On the Shoulder of Giants
|A glorious burden|
It sometimes seems that as a society, we are enamoured with the myth if you want to call it that, the archetype, if you will, of the entrepreneur. That myth often has a very singular form. The sole entrepreneur against the world; the start up created in a basement or garage. Think of Facebook, Snapchat, Google and how they started, or at least, how we are told they started.
I understand the urge to mythologize the sole entrepreneur, don’t get me wrong. The entrepreneurial spirit is an essential one. That desire to strive, to create, to forge ahead, to take the world as it is and shape it to one that we want it to be, is necessary. Without it, who knows, we may still be stuck in the pre-industrial age. But it’s important to realize that it is a myth, and like all myths, there is an opposite to it.
Imagine a world in which we were all Atlas? What kind of world would that be?
If the entrepreneurial spirit is the driving force for all of us, if we are all Atlas, then the world becomes a lonely, fragmented place. If sole creation is the most valued thing in society, then we would all have to reinvent the wheel every time we wanted to drive. Fortunately, it does not work that way. Atlas holds up the world, but we cannot all be Atlas, and we should not all want to be Atlas.
There’s something to be said for standing on the shoulders of giants, of working within an established order instead of in a land of do-as-you-please. The myth of the sole entrepreneur, the sole creative driving force leaves very little room for stability and development. It leaves very little room for the kind of true collaboration that is what powers humanity. It leaves very little room for standing on the shoulders of giants, giants who themselves were influenced by those that came before. This myth of the sole entrepreneur obscures that reality.
Some of the greatest inventions have come from building on that which came before. Think about Gmail, for example. That simple (seeming) email system came from a group of programmers, engineers and others, who could have taken their ideas and tried to develop them individually, but they did not. The sum was greater than its parts.
Tied to the creation myth is the idea that creation itself is the end-all be-all, the raison d’être for everything and everyone. This idea values creation (whether through writing, photography or other creative endeavours) as the epitome of human achievement. Creation is seen as the only kind of creativity; an idea that sees little need for passive pursuits. When creation is the only valued kind of creativity, what use is a person who merely enjoys the creativity of others?
Being a writer, I understand the urge, and while a part of me wants to be flattered by the fact that some might call me a creator, I remember the long stretches of passivity I went through. I remember reading voraciously and not writing a single word. I was 16 before I attempted to write my first piece. I had read and discussed countless books before that. Some could say I was passive, that I was a taker, not a maker, but I disagree. I prefer to think I was absorbing, synthesizing, learning, developing. I was developing my sense of self, learning structure, how to write, how to think, how to be, learning how to work with and among others. What is that if not a creative act? While absorbing the lessons from the pieces I read and discussed among fellow scholars and thinkers, I began the process of creating myself.
Whether or not I ever wrote a word would not diminish the importance and truth of that creative process. But of course, it never ends there. We all have the creative urge, and it is in the nature of who we are that we cannot help but strive to create our own versions of what we love.
Those passive periods, where I created nothing were critical to my development as a writer, and to my development as me. Those passive periods where I merely discussed and collaborated with others were crucial. When I eventually began to write, it only seemed like a solitary act; I only seemed to fulfill the solo artist myth. Behind and beside and all around me were Atlases. With their influence, with my feet planted firmly on their shoulders, I had a platform then to reach for the stars and have the clouds as my footstool. I took what I absorbed and created myself from it.
That is what we all do. If we don’t have those influences, if we are forced to create from whole cloth, if we do not allow ourselves the space to collaborate, to build on what comes before, we may never create at all. The true tragedy in that is we then lose the opportunity to be Atlas to those who come after us. We need to create, to appreciate creation, but also to appreciate the creation that happens in between creation.