I <3 U Bertie

Since I work in technology, most everyone I meet careens forward at a bullheaded pace. They view the past, and its institutions, as something that needs to actively be wiped from the earth—the rubble forming the foundation of a new and better world. 

Their heros are the usual suspects: Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Tim Cook, and so on. Which if you ask me is wildly unimaginative for an industry built on the archetype of quirky savants casting magic into circuit boards. 

I happen to disagree with many of my peers about the place of the past in our work today. If we look in the rearview mirror, we find this desire to remake the world is not new and that it has almost as often ended in literal rubble as it has any amount of true progress. To sweep aside the past is to ignore the most important advantages we have: several millennia of human thought, progress, and, above all else, mistakes. 

Most questions of any import have been visited time and time again since man first diverged from our neanderthal cousins. Circumstance may change, but these fundamental questions about why humans are here, where our purpose lies, and how we should live are as old as civilization itself. I believe they are, perhaps, older and more fundamental than any science or machine man has ever created. 

To do my small part in introducing a few more young minds to the past and some of its most important lessons, I introduce my own personal hero, Bertrand Russell. Or rather, I will let him do the honor with an excerpt from Reflections on My Eightieth Birthday:

I have lived in the pursuit of a vision, both personal and social. Personal: to care for what is noble, for what is beautiful, for what is gentle; to allow moments of insight to give wisdom at more mundane times. Social: to see in imagination the society that is to be created, where individuals grow freely, and where hate and greed and envy die because there is nothing to nourish them. These things I believe, and the world, for all its horrors, has left me unshaken.

Russell wasn’t just a deep thinker with inspiring views on the world; he was a nobel laureate, earl, and social activist fighting for gay rights and peace on a continent that ripped itself apart not once but twice during his life. His fingerprints are on great minds everywhere, from Alan Turing to Albert Einstein. 

As a physicist, I really get onboard with his distrust of mathematics—he compares the field to mythical turtles stacked on top of each other—as I have always been skeptical about why exactly you can divide by every number but zero. (The sad answer is that water catches fire if you let zero into the division club, so we just make rules to avoid that.)

Perhaps most importantly for innovators, Bertrand Russell reviews lessons about the two sides of progress; bringing a healthy skepticism and acknowledgement of the duality of all man’s creations:

Machines are worshipped because they are beautiful and valued because they confer power; they are hated because they are hideous and loathed because they impose slavery.

...offering insight into why men believe what they do and speaking to the importance of having a sound, clear basis for pursuing progress:

Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good ground for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.

...all the while ensuring we don’t take ourselves too seriously:

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.

...because in the end:

After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it generated Neros, Genghis Khans, and Hitlers. This, however, is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will become again incapable of supporting life, and peace will return.

Looking back and learning from those who came before me isn’t a sign of weakness; it won’t make me less innovative or able to produce unique solutions. Instead, it allows me to build off the work that the very best of us has done in the past. If we are truly looking to change the world as entrepreneurs, we need every tool and bit of help we can get. The past offers both while providing context to our place in mankind’s march forwards.  

I wish I could thank Bertrand Russell for all the lessons he has taught me and the fathers of the field I now work in. But, since that isn’t possible, I figure I might spread the work he dedicated his life to while hopefully helping our generation avoid a few mistakes of the last. 

If I’ve peaked your interest, start with Logicomix; it’s a New York Times bestseller.