The gift of Smart
Anyone who has lived almost ninety years will express astonishment at the changes they have seen. From the days when a parked car was a cause of wonder and amazement to the banishing of the oil-fired internal combustion engine, we have lived through near-miraculous developments, the majority of which have been greatly beneficial. Some, of course, have been less so. You don’t need me to list the armour of the new world or the toys of a healthier, wealthier society.
Whether artificial fun is better than the beauty of a butterfly is a matter of personal choice.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing this old man observes is the way in which a much higher proportion of the population is Smart – and so much smarter than we were three quarters of a century ago. That smartness extends across all age, sex and social ranges. Teenagers are equipped to discuss the most intricate of details about the next technological wizardry – and not only to understand but to initiate, develop and market both the ideas and the business represented by them. You can be rich by age 25 if you are smart enough.
The mid-years are as tough as always. Nothing new about that. These are the years of raising children, looking after ageing parents, running the finances and institutions of the world. They are the hard work years when pensions must be accrued and those who want to make a name must find time to do so. But the mid-years are smart too. Not technologically as wizard as their young but quite familiar with money and its handling. Even the old are learning to use the internet, to create and play games that keep the mind from foliage and fog.
Necessarily, smart leads to specialisation. Even with Google, you can’t know everything in detail. The Abbot of Downside once said that monks were the last of the amateurs. Well, not quite, but devoting your life to contemplation is, indeed, unlikely to lead to an IPO. We have always had specialisation, of course. The Du Pont business in Wilmington, Delaware had a researcher whose sole job was to study the length of a piece of string. No kidding. Then again, management was never so specialised as today – and never needed to be so flexible, either.
Our knowledge base is almost infinite now. Our resources, even after Covid, are greater than ever before. Our compelling need – to preserve the planet for future generations – has simply never been imagined, let alone occurred in the human past. Gradually, the collective mind is starting to realise what is at stake. It has taken a lot to get this far, to observe that we might be the beginning of the end of earth as we know it.
The right to life is not the right to ruin.
Smartness always smacks of superficiality. This use of it is no different. The man who found his way out of the maze at Hampton Court Palace in England soon discovered that he would have preferred to stay in it. We like what we are familiar with, shun the harsh reality of change. At heart most of us are conservative, with a small ‘c’. This is not the reason I hesitate about smart. I certainly don’t want us to go back to our primitive ways.. Few appreciate a mobile phone as much as I do. Anyway, I enjoy gadgets.
What I fear is the mismatch between smart and wise.
“Purposeless progress is a treadmill”. It’s the treadmills of the world that have got us Climate Problems, Drugs Problems, Virus Problems and Excessive Expectations. It isn’t simply a matter of taking things slower. We need to know why we should be taking them slower. Wealth is evidence of initiative, effort and luck – and don’t underestimate the last of these three. Wealth is not evidence of intellectual brilliance, moral steadfastness or any form of happiness.
Paul Getty was, at one time, the richest man in the world. When he got near to death his doctors advised him that he would not be able go out any more – perhaps just one last outing. Asked what he would like to do on this last visit to the outside world, he chose to spend an evening at Annabel’s, a London West End nightclub. He sat alone at his table for a few hours, then went home to die. It was a sad goodbye for someone who could have chosen anything he liked and anyone he wanted to spend this time with. Wealth can be a real liability.
Now we have to learn how to infuse wealth with wisdom. The wise generally take a longer view. Their plans are for future generations. They see the beauty and marvels of the planet we live on. They want others to enjoy it, too. I want to see my great grandchildren – now ranging up to seven years old – enjoy the planet. I’m sure you want that for your great grandchildren. I’m sure everyone does. The next phase of human development is clearly to conserve the world.
To recognise that is smart.
To do it will be wise.