It appears we are going to be stuck at home for the foreseeable future. We better all hunker down for some Netflix and make sure our pantries are filled with non-perishable goods.
No! Wrong! We should get to work, on our work.
Meetings have been postponed, conferences have been cancelled, flights have been grounded. Work and the economy are grinding to a halt and we find ourselves with little better to do but update or distract ourselves. Now is not the time to turn to escapism, but to fulfill what Buckminster Fuller predicted (it appears incorrectly) society was on the precipice of:
“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”
Here are four humans you’ve heard of before who used the most of their isolation, who took their opportunity to step back from the world only to fundamentally change it when they stepped forward once more.
In this time of imposed isolation, by the self or state, seize the opportunity learn or polish a skill you’ve been putting off, grasp the hours lost from work and start the book you’ve always meant to write, solidify your business plans on paper to return to work with a set plan of action, or approach a lender with the next big idea to become a Google.
Sir Isaac Newton — An Independent Intellect
Isaac Newton is one of the most influential scientists in history. Outside the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) communities, a little known set of facts about him is startlingly reminiscent of our current times.
Newton was born prematurely and as a result grew up frail and prone to illness. His university shut down in response to the Great Plague of London in 1665 and 1666 and as a precaution, he took to a reasonable level of isolation. During which time he developed theories on calculus, optics, and gravitation. Newton left university an undistinguished student and returned primed to become one of the most influential minds in history.
This may sound grandiose, and beyond yourself, but we must keep in mind that Newton did not go into this era of growth intending to change the world. He later described his self concept as:
“… to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Newton never set out to change the world, he set out to answer his own questions to his own satisfaction. He once bought Euclid’s Elements, a trigonometry text, because he purchased a text on astrology which he couldn’t understand due to his ignorance of trigonometry. That mind would later independently invent calculus to satisfy his curiosity around motion. Accomplishments, cathedrals of intellectual innovation were built with a toolset developed in isolation, not through painstaking rigor but hunger for knowledge and an isolation preventing both distractions and options.
Rene Descartes — I think therefore I am.
If you’d like some classic reading, Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy is always outstanding and through it, he put his imprint on history. One of the central tenants of Meditations is around uncertainty with regard to minds not our own. The famous observation that “I think therefore I am” is about the uncertainty we have about everything else. We could be a brain in a vat, and everyone you’ve ever known is just a Matrix-style program designed to keep you sane. There is no way we can tell.
A lesser-known fact about Descartes’ Meditations was his manner of writing them. In his quest for a foundation to ground his philosophy, he found himself in need of escape from external influences. Descartes self isolated to an apartment in Holland with no understanding of Dutch. There, he wrote about how each and every individual mind is, in fact, in isolation, observing only bodies traveling through space and never other minds.
Descartes’ obsessive chase for The Axiom, the basic founding principle of the universe, led him to act out what would become his solution, isolation. In order for something to be isolated, that something needs to be, and for Descartes the final something is the doubting self, the “I” in “I think, therefore I am”.
As long as we are stuck in self-imposed isolation, download a copy of Mediations on First Philosophy and read one of history’s foremost experts on the matter. And know that he wrote it while deliberately putting himself in the position a world currently finds itself. What nagging philosophical question have you had ruminating in your mind? Now might be the time to read up on the ideas of others and formulate your own perspective on the topic. Three hundred years from now you may find yourself as the subject of the chapter following Descartes in a Philosophy 300 course, an opportunity potentially missed had you been limited to your regularly scheduled calendar.
Nikola Tesla — An isolated mind
Nikola Tesla may be one of the most underappreciated minds of his day and the following decades, as well as the most over-hyped mind in contemporary pop-sci. He makes this shortlist by his work habits documented in Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla by Marc Seifer, a great biography that captures both Tesla’s brilliance as well as his odd arms-length view of himself to the rest of humanity.
Tesla found stones similar to Newton (“… pebbles and shells on the seashore…”), though upon solving any query to his satisfaction there was no guarantee that he would share his insight with humanity. Originally the innovation that put his name in history, alternating current(AC) rather than direct current(DC), the ongoing standard, was made in some dirt while on a walk. An idea struck him, alone, so he took the time to flesh it out with a stick on a path. After the following fame he gained a workshop in New York, then, upon that lab burning down, likely thanks to his experiments in early electronics lacking full appreciation for fire hazards and safety, he moved to rural Colorado to continue his work. Isolated.
From an innovation made alone on the side of a path, to becoming a recluse in the mountains, Tesla is a case study in self-isolation.
Sir Charles Darwin — Almost alone
The last name on my list to insert a positive perspective into a globally gloomy time is Charles Darwin. To more fully appreciate his perspective on his relative isolation, I recommend The Voyage of the Beagle, by Darwin himself. The book is not about isolation per se, but it is Darwin’s contribution to the captain’s account of the voyage, a voyage undertaken with Darwin a sort of tag-along. A ship is an isolated place but even in this isolation Darwin was further isolated socially, interacting primarily with the captain.
Sometimes isolation is forced upon us, like the case of Newton and many at the moment, sometimes it is by choice as with Descartes and many others facing the current pandemic. Some don’t feel a dramatic need to change in order to maintain isolation, similar to Tesla. And others still have an active need to seek out isolation in order to accomplish what they intend to, as Darwin needed. None of the reasons for isolation are sufficient to not productively accomplish something.
The time ahead may not be fun. I hope you’re well stocked, and if not, I would strongly suggest checking on delivery options and limit your exposure to the grocery crowds.
Stay safe, be productive. And wash your hands…
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