The Genius Upstairs

This morning over coffee, my friend Greg and I were reviewing the past 150 years in America, trying to pinpoint exactly how, when, and where we lost track of our creative selves.  When, exactly, did we give up on the idea that every American can generate value? When did we stop being artisans and farmers and start being factory workers? When did our children stop looking for a vocation, and start looking for a job?  

The premise of our conversations is this: Americans have lost faith in themselves as creators, as agents of change, as makers of dents in the universe.


My friend Greg pointed out an important addendum to this premise.


We don't believe in ourselves anymore, but we do believe in other people. We believe in Steve Jobs, we believe in Jeff Bezos, we believe in all those people that give Ted talks - those other people, those genius people.


We believe in those people, because this kind of leadership is what we've know for the past 150 years.  In the industrial model, one leader requires many followers, which means there can only be a few leaders.  Without men on the line, there is no Ford Motor Company.  Without men on the line, there is no Henry Ford.


Our industrial economy needed a few men with vision and a lot of men with wrenches.


Mr. Ford needed men with wrenches and our country supplied them. We created entire generations who understood their place in the universe: the guy upstairs makes the decisions, and I do what I'm told.


This was quite an accomplishment.  Making human beings do what they're told is not easy. We are born free, born to invent, born to create. Suppressing that instinct was the most important technical challenge of the Industrial Revolution.


And we succeeded.


We convinced ourselves that we need the geniuses upstairs, we convinced ourselves that those geniuses are rare, precious people.  They are not like us, they're better than us. They can sing, they can write, they like to take risks. They're smarter than us and braver than us. They work harder than us. We need them to solve our problems, we need them to tell us what to do - we need them, especially, to give us a job.


We don't need this story anymore.  Mr. Ford doesn't even need this story anymore. He doesn't need men with wrenches anymore - he has robots with wrenches.


Nobody needs this anymore - instead, we need men and women that pick themselves, that appoint themselves as leaders.  These new leaders don't need followers, they need partners and collaborators - they need other leaders.


There is no genius upstairs. There is only you. You, and the story you tell yourself. What story are you going to write?