, like wonder, transcends limitations, echoing the infinite stories etched within our collective soul.
By embracing the art and science of being human, we embrace truth as a collective endeavor across the American enterprise: science, arts, business, and education.
Over 53 years as a human being here on planet Earth, experience has taught me that only poetry can hold the weight of America’s emerging challenges without being crushed under their enormity. Poetry provides us with perspective. Poetry becomes the “wonder fingerprint” of our collective national mind, capturing our nation’s vibrancy and contradictions. Wonder propels us to reshape problems, unite creativity and cognition, and invest strategically in transformational innovation.
In the voyage of a poem, we transcend boundaries and echo infinite stories etched within our collective soul. A poem is a compass – shaping the quiet spaces between words. The spaces where the wisdom of all our choices not made still wait patiently for us. They invite us to the immense possibilities ahead… beyond the obvious threads of a tattered sail.
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