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Museums of Passion Projects, Talent, Economics, and Politics
Why do people bother to try and change the world?
What is the simplest object you have in front of you, right now?
For me, it’s a wooden pencil holder that I made a little over a decade ago. I cut, shaped, and glued two pieces of wood together, and it’s been a functional centrepiece for my desks for almost a dozen years.
But the simplicity of this unpainted and clumsy object belies layer and layer of complexity. I didn’t fell the tree that gave this wood. I didn’t build the machines or tools I used in the process either. That work was shouldered by others. Even the picture frames on my wall combine so many more parts than we recognise, and each part requires so much more effort than we appreciate.
The work to even design something — and to incorporate feedback from the many different groups of people who that thing is meant to benefit — is a long process that draws on more effort and passion than we usually think. Then there are the trials and tribulations that come from actually getting it made, whether that’s gathering the right physical materials (and dealing with suppliers, delivery, and storage) or putting together the right pieces of code, which always springs its own bugs for whatever you’re trying to achieve. And often there are the costs and infrastructure required to maintain something as well.
Without leaders — people who try and move the world forward — our societies would remain static; our lives no better than they were in the past. Without those who dedicate their time to maintaining the world we enjoy today, whether it’s the state of our democracies or the vehicles we use for transport, our lives would be much worse.
Our world is full of objects that require far more effort than we acknowledge, from picture frames and skyscrapers to startups and software. In other words, what it takes to make even the smallest dent in the world is much harder than it looks.
As a result, we give less credit than we should to people who spend their lives trying to build something in the world. This leadership — to acknowledge the world as it is, to make the claim “I think the world should be different in this way,” and to take the ownership required to create that difference — is underappreciated.
That means we also invest less time than we should in trying to understand why they do it. These sorts of things are worth understanding. If we knew more about what inspires people to take ownership of changing a small part of our world, we’d be in a much better place to encourage more of it, to guide those people, and to accelerate them.
The most obvious — and most delightful — reason that people feel inspired to change the world is pure inspiration itself. As John Collison puts it, cofounder of digital payments giant Stripe, “the world is a museum of passion projects.” Our lives are full of things that other people have created from their heart and soul and out of pure passion for their work: computers, books, and museums themselves.
But it feels like the world is not just a museum of passion projects. Stripe became as successful as it is today from the passion to build tools that help other people start businesses online. But it started because John and his cofounder Patrick found something they were good at — writing software — and directed that talent to a big problem: paying for things on the internet.
Indeed, things often happen simply because somebody finds a match between something they are good at and something the world needs. People have natural talents for all sorts of things, from storytelling and sports to sales and recruitment. It is finding a match for those skills that puts a person on the path to changing the world.
Similarly, people are often prompted to change the world by economic necessity. In the 18th century, the burgeoning industrial revolution prompted the development of canals and trains to transport their wares, but the infrastructure they built and techniques they developed ended up having far bigger effects.
Industrialists also played a major role in developing financial infrastructure, establishing banks of their own to pay regular wages and to support their capital-intensive companies. Bailey, Morgan & Co, founded by mining industrialists of the same name, went on to become part of NatWest, and other British banks, like Lloyds, trace their histories back to other industrialists of the period. Société Générale, now one of Europe’s largest banks, was founded to support entrepreneurs by industrialists like canal-builder Paulin Talabot; the French bank’s founding Chairman was prominent mining industrialist Eugène Schneider.
And politics. Not just politics, but the world changes as a result of political machinations, in government, business, and life. A local investment to win an election. A strategic move to save your company. A philanthropist who wants to develop their image. In 1911, US President William Taft opened the main branch of the New York Public Library, a majestic landmark made possible by a donation from industrialist Andrew Carnegie and a bequest from former Presidential nominee Samuel Tilden, each over $181m in today’s money. Subsequently, in 2008, the library was renamed the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building after the private equity investor made a $100m donation.
We are right to marvel at the world around us. The world is a museum of passion projects, and we dramatically under appreciate that. It is also a museum of talent, economic necessity, and politics, and we under appreciate those motivations too.
Some drivers, like economic necessity and politics, are already impactful in the world. What matters is directly those economic and political incentives towards a better future.
Those other drivers, like passion and talent, exist, but resemble more latent potential. Thinking about how to encourage more people to pursue their passions and how to match more talent to the right problems is important, as is understanding how these drivers lead to people changing the world. But deeply appreciating the marvellous complexity of the world is an important first step.
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