We cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individual. Toward this end, each of us must work for his own highest development, accepting at the same time his share of responsibility in the general life of humanity—our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.
• An ability to associate creatively. They could see connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, problems or questions.
• An annoying habit of consistently asking “what if”.And “why not” and “how come you’re doing it this way”. These visionaries scoured out the limits of the status quo, poking it, prodding it, shooting upward to the 40,000-foot view of something to see if it made any sense and then plummeting back to earth with suggestions.
• An unquenchable desire to tinker and experiment.The entrepreneurs might land on an idea, but their first inclination would be to tear it apart, even if self-generated. They displayed an incessant need to test things: to find the ceiling of things, the basement of things, the surface area, the tolerance, the perimeters of ideas—theirs, yours, mine,anybody’s. They were on a mission, and the mission was discovery.
• They were great at a specific kind of networking.Successful entrepreneurs were attracted to smart people whose educational backgrounds were very different from their own. This allowed them to acquire knowledge about things they would not otherwise learn. From a social perspective, this behavioral pirouette is not easy to execute. How did they manage to do it consistently? Using insights generated by the final common trait.
• They closely observed the details of other people’s behaviors. The entrepreneurs were natural experts in the art of interpreting extrospective cues: gestures and facial expressions. Consistently and accurately interpreting these nonverbal signals is probably how they were able to extract information from sources whose academic resources were so different from their own.
Of course, we can combine natural history study with gardening, hunting, owning pets, and other pursuits that keep us close to the earth. The more such activities, the better, in terms of a full, rich, characterbuilding relationship to nature. But natural history study provides training in another key environmental virtue that the others do not: leaving things alone. The sportsman’s code prohibits wasting meat from the animals killed, the organic gardener’s ethics proscribe unsustainable or wasteful practices. These are necessary lessons and these activities habituate them wonderfully. But gardening and hunting cannot fully teach restraint in our engagement with nature, for obvious reasons. The naturalist knows nature on its own terms. His goal is to see and understand animals and plants without disturbing, changing, taming, or otherwise constraining them. In an ever more crowded, manipulative, human-dominated world, restraint is an absolutely crucial environmental virtue. Without restraint, we lose wild nature, and environmentalism becomes just another movement to make the world a little safer for humanity. The best way to habituate this is to study and appreciate wild nature as is.
But you do not have to be a scientist to experience this sort of satisfaction. Nor do you have to make a profession of science to develop scientific attitudes, which will make you a better and a happier citizen. Research in the broadest sense is more a habit of mind and a method of approach to problems than a specific technique. Certainly there is nothing esoteric about it (as I hope this book has demonstrated about clinical psychological research, at least). You can develop this sort of attitude about anything you do, and have more fun doing it. (You may run into difficulties if you try it on your job too suddenly,—remember the story of the physicist trying to be a salesman.) It is not always easy. You must be free, first, free to observe and free to follow where your observations lead you, even if it means discarding some cherished beliefs. You must be patient. You must learn to wait until enough evidence is in. You must be willing to start at the beginning and do things all over again. Above all, you must be willing to see that you can be wrong, even if that means that your most cherished rival is right.
The gardener who adds some preparation to part of his soil and watches to see how the results compare with a plot that has not had the preparation is doing research. The more systematically he does this and the more careful his records, the better the results he is likely to get. The housewife who experiments with a recipe until she gets the finished product just right is doing research.
Is it worth the bother? That is up to you. But it has advantages you may not have thought of. I have said that you must have a measure of freedom to take a scientific attitude at all. It is also true that the more you take it the more freedom you will have. Freedom breeds freedom. Nothing else does.
Always make new mistakes!
This is my all-time favorite rule for living. I like it so much that I use it as my sig file--the little quote that gets inserted along with my address and other coordinates at the end of each of my e-mails. I still have new mistakes to make. The challenge is not to avoid mistakes, but to learn from them. And then to go forward and make new ones and learn again. There's no shame in making new mistakes if you acknowledge and benefit from them.
If you forget this rule, the visibility you will have on the Net is likely to remind you. (Too often, people get into ridiculous flame wars that are embarrasing to all who watch.) In general, it is easier to walk away from conflicts on the Net than it may be in real life. You can refuse to read someone's mail and refuse to let him provoke you once you've left an argument. Just don't let public postings lure you back in.
If something or someone is holding you back or annoying you, you don't need to take on the system as a whole. In many cases, you can bypass the offending person or entity. You don't need to overcome it; maybe, you can compete with it.