Do you remember the first time you were able to ride a bike without falling off? The thrill of keeping your balance, the rush of the wind in your ears, the uncertainty - and fear - that you may or may not be able to avoid the upcoming tree? That sort of aliveness is craved by us all. Once we taste the freedom that comes with keeping our balance and moving forward, we can’t get enough of it. It’s a perfect metaphor for fulfilling our potential. It also raises a crucial existential question: What bike are you riding these days?
Examples of people who’ve answered that question emphatically abound: one place I turn to for inspiration in such matters are the TED talks, overflowing with people doing interesting, inspiring, creative things. Things that have a powerful impact. Of course the point of being inspired by other people reinventing the world is to find ways you can do so yourself. All of us face the challenge of bridging the gap between inspiration and activation. It’s far too easy to get caught in our opinions about the world and spend all our time criticizing things that don’t match those opinions. That’s what we do when we feel entitled. It’s what we do when we’re scared to participate. It’s what we do when we feel powerless. Contradicting that tendency doesn’t mean we should be unaware of the fact that our economic systems are eroding, that personal and institutional corruption is rampant, and that politics rarely reflects what people want or need. True enough. But when has this not been the case?
The psychological ballast that creatives base their inventiveness on stems, in part, from the fact that they create even when the surrounding environment is closing in all around them. What did nurse Margaret Sanger do in the early 1900s when her mother had 18 pregnancies in 22 years and died at age 50? She worked endlessly to prevent back-alley abortions, increase access to contraception, and change the mindset of mainstream medicine.
What did Bangledeshi economics professor Muhammad Yunus do in the late 1990s when he saw banks unwilling to lend even small amounts of money to poor? He looked at the bank loan “qualifying criteria” and did the opposite of what it said: he lent to women more and lowered - even eliminated in many instances - the need for loan collateral. He trusted - rightly - that the poor were much more likely to repay their loans than wealthier recipients are, and that they would use the opportunities microfinancing gave them would not only lift them out of poverty; it would allow them to provide their communities with essential services.
But the need for the psychological ballast represented by people such as Sanger and Yunus becomes even greater once their ideas get traction. Why? Because creative endeavors threaten entitlement. They threaten the false sense of security that comes from never changing anything, even if what's familiar is clearly broken. That leads to forceful and sustained assaults on inventive ideas. Ask anyone who has done something that has truly changed the world. It's why creating something new and putting it out in the world requires extraordinary courage.
In fact, the main thing that prevents people from stretching out with their creativity has always been fear of consequences: of failing to do something well enough, of unanticipated side effects of their creations, of having having the intentions of their work distorted or misperceived by others. All those consequences do usually happen in one form or another. That tends to reinforce fear as the most powerful restraining force in the human psyche - the force that may well be more responsible for the frequently discussed “gap” between our technological advances and our psychological, sociological and spiritual ability to deal with those advances.
So it would be foolish to romanticize creativity in this blog or in any other context. The act of creation is a dangerous undertaking.
But it's also one of the most powerful capacities any of us can deploy if we want to get on our bikes and ride into the future.