Saturday, October 20, 2007

Support Your Local Visionary

Dr. Gerald Bull wanted to build cannons his whole life. His lifelong dream was to build a cannon to launch satellites into space. His break came in the late 80's when he was commissioned to build the largest cannon ever... so large, in fact, that it had to be assembled in parts and laid at an angle on the side of a hill. Its length was 156 meters (about 500 feet), its bore would be 1 meter wide, its weight would be over 2,100 tons, and have a range of 750 kilometers (about 415 miles).

When Gerard Bull first presented the cannon project to his staff, and after he recited the long list of all its daunting engineering problems, they said, "That's impossible."

And he replied—excitedly—"Yeah, isn't it great?"

Bull was a visionary, and like so many other visionaries before and since, nobody else could see what he saw. Rather than open their eyes to new possibilities, his staff's gut response was extreme skepticism. But Bull didn't listen. He bullied them into tackling the so-called "impossible" problems. They labored for months. And he got his cannon built (click the picture to see it).

This is the problem with most human beings (myself included, I'm ashamed to admit), at least in the Western world—we resist change, even if the change is better for us. Anything radically new is intrinsically suspect. And the seed of an idea is killed before it even gets planted. The visionary sees the goal and finds a way to make it happen—the non-visionary sees what's available and so can't see a feasible way to reach the goal.

Regretfully, I am cursed with a visionary mind. I say cursed because having a visionary mind means you are condemned to a life of perpetual daydreaming, seeing possibilities which others don't, can't, or won't—that makes it a struggle to get others to open their minds wide enough to see what I see. It's exhausting. Many of my ideas are usually met with a polite nod, apathetic dismissal or, at worst, open derision. Thus, most of the time, simply because I'm so tired of being met with a lackluster attitude, I just shut up and keep all my new ideas to myself... but privately tinker with them until I can provide the non-visionaries with some meat to chew on. Since my ideas' early stages have no money to be developed into something ostensibly valuable, they are fueled only by my own enthusiasm and nothing kills enthusiasm faster than a simple non-visionary quip, "Nobody will ever use that. Why are you wasting your time?"

So here's a simple request to all you non-visionaries: if you ever hear someone come up with an idea which sounds crazy to you, stop yourself from saying, "That's impossible", or "That can't be done", or "You're mad! What if X or Y or Z?" Instead, try to reframe your reaction: "OK, I don't see how that could be done, but if it could, how could it be done?"

I'm developing a massive idea now—I've shared it with a few close friends and they love because it's useful and it has legs to stay around awhile. I feel it has the potential to be larger than Myspace if it catches on. But I'm careful about whom I talk to about it, and not just for legal reasons... most people don't see the possibility until it already exists.

There is another downside to being a visionary—you can be so thirsty to see your dreams realized that you lose touch with your ethics. For example, Dr. Bull's "supergun" was contracted by Saddam Hussein and not only were the canon's parts eventually confiscated by British customs officials, but Dr. Bull was assassinated outside his house in Belgium, probably by Israeli or Iranian secret police. Doomsday Gun was a TV movie made about Dr. Bull and his tragic ending.

1 comment:

Jon Renaut said...

I'll happily frame my reactions that way if you promise not to use MySpace as the bar for anything you ever do.