Posts Tagged ‘the rational optimist’

Newsletter 6 May 2014: The joy of burst bubbles and innovation

May 9th, 2014 No comments

It is disconcerting – not to mention annoying – to read a book that confounds some of my most concrete beliefs, my most cherished prejudices. The perspectives on the world that I take for granted, to the extent that I no longer even think of them as prejudices, that I use as the foundation for small talk with friends. That perhaps even determine who my friends are – that is, people who share these unconscious prejudices.

I’ve wanted to read Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist for some time (it’s about 4 years old now) because a) I’ve enjoyed his other books (mainly on evolution), and b) in a re-reading of a favourite book from my teens, Cosmic Trigger, the author Robert Anton Wilson points out the usefulness to the progression of our thinking in regularly reading points of view counter to your own.

The Rational Optimist is not completely counter to my own views – but it is a very right-wing book, hailing the superiority of the market forces in, well, pretty much everything, and most of all citing trade as the prime reason for the improvement in mankind’s living standards throughout history.

I have many issues with the idea that trade is a universal good that should be left completely alone for the good of society, but I don’t want to talk about that here. Because the stronger idea in the book is that pessimism, about the current and future states of the world, is a human disease that is counter to all the historical evidence – that by all measures you might think of: poverty, violence, human rights, human longevity, health, etc the human race has it better than ever before. But although we have it better than ever before, we refuse to see it that way, we ignore the evidence that doom-laden predictions of the past, about population explosion, virus epidemics, etc have not come to pass. There is much still to be fixed, and those of us in the developed world are fortunate to be in a position where we can celebrate these advances – but nevertheless, on average, things are better than ever before. And the reason is the constant desire of the human race for innovation, for finding new ways of doing things and exchanging these ideas.

I have, in the past, been much of a pessimist, particularly on the environment. I’m not sure I even want to be an optimist – somehow it feels immoral. But I cannot help but feel Matt Ridley’s optimism has better evidence that our general pessimism.

Another reason to want to disagree with the book was that I thought it countered my general themes in The Tyranny of Careers – by claiming that business and commerce are the drivers of society, when I’m doing all I can to suggest that a traditional career for a large company is the last place that you want to look to be make beneficial changes to society. But the idea of innovation as the driving force of humanity does not counter the ideas of The Tyranny of Careers. Because innovation, and the pleasure that being innovative, is what I (along with Matt Ridley) am claiming leads to work fulfilment and self-esteem. And although innovation on the part of one individual might lead to starting a business and trade, innovation is not all what happens when you work in a traditional career, when you work for a large company. Large companies are the graveyard of innovation. The chance to innovate was what was missing from all my traditional careers, is what made them so dull and unfulfilling places to work.

I’m arguing that because innovation is so lacking in the traditional career for an employer, if we want to do fulfilling innovative work in the world we have to do it for ourselves, outside of paid work (at least in the beginning). You may end up working with many other people, you may end up using your innovation in a traditional-looking job. But if you are a graduate looking for fulfilment from work, you will not find the opportunity for innovation in a traditional career.

(The second draft of The Tyranny of Careers is now finished and about to be sent to readers. If you want to follow its progress to publication (and I’m not entirely sure how that will happen yet) updates will appear on this blog. Other links to follow its progress at the bottom of this email.)

Recent links from around the web on careers, fulfilling work and writing: