Growing into Humility: How Ideas Change with Age
I met up recently with an acquaintance from my old neighborhood who is just starting college and his career. He’s brilliant, having explored fields as diverse as material science, DNA sequencing, and machine learning while in high school. He’s already tried to start his own company, had positions at research organizations, and after some internal debate, decided college is his best path for now and is pursuing a degree. I originally met him when he was a part time barista at my favorite cafe a few blocks away from my house. A true renaissance man.
We talked about a lot: his classes, new ideas, his research interest, our families, and childhood experiences. He is someone with big ideas and big aspirations. While not nearly as smart as he is, I remember that stage of my life vividly. I had just gotten a taste of work as an intern at CNN. The web browser, web sites, and ecommerce were brand new. I filled notebook after notebook with huge, bold, earth shattering ideas. Boil the ocean type stuff. I don’t remember if they were good or bad ideas, but none of them were small. They were paradigm shifts. Humans fundamentally changing their behavior. Grand technology solutions where there had been none.
In other words, completely unrealistic.
I know, if no one pursued their big ideas, we wouldn’t have x, y, and z. We tell our children to “dream big," but how many game changing ideas see the light of day vs. the ones that never move from minds or notebooks?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found, or been forced to find, more humility in most aspects of my life. And perhaps this is how it should be. When you’re young, your lack of experience can be a strength. You just don’t know any better. Why can’t we just break things? I even see this in my 4 year old daughter, constantly asking “why?,” and sometimes “it just is” has to suffice, because to change would be so radical, or so expensive, or so groundbreaking, that I know time will be the only anecdote of the ill to which she speaks. But more than time, it will take effort. And not one big effort, but hundreds or thousands of small efforts, chipping away at some inefficiency or social injustice in one form or another.
So, I find myself thinking about amassing small wins vs. big ones - and learning to be satisfied with those. Could I hypothetically be having more impact on the world than I am? Yes. Could I be working harder than I am? Absolutely. But opportunity cost can go both ways so I watch what I wish for.
Gordon Gecko in Wall Street famously said: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
Unfortunately, the problem with greed is that it tends to lack humility. Humility makes you start small. Humility helps you think about the impacts of the changes you’re trying to achieve. Humility makes you seek to try and understand others. And most importantly, humility helps you think of the human ramifications of what you’re doing, not just your own enrichment.