Gratitude Makes Innovation Possible

We are constantly making decisions about the world. We don’t think of them as decisions. Instead, we tend to feel the world has imposed on us a situation, which we may or may not need to accept. We feel the decision like an open question, and we sit in judgment. Is it a good world, a bad world, a dangerous, or a loving place? These qualifications flow from our experience, our foresight, our fears, our aims and our human connections. The question of whether we are grateful to be part of this world seems to be reserved for special occasions. But whether we live with a sense of gratitude and wonder determines how and to what extent we value the details of our existence that make it worth the struggle. And that can determine to what extent we know how to make it worth the struggle.

An example would be: You run a company; you work 12 hour days; your core staff work 14 hour days; over the last six months, your team has invented three new technologies; they will be rolled out over the next year. Because you work more than ten hours, and you sleep too little and see your family too little, you live with the sense that no one works as much as you do, that you are chronically under-appreciated, and that your team is constraining your ability to get the most out of the hours you put in. Is it possible you don’t see that they have invented three new technologies in six months? You never think of it in those terms. Instead, you think they are only making minor improvements to existing ideas every couple of months. You leave all the scheduling of contracts, production, and roll-out to your team. No one does the work of telling the world what heroic achievements the team is capable of.

Another example: You wake up in the morning, feel the presence of someone you love, someone you know will stand by you no matter what the world brings. There is magic in this. You feel it. Waking up in this way means the cosmos has conspired to make subtle, emotional, transcendent beauty possible. You catch a glimpse of an article about the Voyager Space Probe, the only human creation to have traveled beyond the Solar System. You feel a sense of deep gratitude for the way stars have formed into galaxies and then organized the physics of our existence so that our existence would be possible.

What is it that makes the wondrous vision of the person in love so distinct from the ungenerous vision of the overworked and detached leader? It is gratitude. By valuing what makes up our experience, we make value itself possible, and its expansion more likely. The sense that good things exist, that it is routinely human to overcome improbability, that what does not yet exist might soon come to be, is rooted in our ability to see that what exists is worthy of our gratitude and appreciation. Appreciation, actually, is more than seeing value; it is the adding of value. It is putting something into the world, not just observing the world. Gratitude is interactive; it is the recognizing of value by giving something of value back, something called grace.

Human intelligence is, itself, an immeasurable incomparable value. We don’t know how to create it, only how to cultivate it, and we usually do that clumsily. Over billions of years, through the birth and death of billions of stars, our galaxy has come to contain all of the necessary elements for organic intelligent life on Earth to exist. There is a cosmic genius in all of this, playing out over timescales and distances we can scarcely imagine. To bring the value of human intelligence to the question of what all of this is worth has to mean finding the value that would otherwise be missed. Take note of the hard work done by so many to make innovation possible, to make improvement of the human condition almost routine, and you become attuned to what it is about human thought that brings new ideas into being.

Gratitude opens the mind, makes discovery more likely, and rewards effort with grace and generosity. It is essential to what makes problem-solving in the human sense possible.

[ The Note for November 2015 ]

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