The World Is Ideas

I was talking with a friend the other day about the technical world we live in, where it’s been improved, and where progress has been slow. We talked about moments when we each had seen the state of something in the world and realized it could be better, and we’ve both had a “I can’t be the only one who’s thought that” moment.

But it’s occurred to me that’s possible. It’s possible I might have been the only one to have ever thought about something. There may be over seven billion humans on this planet, each with their own fully functioning mind, each full of ideas and curiosity, but I (like each of these individuals) have my own view of the world. Every single person sees the world through their own lens. Each person has their own thoughts and memories, their own culture which has been carved out of the world by them every moment of their life.

My culture is very much unique to me, as are my thoughts. The events of my life affect the way I think and give me a different perspective on the world. I could, for example, learn of a brand new niche technology that only applies to iOS Engineers, and through my unique experience, I might have a specific idea based on that new technology. I might very well be the only one to have thought of it.

It seems unlikely, because often these ideas seem so trivial to us, but the reason why they seem so trivial is due to our individual and precise culture. They are obvious to me because I might be the only one with the precise perspective required to see them. That concept, the reason why these ideas are obvious, is obvious to me.

There’s a reason why we feel we can’t be the only one to have had these ideas, and it’s the same reason why when faced with them, we’re often unlikely to act, and that’s because despite our finely chiseled personal culture, we also exist in a greater continuum of culture. We live in a rainforest ecosystem of culture. It’s hot and humid air in our lungs and cool soil between our toes. It’s a network of vines and ideas. It’s danger and it’s shelter all at the same time. The greater culture is a support system in which we all participate, and if we rely on it too much, then we don’t let our own ideas sprout up and grow above the canopy.

Maria Popova shares a similar view on the subject in an interview by The Great Discontent:

Don’t let other people’s ideas of success and good or meaningful work filter your perception of what you want to do. Listen to your heart and mind’s purpose; keep listening to that and even when the “shoulds” get really loud, try to stay in touch with what you hear within yourself.

It’s not so much that other people are being nefarious, but naturally everybody wants to believe their idea of “success” is “correct”. But the important things I’ve come to realize are:

  1. Every single thing I see around me was conceived, created, and made by somebody no smarter or dumber than me. Everything we see came from some human’s mind.
  2. There are no instructions; there are no rules. Everybody is living life and making it up as they go along.

Wired recently published an article about executives mimicking Steve Jobs, and this unrelated tangent stuck out to me (emphasis mine):

Ironically, in Jobs’ remarkable story of self-creation we can see why the rest of us are so hungry for a role model to light our own paths. Whether it was in the early days, when he manipulated Steve Wozniak into building products for him to sell, or later in his career, when he was struggling to shape NeXT from scratch, or even after returning to Apple, when he created entirely new products, Jobs had no one to tell him how to realize his vision. He made high-stakes decisions on his own, with little to rely on besides his well-honed intuition. And on a smaller scale, isn’t that true of us all? In life, as in business, there really aren’t any concrete answers or clear guides. We can’t help but see a biography like Steve Jobs as a rare road map to the uncharted world we awake to every morning.

We’re all flying by the seats of our pants. Every one of your ideas is just as important as every one of my ideas. There’s no secret guidebook some of us are privy to. Next time you wonder if you’re the only person to think of something, consider the possibility that you are. And consider how you might improve the world if you do.

Speed of Light