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Who’s waiting for your ‘funeral’?

As we close the year, here’s a thought for you:

“Science advances one funeral at a time.”

That was stated by Paul Samuelson, the man who taught me economics without my ever meeting him, through his landmark book. Samuelson was in turn paraphrasing the thoughts of the legendary physicist, Max Planck:

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

In other words: the old are rarely converted to understanding new doctrines; they are simply replaced as they die out.

What a sad truth that is. It refers to our innate need to believe what we believe, and not have those beliefs shaken by anyone or anything. Advancement in this world, then, does not come because new facts or realities have emerged; it happens because enough funerals have taken place.

This is as true in business innovation as it is in science. Is there an all-new paradigm at play in your industry? Has technology changed the game? Are consumer trends revealing a fresh reality? That may all be true – but so what? If you are in an established business with a certain way of doing things, good luck with changing anything. Until the funerals occur.

The problem is, very few people remain open-minded all their lives. Most latch onto a belief system that explains the world in some way – and then clamp their minds closed. That ideology or hypothesis will now govern all reality. New facts are not welcome. Radical suggestions are to be viewed with deep suspicion.

Most of us need to be comforted by our ingrained narratives about our lives and our work. The story needs to fix itself so that we feel stable. A life that changes unpredictably and chaotically is deeply uncomfortable. Truths require evidence and can be unnerving, so we construct truisms instead. And we beat off any suggestions that those truisms may themselves turn out to be false…

So if you’re wondering why your industry, your society, or your nation stays stagnant, the answer may be that not enough funerals have occurred! This is not a recommendation to conduct bloody revolutions, please note; the ‘funerals’ don’t have to be literal. The point is this: real advancement only occurs once those who resist no longer have their hands on the levers of power or influence.

That is why, whenever I am asked to advise a large incumbent organization struggling with innovation and real change, I always ask to meet the board of directors first. There is little point in unleashing the forces of creativity lower down if those sitting on top of the real decisions remain invested in the truisms of the past.

There’s a deeper point to be made, though: one that focuses on the individual. Does the world really need to wait for, or hope for, your funeral? If you have achieved some success and some advancement in your life, do you really need to close your mind to what’s next, or block your successors? Did you not thrive once upon a time by challenging a status quo or two, by taking risks, by trying a new thing out? If you did, please don’t suffocate what’s new around you today.

Wisdom does not come easily to a mind that’s slammed shut; it comes from being in a state of perpetual curiosity. It allows for the possibility of being wrong; it nurtures the energy of the youthful; it accepts change in the world. If we had not done that as humans, we would still be living in caves and guarding them with clubs.

Yes, there are truths and values and standards that are timeless, and should be. It is the job of the ageing to point those out. But do not do this with pedantry and repetition; and do not let the pointing out stifle all change or the hope of something better.

So, as a New Year dawns, ask yourself: am I the problem? Am I holding things together, or just holding them back? Is my experience of value to my world, or is it redundant? Is my continued presence appreciated or resented? Do those beneath me wish for my funeral, even if it is a metaphorical one?

Next year: read a little wider; talk to those you don’t normally sit with; relax your resistance to the unusual. Whatever your age, I wish you a year filled with curiosity and enquiry.

(Sunday Nation, 30 December 2018)

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