My daughter turns 1 next month. By some counts, this isn’t exactly the best time to be taking the first steps on your life’s journey. Climate change is accelerating. Strongmen around the world are trampling on civil liberties. The latest tech has proved a Pandora’s box, with privacy hanging in the balance.
As my daughter embarks on her own odyssey, here are a few points that may help her navigate the pitfalls to come, both real and imagined. Bonus: these strategies might just come in handy for the rest of us, too, as we work to make sense of the decade ahead.
Every generation thinks the sky is falling.
It’s the hubris of every generation to think their problems are more pressing and hopeless than the challenges faced by generations before. This simply isn’t true. This point was driven home to me recently talking with Rod Marining, one of the founders of Greenpeace, which was started in the ‘70s to challenge missile tests in Alaska. We think we’ve got it bad today, but back then nuclear annihilation was a real threat. Before that, our parents, grandparents and great grandparents faced World Wars, depressions, global pandemics, famines, you name it. And somehow they found a way forward. Necessity and ingenuity are a powerful combo. I’m not saying things will be easy. But it’s important to remember they’re far from hopeless.
Small and “inconsequential” voices drive history.
Sure, Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist, may have gotten a couple million people out in the streets to protest (me included). But what chance do we really stand against big corporations, or even entire governments? Well, here’s the deal: change never comes from within. Systems — whether we’re talking about companies or countries — are wired to preserve themselves. Real change always starts with small, committed groups on the periphery. These efforts may look and feel inconsequential at first. But don’t underestimate the power of a nimble, passionate minority against a bureaucracy of people just in it for a pay check. Margaret Mead may have said it best: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Tech is just another tool — embrace it.
Digital technology has become an easy scapegoat for our problems. But I don’t buy it, not entirely. The thing is technology is just a tool. It’s the way we use it that matters. Fire can be used to burn and destroy; it can also be a source of warmth and light. The same goes for everything from social media and smartphones to AI and IoT. Sure, some people will misuse these technologies. But they can (and are) being applied to make the world better, all the time. Take Greta: the movement she sparked took flight on social media. She used it to find her tribe and appeal to a global conscience. Importantly, technology here isn’t being used to replace human potential but to amplify it. The best tech is never an end in itself; it’s a means of enhancing our capacity to work together.
Build your discernment muscles.
Two hundred years ago, Edgar Allen Poe warned, “Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” In the digital age, that goes double. Among the most critical life skills of the coming decade will be the ability to think for yourself. Granted, this is easier said than done. Digital literacy is part of the equation: a healthy skepticism for everything you see online (and off-) and the savvy to check your own facts. But as deepfakes and disinformation campaigns get more sophisticated, something far more nuanced and elemental is required — keen intuition, a real moral compass, and a deep and wide-ranging education. It’s easier than ever right now to make a lot of noise and use digital smoke and mirrors to distract and mislead. Finding a way forward requires learning for yourself what to tune out and what to turn up — and that’s a life’s work.
Imagine a world that inspires you (not just one that’s less bad).
Last but not least, inspiration matters. We live in a world where it’s exceedingly easy to get consumed with problems. Global poverty. Environmental damage. Extremism. Cancer. Addiction. Gun violence. All of these problems are real and demand attention. But don’t forget to dream. Life isn’t just about making the world less bad. It’s also about envisioning something better and making it a reality. It’s this elemental impulse that’s behind so many of the advances in the last century — researchers and technologists and entrepreneurs having the audacity to dream of something greater. Case in point: Elon Musk envisions a better rocket. Today he’s bringing satellites to space; tomorrow he just might be bringing people to Mars. Without inspiration, we grind to a halt — not to mention, it’s pretty tough to get out of bed in the morning.