The Pill of Possibility
“We can’t. It’s too hard. It just isn’t possible.”
I’m sure these words or something like them, especially after a year of dealing with COVID-19, may have crossed your mind more than once. I know they have for me. But they often become self-fulfilling, wreaking havoc on creative, innovative thinking. Good ideas are, consequently, often pushed aside, never to see the light of day. Ultimately, these words end up proving the naysayers right and become self-fulfilling. Yet somehow, some people are able to push through them, adapt to the situation, and persevere in spite of the odds. This type of perseverance is nowhere more critical than in the expansion of humanity into space.
James Dyson spent 15 years developing over 5,000 prototypes before finally completing the design for his revolutionary vacuum cleaner. When no other manufacturer would take it on as part of an existing product line, Dyson launched Dyson Limited to manufacture and distribute his concept, and it is now one of the top-selling vacuums in the United States. Chester Carlson’s idea for electrophotography was shot down more than 20 times by companies such as IBM, 3M, and Kodak, but through his perseverance, he was able to finally enter into an agreement with a small photo-paper company called Haloid (later known as Xerox). Twenty-one years after inventing electrophotography, now known as xerography, the first convenient office copier using the technology was unveiled.
In a recent article in Fast Company, experts from a wide range of disciplines attending the Asgardia Space Congress in Germany tackled the various challenges to “paving the road to living in space.” While much of the discussion focused on the usual suspects––life-support systems, artificial gravity, and so forth––most everyone agreed the biggest barrier to long-term, sustainable living in space was mindset. In the article, Jeffrey Manber, CEO of the private in-space services company Nanoracks, said the lack of progress since the United States first landed on the Moon is “a tragedy of the will of the species, not technical innovation.” He noted that this lack of will and imagination rests squarely on the shoulders of national leaders.
Attitude can be a game-changer. It often reflects the tone of leadership, the willingness to push boundaries, and the response to failure. Walt Disney was fired from his newspaper job for a lack of creative ideas; Thomas Edison was pulled out of school as a child after his schoolmaster called him “addle-minded” and “slow”; Michael Jordan missed over 9,000 shots on his way to leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships; and Elon Musk continues to blow up and crash rockets in his quest for Mars. By owning their failure, they also own their success.
If you truly want to be successful, maintaining a consistently positive attitude is paramount. People can easily become discouraged by any one of a large number of reasons. A positive attitude by those in charge––as well as the presence of a positive environment––can help them overcome those feelings and develop a renewed sense of energy. By driving decision-making down to the lowest levels, NASA created a positive environment that was key to the success of the Apollo lunar landing program.
Attitude is also a choice. In the 1999 movie The Matrix, Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne, holds out his hands, each containing a single pill: one red and one blue. Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, has to make a choice—take the red pill and free himself from life’s current limitations, or take the blue pill and return to the status quo.
As with Neo, Leaders are frequently presented with difficult choices. One provides the opportunity to imagine something different and create new ideas that will hopefully result in the change we desire. However, the other keeps things as they are, regardless of any potential negative outcome. Too often, our leaders are grabbing handfuls of blue pills, even as the world around them is rapidly changing.
I once had the opportunity to observe professional drag racing firsthand at the NHRA Nationals in Minnesota. As part of the experience, I got to walk the U.S. Army top fuel car to the starting line and stand behind it as it launched down the track. What I didn’t expect was to be physically knocked backwards by the shockwave created by the six Gs of force generated when the car took off as nothing accelerates faster on land. I couldn’t see the shockwave, but I definitely felt its power.
Change, too, may be difficult to see, but its effects can have a profound impact. The ability to see either something that doesn’t yet exist, or the oncoming effects of change, requires the ability to mentally visualize and elaborate on abstractions.
People have imagined a future where food is prepared in Star Trek-like replicators, humanoid robots walk and interact with people, and adolescent gamers work to cure cancer. As a result, 3D printers now print edible food, and the Robotic Challenge through DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has created androids that walk and move like humans. More recently, DARPA has supported a public computer game through social media called Foldit, where young gamers try to fold proteins, one of the most difficult biochemistry barriers to curing disease, to great success.
Imagination is a fundamental trait of an effective leader. While history is loaded with people who lacked this invaluable trait, successful organizations and nations are most often led by those who have vivid imaginations––those who are able to see where the world is heading and develop products and services that anticipate the coming change, including Steve Jobs or the new “spacepreneurs” Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
But it’s going to take more than improvements in technology or vivid imaginations. While it’s often tempting to react to change and make quick moves to adapt to it, newer doesn’t always mean better and change isn’t always transformative. Following the release of Windows 2000, it became quickly apparent the upgrade was flawed and most people reverted back to Windows 98; as a child, I never had to wait for Gilligan’s Island to buffer; and the battery in my HP-12C calculator purchased in 1988 lasted for 25 years before it had to be changed.
When new, game-changing ideas are introduced, companies are often quick to jump on the proverbial bandwagon, with what seems like an adapt-or-die mentality. They incorporate the ideas of others into their own products with the hope of remaining competitive in the rapidly changing landscape of smartphones, app development, and advances in artificial intelligence technology.
But change isn’t simply a technological challenge, as it’s also a challenge for hearts and minds. If you have ever been on a rollercoaster, you know a wide variety of attitudes are exhibited on any given ride. Some close their eyes, hold on for dear life, and can’t wait for the ride to be over; while others ride with arms outstretched and love every second. It’s the same ride with two entirely different emotional responses.
Great change often leads to great opportunities, and it will be the leaders sitting up front with eyes wide open who will seize the moment and create the future we desire. In the same way that NASA recruited young, straight-out-of-college engineers untainted by corporate rules or huge bureaucracies to develop the Apollo program (their average age was 26), the road to future change both on the Earth and in space will be paved through a large, growing group of wide-eyed believers.
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