My friend Rob recently wrote on Facebook:
I was seven when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. We were camping with family friends on a plot of land on the shore of Lake George, site of our future summer camp. Dad had car batteries, an inverter, and a small black and white TV. Reception was horrible. We had never watched TV at the lake before – this was something special. In the midst of the VietNam war, which I was largely isolated from, we had a man walking on the moon. It was late, I was tired, but I watched intently. America could do anything. Looking back at the last 43 years, it is very hard not to feel that we have fallen extremely short of our potential. I miss that dream. [emphasis added]
Indeed, how and why has America fallen so far?
Think about rock stars. Most of them rise up to fame for a short period, then they loose it… they fade slowly back into oblivion. When they’re on tour (if they are), they always replay the great hits, because that’s what the crowd wants.
There are exceptions. Those are the bands and players that keep going for a decade or more, folks like The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd.
The reasons for America’s fall are hidden in the distinction between these two. Before the “big reveal,” let’s consider another case: that of the science professor.
The science professor works her ass off through graduate school and a postdoc position (kind of like a Medical residency) just to get offered a starting faculty position. Then she works even harder for 5-7 years to earn tenure. Tenure just means that her colleagues approve of her, and permanently accept her into the fold. Once tenured, it’s very hard to fire her.
The period of working towards tenure is often the most intensive of a scientist’s life. I know, because I did that.
When I was done, I lost the dream.
I wandered aimlessly through a land of mental cynicism and angst for several years after tenure.
The challenge was gone. The dream was over. I’d reached the pinnacle. All that I could see in front of me was more of the same, but without the challenge, without the goal, without the prize to reach for.
How did I regain the dream and recover from the cynical post-tenure blues? Therein lies the secret of how America could, if its people wanted to, recover from the slump.
The problem with achievement
There’s one big problem with achievement of any kind – whether it’s putting a man on the moon, writing a hit song, or getting tenure.
Those achievements can breed a festering fear. It’s a fear that comes from a few sources:
- Fear of having lost the dream. Once the dream has been achieved, it’s no longer a dream. Seems obvious, right?! Yet for the person experiencing this firsthand, it’s almost never obvious what the problem is. There’s just a gnawing inner sense of “now what?” We’re not taught as a society how to deal with the “now what?” Think about all the popular stories and movies (e.g. Star Wars): they always center around a challenge, a dream, or a problem, and at the end of the story, the problem is resolved or the dream is achieved. But those stories never show what happens next… unless a new challenge arises in the sequel.
- Fear of loosing the status. A related fear is that of loosing the status achieved in pursuing the dream. When I got my first big science grant with a score that put me in the top few percentile, I thought to myself: there’s no way I can repeat that! It’s impossible! I had a fear that I couldn’t top my own success. I was gun-shy. That fear slowed me down. I didn’t want to submit another grant and be knocked from my pedestal. It reminds me of a TED talk by author Elizabeth Gilbert, who discussed the angst that comes with having written a bestselling book, centered around the question: “can I do it again?”
Because of these fears, achieving something great after a first-time achievement is often just as difficult (if not more so) than the first time was.
These fears lead to cynicism. They lead to skepticism. They can even lead to mental poverty.
Which pretty much describes the state of America today.
We’ve been suffering from both of the above-named fears, as part of a sort of collective, zombified sleepwalking state after our successes of the early to mid 20th century.
And so we can find a way out, in the same way that great bands and musicians, and great writers repeat their success over and over again. We can find a way out in the same way that I found a joie de vivre again after the post-tenure angst.
Actually, there are two ways, but I believe one way is far inferior to the other.
The first way is that we lie dormant in our sleepwalking, zombified state until a new problem or challenge comes our way, which forces us to get sufficiently inspired and motivated that we get off our asses and creatively rise to the challenge. The recent economic challenges have done this for some people, but not enough to really make a difference.
The problem with this approach is that it leaves us waiting for the right challenge to come along, and for that challenge to happen to inspire the right feelings of motivation and even anger such that we get un-zombified and into action. Those kinds of challenges can be pretty random, and personally I think it’s foolish to leave one’s future to randomness.
The second way is to take charge and to create a new dream for ourselves.
Kennedy pushed the dream of a Man on the Moon. When he pushed it, we had no idea how we’d accomplish that feat – yet we did.
What happened after we achieved it? We didn’t replace the dream with something even more inspiring. That’s why we are so stuck. That’s why we are so cynical. Stuck just like I was in my life, until I built a new dream for myself after getting tenure.
Recently I was at a conference with some high-powered scientists. A debate erupted over science funding, and one of the scientists pointed at the moon walk as a “boondoggle,” whose money should have instead been spent on “important” science like cancer research.
I responded by showing the population graph of the world, which happens to be an exponential curve (if you know what that means, you know that it’s a wee bit scary). We have no shortage of people. But we do have a shortage of inspiring dreams.
Having lost my father to cancer, I’d like to see that particular problem solved. However, when we solve it, what are we going to do with all those extra people living longer lives? Especially if many of them are just as aimless and dream-less as most of the population is?
I quipped that, indeed, we needed to send a few more people into space (and there would be no shortage of willing volunteers for a Mars mission)!
The “cancer research” vs “moon landing” debate is revealing. It speaks of an attitude that says, “dreams are unimportant, only facts and figures are important.” One can look at the number of cancer deaths, and argue readily that “cancer should be cured!” without ever contemplating the biggure picture, or the “then what?!”
With facts and figures, one can argue that we should spend more on cancer research than space exploration, without ever asking ourselves the key question: does cancer research inspire the next generation of scientists in the same way as curing cancer? (the answer is: no, it does not)
Ultimately, science is supposed to be fun. Life is supposed to be fun. We’ve lost that understanding somewhere in a sea of “grim statistics” which lead to skewed priorities and lost dreams.
So here’s the way to recapture the dream: forget about the statistics. Stop being so damn “rational*” and left-brained. Start dreaming again. Think big again. Enjoy life again, and inspire others to think big, too.
The only way to do this is from the bottom up. That means you, and that means I.
One at a time, we can each start being dreamers again.
And one at a time, we can help America regain the dream again.
* About “rational” thinking: it’s almost never as rational as it seems. There are always underlying beliefs that “rational thought” is based upon, and those underlying beliefs are not often rational in their own right. Even if you try to get to the bottom of those beliefs through rational analysis, you must refer to deeper beliefs. There is no bottom to this: instead, you’ll find yourself in an infinite loop of drilling deeper into beliefs, one beneath the other. Here’s the left-brained version of that: Logician Kurt Gödel showed us that, in fact, there is no self-complete logical system that is “provable.” Look up Gödel’s theorems if you want an enthralling left-brained read about the nature of “logic.”