Big problems and busyness

By May 13, 2014Momentum

In the 1940s Enrico Fermi was listening to other distinguished physicists discuss the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. Given an enormous universe, it seems scientifically unlikely that life has only occurred on this planet. It appears, for example, that planets orbit most stars that could sustain life. It also seems that, when life evolves, it is likely to produce intelligent beings given enough time. Finally, they argued, an intelligent species capable of exponential reproduction could colonise a galaxy in a million years. At this point Fermi stepped into the conversation and asked ‘So where is everybody?’ The question ‘Why haven’t we found any aliens yet?’ has become known as Fermi’s Paradox.

When he tells this story, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller proposes a radical reason for the lack of aliens. For him the reason we haven’t met aliens is not because they don’t exist, or that they annihilated themselves in nuclear-like wars but that they’ve all got hooked on computer games! As their technological prowess advanced, so did their ability to entertain themselves. They became so busy earning, consuming and living in hyper-real virtual reality; they simply didn’t get around to colonizing the universe. ‘They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves’. Technological advancement, at a certain point, goes from enabling that species to advance and progress in the physical world, into stimulating them into passive virtuality.

Jason Pontin, editor in chief at the MIT Technological Review, makes a connected point.   He asks why technology seems to have stopped solving the big problems? Apollo 11 propelled Neil Armstrong at 25,000 miles per hour towards the moon in 1969. When he stepped on the moon; it seemed impossible to imagine that we wouldn’t travel faster and further; we wouldn’t fly to Mars; or indeed that we would stop traveling to the moon. Since the early 70s, no-one has stepped on the moon, and no-one has travelled faster than the Apollo rockets.

In the hundred years prior to Apollo, we had invented cars, planes, the electric light, the telephone; we had discovered antibiotics, cured tuberculosis and polio and eradicated smallpox. Technological advancement is clearly progressing at pace, with the number of patents being registered each year continuing to increase. But what is this advancement giving us? We now have incredible tools at our disposal. Two and a half billion of us have access to limitless information through the internet. Six billion of the world’s seven billion residents have access to mobile phones. Yet recent U.N. figures suggest only 4.5 billion have working toilets and only 2.5 billion have proper sanitation. 300 million people catch malaria a year, despite the fact we have known how to cure it since the 1600s.

We have more computing power, in the hands of more people than ever before. We have more minds connected to the world’s knowledge than ever before. We can share, discuss and evolve ideas more easily than ever before. We are well set up for an exponential surge in problem solving and societal progress. Yet I can’t help feeling we’re not using our technological capabilities wisely. In the past, technology solved big problems, now it seems to be more focused on creating consumer gadgets and entertainment.   We could harness our digital mastery to solve the world’s biggest problems; instead we use it to produce cooler phones, GPS and Angry Birds.

 

This applies in our lives too

I see a similar pattern in people’s working lives and their careers. We have never lived in a time with more opportunity, more freedom and more choice.   We have unprecedented scope to shape and mould our lives and our careers to suit our personality, our needs and our families. We have technology which can enable us to work more flexibly than ever before. We can learn and develop what we want, when we want (and mostly for free). We can connect to more people, in more ways. We have organizations which are flatter and more fluid; where progression is more a measure of capability than of tenure. We have more power to dictate and direct our own career path to follow our passion and strengths.   It’s a great time to be alive; but something seems amiss.

One of the biggest reasons I do what I do is because I love working with people who are grappling with the big problems in careers and life. People who are wrestling to understand how to find meaning in their work; who want to innovate and disrupt their organizations; who are determined to integrate a fulfilling family life with a challenging career; people who want to make a lasting difference to the world. These are big problems.

Over the last decade I have seen a steady decline in the attention people are giving to their big problems. Their energy and focus is so absorbed in the flurry and the froth of daily organizational life; they are so held to ransom by their inbox and their to-do list; that their radar zooms ever closer on the immediate, the ephemeral, the unimportant. As people struggle to manage it all, they become dazed and confused by the thousand micro-tasks hitting them electronically. When they are off-task, they plug themselves into entertainment machines to guarantee any reflection or thinking time is ruled out. Their good intentions remain, but those good intentions are procrastinated into the distance by their busyness; by the never ending waves of demand and stimulation.

Why do we do this?

Big problems are hard. At any given point it is far more appealing, to crunch through a bunch of emails than grappling with that complex project. It is safer to say ‘yes’ rather than ‘No’. It is easier to sink into the mind-numbing embrace of your television set than being fully present in conversation and play with a loved one. It is more comfortable to surf or Facebook than be alone with your own thoughts. In making these choices, we avoid the big problems of life, and our lives become more mundane, more grey, more dull for it.

 

What big problems in your life are you ‘too busy’ to address?

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