Not too long ago, I submitted an application for a fantastic-sounding job: Program Development Manager in Science & Technology at a well-known non-profit organization focused on global development. As part of the application process, I was asked to write an 800-word essay on “what I would like to achieve in life.”
I duly prepared my essay and submitted my materials. The only feedback I ever received was an automated message confirming my application. The message said the organization received too many applications to respond to applicants individually, but I would be contacted if they found my application interesting. I guess they didn’t.
I think it’s a shame to have spent so much time on an essay that won’t be read by anyone, so I’ve decided to make it into a post here in the hopes that it might inspire someone.
May 25, 2011:
The Measure Of A Life’s Work
I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work — a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to make out of the materials of the human spirit something which was not there before.
— William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 1950
How does one take the measure of one’s life work?
When William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, he was reluctant to travel to Sweden for the ceremony, telling the Nobel committee that he didn’t have anything to say worth making the trip. He did attend however, and ironically, his acceptance speech was widely acclaimed as one of the most significant Nobel addresses ever given.
It was in 1949 that the Soviet Union successfully tested its first atomic bomb, and Faulkner’s Prize was awarded in the shadow of the nascent Nuclear Arms Race and the Cold War. Just four years later, the Doomsday Clock read two minutes before midnight, the symbolic hour of global disaster.
How does the life’s work of a novelist, a poet and a Hollywood screenwriter matter on this immense canvas of human history? How do the accomplishments of any individual matter on such a scale? What can one hope to achieve?
In Faulkner’s words, “[Man] is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. “ The poet’s duty, he continues, “is to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.”
Faulkner recognized that the fate of humanity does not depend on governments or technology, but on the will of the human spirit, and he understood his role as a poet in nourishing that spirit so that it continues to burn brightly.
Life is an individual experience. Our hopes, dreams and aspirations are deeply personal and are related to who we are as individuals and to how we lead our lives. René Barjavel wrote [author’s translation]
[Man] is locked within the frontiers erected by the limits of the capabilities of his senses. Beyond that, everything is unknowable to him.*
Barjavel is reminding us that everything we can know about the world is conditioned by the information we as individuals receive through our five senses. For this reason, life is in fact a solitary journey in which we are constantly seeking out and forming bonds with others, bonds stronger than any biological or physical connections, bonds that compel us to communicate, share, collaborate and forge a relationship with others, so that we can say “I am not alone.”
While a single individual can shape the course of history, no one can change the world alone. If humanity is to prevail, it will do so collectively. Revolutions may be precipitated by individual acts, but the crises that create the need for their existence as well as the new world order that follows their achievement are the results of the combined actions of a community or of society at large. The sum of human affairs can be distilled to a collective strength of will, which is possible only if we believe that we are not alone.
The technological and cultural revolutions we are experiencing today are the direct result of an information revolution that has its parallels with the French Revolution. Not only does the free flow of information on the Internet challenge the status quo, fueling a revolt against the gatekeepers of information, but it also brings into conflict the hope for equality with the reality of existing inequalities, between and within national borders. These forces are at work against the backdrop of the real and present dangers posed by problems such as global climate change, over-population and economic crisis, fear of terrorism, and the need for safe, sustainable energy.
Like Faulkner, I decline to accept the end of man. My own role as researcher, technologist and communicator in the fields of new media and culture is to help man endure by giving him the technologies, tools and applications that allow individuals to connect and work together, to collaborate in a collective community defined not just by physical proximity but by common beliefs and values, to create a network that demonstrates no matter how remote or isolated the participants, they are not alone.
If I am successful in helping bring people together through technology, enabling them to communicate and work collectively to make a better world, then I will have contributed to helping man endure and to accomplishing what I wish to achieve in life.
*Original French text: “[L’homme] est fermé dans des frontières dressées aux limites des possibilités de ses sens. Au-delà, tout lui est inconnaissable.”
Faulkner’s feelings about attending the Nobel Prize Ceremony: In Our Own Words: Extraordinary Speeches Of The American Century / ed. by Senator Robert Torricelli and Andrew Carroll ; foreword by Doris Kearns Goodwin, 1999. New York: Kodansha international.
Nobel prize speech and reception: http://www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~egjbp/faulkner/lib_nobel.html, retrieved on May 25th, 2011.
La Faim Du Tigre, by René Barjavel, 1966. Reprinted, 2008. Barcelona: Folio.
Comparison of the digital revolution and the French Revolution: Dr. Pierre Levy, Canada Research Chair in Collective Intelligence, private communication.