We controlled fire.
We forged tools.
We invented the wheel.
We created antibiotics, traveled to the moon, harnessed nuclear power and banished loneliness forever with Facebook.
Sure, these more recent achievements might be more salient to our modern existence, but human beings have always been industrious go-getters. Never satisfied with the status quo. Restless overachievers.
Or are we?
I’m reading a mind-blowing, assumption-challenging book right now called Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. In it he posits that for the vast majority of human history, our progress was staggeringly slow by modern standards.
Homo sapiens of 100 000 years ago were just as intelligent and capable as we are now, but for tens of thousands of years their existence was relatively unchanged. Take one of our ancestors from 100 000 BC and transport her 80 000 years into the future and she might not have known the difference. By contrast, our ancestors of just 200 years ago would barely recognize anything about our world now.
Why has the rate of progress increased so dramatically in the last couple hundred years?
To a large extent, the answer is hope.
In his book, Harari explains that up until the Scientific Revolution about 400 years ago, humans were not particularly hopeful regarding the future. In fact, as our species abandoned their nomadic ways and settled in one place – often crowded towns and cities – many thought that the best times were done and gone. The future would either look much like the present, or perhaps worse.
If you were a laborer in a town without a decent cabinet-maker and had the brilliant idea to start your own business, you would have a very difficult time turning that idea into a reality. Even though the community would surely benefit from quality cabinets, who would lend you the money for the years it would take to get the business off the ground?
Because there was little optimism that the future could look better than the present, few would risk extending credit on that premise. The only loans available were short term with high rates.
So, little hope in the future lead to little investment in the future which lead to little progress which lead to . . . you guessed it, little hope in the future. One vicious circle.
What changed with the Scientific Revolution was hope. Inventions like the internal combustion engine, electric power and eventually the Internet have given human beings reason to believe that the future could be – will be – better than today. Ideas were invested in. Amazing things were created. And the progress made people even more optimistic.
This is an altogether different scenario of human existence than what our ancestors experienced. I was wrong. It is not enough to have an innate drive to improve. This must be coupled with hope and a willingness to invest in uncertain endeavors.
The chapter was about economics. But it got me thinking about our life choices.
If you love your life, you should probably keep doing everything that got you where you are.
If you don’t love your life, don’t expect things to change by continuing the same behaviours that got your there.
I have been incredibly fortunate. Born into a loving and supportive family to educated parents who maintained a steady middle-upper class lifestyle in a society that provides universal education and healthcare for all of its citizens, I tried hard to be successful. Good grades – check. University – check. Medical school – check. Marriage – check. Buy a house – check. Have kids – check. Work full time so that you can save for retirement and buy a bigger house, a new car, a pool, a boat, another TV . . .
. . . I don’t know when it happened, but at some point I started getting restless. Life was good, but it wasn’t quite enough for me. I had some guilt about this – how could I be unsatisfied as a practicing physician with a good homelife and money in the bank? This is a life that people around the world would kill for.
I felt like Keanu Reeves in the 1999 movie, The Matrix. As outwardly successful as I was, I felt like there was more to life than the well worn path of “success” that I was following. It seemed like all my colleagues were burning out alongside me in medicine, but planned to keep doing the same thing for years to come. I was uneasy.
In the movie, Neo (Keanu) has the choice between taking a blue pill which will re-insert him into the Matrix where he could live out his life according to the rules and norms of the construct or the red pill which will disengage him from that familiar world and propel him down a path of risk and uncertainty, but also with the chance of great existential reward.
I’ve realized that I’m a red pill kind of guy.
And if there is one thing that emergency medicine taught me it’s that our time on this planet is short – and it can suddenly be cut a lot shorter. I’ve had a wonderful life, but I am hopeful there is even more to it.
I hope there are amazing adventures waiting in foreign lands. I hope to have the opportunity to meet and learn from people who talk differently, eat differently, and believe differently. I hope to grow as a husband and a father by living these experiences with my wife and four boys.
This hope more than compensates for the risk involved in taking the red pill. Lindsay and I are willing to extend ourselves and our family the credit necessary to get this (ad)venture off the ground. We will borrow from the bank of secure familiarity and lend to the start-up of giddy uncertainty. This is the price of progress. It always has been.
As parents, we are just over halfway through our time with our two oldest boys before they strike out on their own. We feel strongly that there is no time to lose. Who knows where this cycle of hope, risk and growth will take us?