Looking up from a year that was, we are now in the Year that Is. On New Years Day, my family and I started the discussion and, gentle intellectual spar, to debate what is truly possible versus what is false hope or folly.
Perhaps more importantly: how, or can we, avoid being prey to our own delusional self belief (be that dithering and pessimistic, or embarrassingly, wildly optimistic). I started to wonder what allows humans to do Really Great Things. I also started to wonder about Realistic New Years Resolutions.
Columbus, Einstein, and New Years Resolutions. What do all three have in common? In the crudest sense, both men, and our Annual To Do List embody abstract thought, and require exploration.
Humans, unlike all other species, have a unique ability to project into the future, create imaginary desires, and fulfil incredible plans. Yet, what differentiates accurate and successful goal directed behavior from delusions of grandeur? And how can we save ourselves from the latter with the hope of achieving the former?
Splashy as it might feel to compare Columbus’ maps of a harrowing westward journey, to a coffee stained A4 scribble of New Years Resolutions, stick with me for a moment. Before we administer too much scorn to our own petty-by-comparison-plans, we should remember too, that Columbus had absolutely no idea where he was going. Not really, anyway.
Heading out on a ship called the Niña, Columbus made his first trip leaving from the Canary Islands and hitting the Bahamas in 1492, all the while believing he was en route to Asia. So convinced was he by his knowledge, and so confident in his navigational skills, that he believed he had reached India until his death.
Perhaps a moot point, but Columbus was not easily swayed in his beliefs. It may not be surprising to learn that a compulsive, single-minded obsession fuelled his westward journey to Asia.
While there is still some question whether American Natives are in fact Asians who crossed the Bering Strait in North America during prehistoric times (and hence Columbus mistake in calling them ‘Indians’), we certainly do know Columbus was not in India.
Columbus’ obstinacy about his (mistaken) location aside, the resounding truth is the discovery of North America marks one of (the most?) important developments of Global and modern history. The psychological impact in Europe was profound; it wasn’t just the sea that became breeding ground for experimentation. Columbus’ successfully docked Niña lifted medieval Europe to a place of exploration. Many would argue advances in Europe were (pardon the pun) buoyed by the hope that boundaries of other fields, such as maths and sciences could be pushed, too. So, here we have a goal, a plan for the future, a mistaken location, and a dramatic change to the world as we know it.
Imagination is as fundamental to Nautical Exploration as it is to Science. Timing is also key. A year can make a huge difference. We can dismiss the 360 blank pages staring back at us, until we consider what a really great year looks like (or a really awful one, for that matter). But back to Good Years: Columbus had one (1492). So did Einstein. 1905, often referred to as his Annus Mirabilis, was the year in which Einstein published four papers that established his credibility as a leading physicist, paved the journey for his Nobel Prize, and effectively set him up with a major career in Science (to say the least!).
Prior to 1905’s Annus Mirabilis, he had struggled to find a job, to even get his PhD, and had spent his time working as a patent clerk with fairly bleak career prospects. He and his first wife were forced to give away their first child. His own father took to writing friends and associates with desperate pleas to find young Einstein a job. Einstein had average grades, a disheveled appearance, and patchy attendance records. A few of his professors refused to write letters of reference in light of his scholastic trademarks (absence, and day dreaming). His early papers made wild leaps between seemingly unrelated concepts, and he threw himself at- what seemed- journals that were miles beyond his intellectual grasp.
Despite a relatively rocky early first phase of career development, Einstein can be credited with one of the greatest achievements of the human mind. Newton was given the first nod, and Einstein the second for his theory of general relativity (E=mc2). As far as I can understand, Einstein explained why light- as opposed to time- is the universe’s only true constant. As we age, we begin to understand the veracity of this concept. Although E=mc2 had been suggested earlier by an Italian physicist, it was Einstein -together with German colleague David Hilbert- who established the theory of general relativity in the way that was accessible. Even then, Hilbert acknowledged Einsten’s genius in the final draft.
As with Columbus, he had acute trust in himself. Both men had a passion for their profession, which was accompanied by unyielding self-belief, particularly in the early phases of their career. When setting out for unknown territory, like the start of a New Year, it’s could be useful to have both.
While Columbus and Einstein offer inspiring tales, it’s hard not to scoff at comparing their Huge Accomplishments with our Daily Routine. Moreover, both men may have been more than a little crazy. Some have argued both men exhibit traits of hyperdopaminergic personality disorders. Dopamine is the hallmark neuro transmitter for motivated behavior, and belies everything from human action to hallucinations.
…So where do we draw the line? What is motivated action and what is hallucinogenic folly?
On the one hand, we’re cautioned not to get too big for our britches. To ditch the quixotic conquest. To stop pushing so hard. To be more zen, and to graciously accept the world as it is. Resolutions, or rather attempting to change for the better, are about as far from ‘zen’ as one can get.
On the other, self-belief, passion, and about a year, is what is required to get one from A to B, the New Asia, or have a huge big year of Career Opportunities (or rather, an Annus Mirabilis).
As I sit weighing the pro’s and cons of ambition versus humility, desire versus contented acceptance, and greed versus grace, at the back of my mind I can’t help but think about another one of history’s famous dopamine freaks.
‘Never, never, never, Give Up.’
It’s a famous Churchillism. While I’m not trying to make this into Famous Men in History Coles Notes version, but here is an obvious choice of a person whose life triumphed the idea of tenacity and self-belief over doubt or dithering. Thinking into the future, and hoping for the better are what make our species unique, but actually achieving what one sets out to do is what will make her special.
With these three in mind, here is my opinion on a ‘resolution’: Make it. Stick with it, and follow it as far as it takes you. Then exhale quickly around this time next year, thinking back at the All that Was Achieved and the Crazy Year it Was.
May it be Annum Mirabilis, or include the discovery of India, in one way or another.
Happy New Year!!