Monday, June 13, 2011

Why the World Needs More Visionaries

People used to be able to get shit done.  Not just in the “balance the checkbook and go to the grocer” sense, either; we used to build great works that survive to this day.  Shit, we didn’t “need” a big shiny arch on the riverfront in St. Louis, but is anybody upset that we at least have something that immediately identifies the city?  The value that the Arch has to the city of St. Louis is quite literally immeasurable.

Unfortunately, something like the Arch would never get built anymore.  It would go through some crooked meeting of aldermen, where it would get derided as “impractical.”  “Why can’t we use that money for schools?” or “we have people starving in the streets and you want to build what?” would probably be thrown around.  Of course, when that money goes to some developer in the form of TIF financing so that he can build a WalMart somewhere in the city, that’s somehow fine because it’ll “create jobs,” even if those jobs are (let’s be honest) pretty shitty, and will likely be replaced in the next 20 years by automatic scanners and interactive displays in stores.

The importance of the visionary cannot be understated.  These are the people that can step away from all of the bullshit and infighting, anticipate other peoples’ needs, and actually deliver something that is of great benefit to the greater good.  Guys like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates (or more likely people that work for them) are generally mentioned as visionaries, and, to be fair, they are.  But so was Dwight Eisenhower when he came up with the idea for the Interstate Highway system, and Jack Kennedy when he said we’d go to the moon by the end of the decade.

America used to be the land of opportunity.  Now it seems like it’s the land of bureaucracy, meetings, and entitlements; in short, a lot of people that end up shitting all over good ideas by spewing platitudes like “how can we do _______ when we have so many people living in poverty in this country?” and “it’s just not practical right now.”    

Meanwhile, the few previous visionary projects remaining are in shambles.  The interstate highway system needs basic repairs, let alone a multi-billion dollar updating to make getting around this country easier.  The space program has been farmed out to Russia and private industry, where who knows if it’ll ever get back on track?  Hell, even the arch, made out of stainless steel and supposed to last 1,000 years, is starting to corrode, and needs major repairs.

When you suggest any work on these types of projects and the bureaucrats and elected officials get involved, though, you might as well have suggested out-and-out decimation of the populace.  It doesn’t matter that these people won’t actually do anything to make our schools better or raise the standard of living in this country, otherwise.  No, for whatever reason, anything even remotely visionary is held up by these gatekeepers.

It’s not just those in government, either.  There are far too many yahoos out there that think that their tax money shouldn’t be “wasted” on these types of projects.  High-speed rail is an example—even getting the neutered, watered-down proposal that currently exists has been a major fight; imagine if we proposed an actual, 200-mph bullet-train-style system in the most heavily-trafficked corridors.  The nuts would really come out in force, and again, prevent us from moving forward as a society.

Visionaries are able to cut through all of this B.S., and drag the world kicking and screaming to where it actually wants to go.  Visionaries don't generally ask permission ahead of time; they identify a greater need and implement a solution, and figure out a way to explain how they got there later.  You don't necessarily need to be "born" a visionary, either; I think a lot of their success comes from being keen observers of the human condition, mixed in with a healthy dose of empathy.  This is why monstrous dictators often think that they're visionaries when they are, in fact, assholes; they're unable to be empathetic enough to realize the far-reaching consequences of their actions.

I’m not na├»ve enough to think that everyone can start thinking in terms of some bigger projects that would ultimately be better for society, but if even a few more people stop limiting themselves and think bigger, we’ll be taking a step in the right direction as a society.  Too often “visionaries” are belittled and berated into compliance with society, be it by our educational system, parents, family, friends, or even advertisements and marketing.  What I’m not willing to concede is that it’s then somehow the “fault” of these other institutions for our lack of visionaries; it’s your and my fault.  We are the only ones to blame for buying into the ideas that these people are selling.  At the end of the day, it’s your life, and the world won’t be a better place for you holding onto some radical idea in your head without telling anyone because you feared being ostracized, or because you thought “it’ll never work.”  Life is too short for thinking like that.  Get out there, think big, and act bigger.

Action Item: Write down three crazy ideas for improving the world, no matter how impractical they may seem.  Then, tell somebody those ideas, i.e. “I think air travel would be much quicker and more enjoyable if we rode on the backs of dragons.”  Notice that the world doesn’t end.  Continue to think of big ideas and, when you find one with real potential, look up the steps to implementing it on the internet.  Implement it.

Any “big ideas” that you thought were too crazy to be let out into the world?   Visionaries you admire?  Let me know in the comments.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

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