(This is reposted, in longer form, from the Harvard Business Review Blog.)
I’m sitting here in Aspen on the heels of the Security Forum at the Aspen Institute, where the best and the brightest pondered, for a few days, how to prevent the next 9/11. As that meeting ended, in came Ideas Fest, with the finest thought leaders in the world on the subject of … well … thoughts. Next up is the Environment Forum. And if I were to slack a bit and troll the internet, I could find myself on the site of Fast Company, which now lists the 100 most creative people. They also list the “Fastest” companies. In fact, these days, it’s hard to shake the ubiquitous magazine cover featuring a vaguely European (or smug, or nerdy) looking CEO or President, with Daniel Liebskind glasses and a collarless shirt. Headline: This guy/woman/robot is rethinking the car/potato chip bag/antifungal cream.”
We’ve become a society deeply enamored of the “big idea,” the creative genius, the moon shot. Look at TED: riveting talks by remarkable people. Look at how Einstein is so much the man. Coupled with this love of the breakthrough is the fame corollary; if you are not well known you are not successful. Take as an example (only because it’s sitting in front of me) the brilliant novelist Thomas Savage, author of books like “The Sheep Queen.” The book just isn’t really on people’s radar, and the back cover has a quote that says more people should know about this guy.” Another blurb describes the book as a ‘discovery.” In a way, and of course unfairly, Savage is a failure by the modern interpretation of success, which has spawned a desperate subculture of freaks that will do anything (pretend your son is stuck up in a balloon, turn your political corruption into a reality T.V. clown show) to get famous. (Anything, that is, but old fashioned and boring hard work.)
This all happened, in part, because as a society, America found this to be a successful strategy that we liked. We did have good ideas (internal combustion, airplanes, moon shot, computers.) And we did implement them, and it was pretty cool. We developed a media machine that was so able to effectively celebrate these glories that it created legends and mythical figures as new modern inventions in and of themselves. (Eisenhower was one of the first.)
But none of those earlier breakthroughs and then famous people were made under pressure of the world collapsing. They were all cool, fun, great: they changed our lives and made us more productive and opened up opportunities and places and led us in what we thought was a good direction. But they weren’t crucial.
Right now, though, this approach has become so problematic that it imperils humanity. The reason is that concurrent with our love of thought leaders and famous visionaries is an unprecedented crisis-climate change-that distinctly, even uniquely, requires not new ideas and technological innovation but a regrounding in brass tacks dirty fingernail implementation of what we already know, coupled with enormously hard work almost literally for its own sake. And the solution to the problem emphatically replaces fame and glory with the same kind of rote collectivism that made settling the West possible. (For debunking of the American self-made loner individualist myth, part of the problem described above, see Patti Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.)
But wait! You say. I heard from people like ex-CIA chief and now venture capitalist Jim Woolsey that we are going to innovate ourselves out of this mess one with clean energy technology.
Well, actually, we’re not. The climate blogger Joe Romm has pointed out that if, according to the best climatologists and most knowledgeable people on climate science-people like NASA’s James Hansen and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s chief Rajendjra Pachauri-we have less than ten year to solve this problem, we can’t wait for innovation. We have to move! Romm points out that traditional, good ol’ American techno-optimism (we’ll invent our way out of this just like we always have) is equivalent to climate denial. (He calls it climate delay(al.))
This suggests, crazily, that all the faith we place in innovation and getting famous hampers our efforts to stop climate change. New ideas and the visionaries that deliver them are actually detrimental: we don’t have time to work on them, we need to implement what we got, now-off the shelf technology like natural gas plants and wind power and solar and maybe nukes and efficiency and so on-or it will be too late. We spend our time working on the new idea, or listening to the guy with the new idea, like we’re waiting for Godot, and that act is displacing the solution! And to top it off, if you are trying to get famous (or rich-we worship richness too) you by definition aren’t going to be able to do this work because it won’t make you famous or rich. It is really horrific and deadly boring stuff like insulating the attic and joining your utility board and passing legislation and joining your town council and writing letters and rallying people and studying and passing obscure legislation and thinking about how to make a ton of mundane stuff happen. It’s so outrageously unglamorous it would be depressing. (If you weren’t saving the world in the process.)
But there’s so much pressure on everyone: columnists, architects, government officials, bloggers, magazines, myself, to be innovators and creative heroes. Anyone trying to do that knows it’s frickin’ hard, it’s an unrealistic expectation, it’s stressful, and-not everyone knows this yet-it’s wrong. We need to get to work! We need to hit the gas.
Here’s a pledge we should all take: you can’t go to any more conferences until you’ve done one big thing. You figure out what that is. And here’s the not big, not visionary idea to help you out: we need fewer visionaries and more grunts.