Grateful for Giants
Our lives are more interconnected and interdependent than most of us ever realize. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants.
Imagine you’re an alien from another planet who just landed in Santa Monica. You can’t read or speak any human languages and know nothing of Earth. Standing on the beach, watching the waves of water crash against the pier, you begin to wonder what magic is at work.
How long do you think it would take you to figure out the cause of the tide?
No. I don’t mean keep reading. I mean really think about it for a minute. Think about trying to solve that mystery without Google or YouTube or Wikipedia. No books. No phoning a friend. Just you and your brain. Would you ever be able to figure it out?
When I was in Australia this past summer, I thought about this question a lot. Learning about James Cook landing in Australia, I was struck by just how much he needed to understand about astronomy and physics to navigate the seas. Things you and I never even think about because we have GPS and Google Maps.
Eventually I concluded that Alien Steele would never be able to figure out that the gravitational pull of the moon is the driving force behind the tides. It feels like too big of a leap.
It’s the same sort of feeling you get when you start thinking about the technology in your smartphone. How much do you really know about how it works beyond that computers talk in zeros and ones?
It’s a question worth asking because it’s so incredibly easy to downplay how completely and utterly dependent we are on each other for just about everything.
How much do you know about building a home? Or growing food? Or generating electricity? Left to your own devices in the wilderness, how long do you think you might survive?
We rarely ask these questions because we don’t have to and because we live in a time that stresses individual responsibility. We celebrate success stories like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. We like to pretend that any man or woman can be an island.
But where would they be without the rest of us? Where would Elon Musk be without all the rocket scientists and astrophysicists who came before him? How many online orders could Jeff Bezos fulfill if the 566,000 hard working people that Amazon employs every day decided not to show up for work? What if Steve Jobs was born into a world where electricity had yet to be discovered?
There’s no doubt that over the course of human history a few individuals contributed more than others. Made amazing discoveries. Tackled audacious goals. Left a unique and lasting mark.
But those discoveries, those accomplishments, those marks must always be placed in the context of a much greater project and a much longer story. The project of making a better world. The story of all of us.
It’s unfair to credit so much to so few. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants. We are living lives that have been lifted up by the contributions of everyone who came before us. The fathers and mothers who raised the next generation. The soldiers who fought for our freedom. The scientists who unlocked the secrets of the universe. The explorers who figured out how to navigate the seas. The farmers who grew an agricultural revolution. The workers who built an industrial revolution. The entrepreneurs who ignited a technological revolution. And the millions and millions of nameless others who cleared forests and paved roads and taught children and invented new tools and contributed, in one way or another, to creating a whole that’s so much greater than its parts.
This week I discovered a book called Thanks a Thousand by AJ Jacobs. It’s about his journey to thank every single person who played a part in getting him his morning coffee. He travelled the world to thank the coffee bean farmers, the truck drivers, the designer of the logo and the inventor of the coffee cup lid. It’s a story about our interconnectedness and about feeling grateful for all the little ways everyone else on earth helps to make all the things that are so easy to take for granted possible.
It’s a useful reminder because the urge to tell a story that’s all about you is strong. What you said and did. The choices you made and the work you put in. We all want to be the hero in the story of our life.
But in truth, your life story is a lot less about you than you think and a lot more about the thousand people who played a part in bringing you your morning coffee. The story of humanity is a lot less about the James Cooks and Elon Musks and a lot more about the nameless millions who made their contributions possible.
Never lose sight of the fact that you’re playing but one small part in the history of humanity. You can try to make that part as big as you can, you can try to contribute more than any person who came before you, you can try to lift up the life of every person who will come after. You can and you should.
But you should also never pretend to be an island. Because you aren’t.
Without the rest of us, you’d have no smartphone, no electricity, no food. You’d be stuck on a beach in Santa Monica, still thinking about the waves.
Be grateful that each day you get to enjoy walking around with a supercomputer in your pocket that you don’t need to know the first thing about.
Be grateful that each day you get to enjoy the fruits of everyone’s labour, the combined efforts of generations and generations of hard-working people, who have each, in their own way, contributed to making the world we live in today.
Be grateful that each day you get to enjoy a view that’s only possible because you’re standing on the shoulders of giants.