Unopened Life: A Call to Wonder
Exploring the Intersection of Arts, Science, and Entrepreneurship in Solving America's "Grand Challenges"
Theo Edmonds, Culture Futurist™ | © 2023 Theo Edmonds. All Rights Reserved. Please credit the author when using. The views expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated.
Last July, America celebrated its 54th anniversary of the lunar landing. I was fortunate to share this momentous occasion with a group of influential creativity researchers at the Possibility Studies conference in Dublin, organized by the fabulous Wendy Ross and Vlad Glaveanu.
Ireland is also home to one of my favorite poets, John O'Donohue, whose work my husband, Josh Miller, and I find deeply meaningful. I have always been particularly drawn to this passage from O'Donohue’s Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World.
"One of the sad things today is that so many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, or to an image, or to a predetermined identity that other people have settled on for them. This identity may be totally at variance with the wild energies rising inside their souls. Many of us become afraid and we eventually compromise. We settle for something safe, rather than engaging the danger and wildness in our own hearts."
John frequently wrote of the silent, in-between spaces that hold immense wisdom when met with wonder. In part, John’s wisdom in words helped shape my own use of poetry to navigate my mother's death earlier this year due to an aggressive form of brain cancer.
So before the research conference started in Dublin, Josh and I used John’s poetry to guide us across several days of a hiking pilgrimage through the remote bogs and rolling hills of Connemara, Achill Head, and other places along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Coast that John wrote about and called home.
In this epic and remote landscape, I was reminded of the lovely strangeness sometimes found when the wind tucks a silent revelation into itself. However, the revelation only comes when you are still long enough to let it find you.
When such epiphanies occur, things shift.
Some things seem to leave you in ways that feel final.
Others introduce themselves to you with the familiarity of an old friend coming home.
When America Touched the Stars
Reflecting on the multi-dimensional experience of the lunar landing anniversary, the Possibilities Conference, O’Donohue’s words, and my time in remote Ireland, I felt a measured sense of hope. I arrived back in the U.S. to a presidential election year already heating up (more than a year before the election), a slew of SCOTUS decisions dismantling national policies, and a series of environmental catastrophes that were, cumulatively, the most expensive in history in terms of economic impact not to mention the people impacted.
It seems to me that America's most pressing 'Grand Challenge' is reclaiming our sense of wonder. Despite all the wildness of the world as we enter 2024, I still remain hopeful for my country. History helps provide some context as to why.
In the turbulent times of the Cold War, the United States set out on a monumental quest—landing a man on the moon, a goal President John F. Kennedy set in 1961. This ambitious endeavor, fueled by the spirit of exploration and geopolitical rivalry, ignited a national commitment that demonstrated the transformative power of American creativity and ingenuity.
Artists from diverse fields captured the public's imagination, crafting narratives of space exploration and distant galaxies. Their portrayals of lunar landscapes and imaginative spacecraft designs in novels, comic books, films, and television shows stoked curiosity and a spirit of adventure, fostering a cultural atmosphere supportive of the ambitious Apollo program.
At the same time, scientists and engineers nationwide tackled the formidable task of turning this dream into reality. Facing complex challenges across many disciplines, they designed advanced rockets, developed innovative computer technologies, and introduced new astronaut training techniques. Their relentless efforts pushed the boundaries of human knowledge and capability, turning science fiction into reality.
Entrepreneurs and industries throughout America answered the call, playing a crucial role in this monumental mission. Aerospace, electronics, and other sector companies innovated, invested, and contributed invaluable to the Apollo program's success.
The sociopolitical climate of the era facilitated unprecedented collaboration. The public and private sectors, academia, and the general public united under a common goal, bringing together diverse segments of society in a collective effort that culminated in the moon landing on July 20, 1969.
When astronaut Neil Armstrong, the Apollo 11 commander, set foot on the lunar surface, his words, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," echoed worldwide. However, on this momentous occasion, America did not celebrate ‘genius’ as an individual achievement. Rather, people across America understood this moment as our collective triumph of wonder.
This transformative moment – a testament to the American commitment to exploration driven by human imagination – forever altered our perspective of ourselves and our place within the universe. Today, I see similarities to this as each new James Webb Space Telescope image appears across our social media feeds.
The Apollo moon landing triggered a surge in scientific interest, led to technological advancements, and set a new standard for human achievement. It showcased the extraordinary power of America's collective, transformational creativity.
Today's Challenges and the Need for Transformational Creativity
Recognizing the moon landing as a pivotal moment in America's transformative creativity and collective cognition reminds us of our nation's innovative potential. The Apollo program exemplifies the feats artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs can accomplish when they unite, embracing their capacity for wonder and exploration.
As we confront today's 'Grand Challenges,' such as climate change, social inequality, artificial intelligence, and brain health, we must shift our thinking from looking for and investing in individual genius to looking for opportunities to build our collective intelligence and wisdom. And, just as importantly, shift our innovation processes from transactional to transformational creativity. Today’s multi-systems issues call for an integrated approach that draws on diverse cultural perspectives and cultivates an environment promoting group well-being, principled creativity, and human flourishing.
Through a Culture Futurist™ lens, I was particularly drawn to three presentations at last summer’s Dublin conference. Together, they point to where we might find a blueprint to follow to level up America’s approach to Grand Challenges.
First, psychologist Robert J. Sternberg advocated for a move from transactional creativity, which makes incremental improvements within existing paradigms, to transformational creativity, which fundamentally redefines or creates new paradigms. This type of creativity yields radical, groundbreaking ideas that challenge the status quo.
Second, creativity and organizational psychology researcher Roni Reiter-Palmon highlighted the critical role of problem construction in the creative process, emphasizing that innovative problem-solving largely depends on how problems are defined.
Third, Ronald Beghetto, an internationally recognized expert on creative thought and action in educational settings, illustrated how educating young people to approach uncertainties with possibility thinking can enable them to become creative authors of their own lives and effectively act on future opportunities.
These presentations and the many other formal and informal moments created within the conference framework reminded me of something that institutional leaders in America often overlook. Driven by our hyper-focus on finding a solution, we often neglect the importance of sitting in creative tension long enough to perform what is arguably the most important part of any so-called Grand Challenge. Namely, making sure we are asking a meaningful question.
An artist and a pracademic, I’ve long appreciated how author Warren Berger in "A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas" asserts that asking the right questions can inspire innovation and lead to breakthrough ideas. Liz Lerman has a beautiful process she developed specifically for artists asking questions about their work to generatively move it forward.
While there are many variations we can point to on asking questions, one thing seems to me like an often neglected driver -- the necessity of wonder.
Fear, Wonder, and Work
What would you take if you were asked to pack your entire life into one box before a cross-country move? Cherished belongings or a collection of treasured experiences? While these questions may seem distant from our daily reality, they resonate with a truth we often disregard: our lives and work brim with wonder, a sense of the unknown, and the promise of discovery.
Traditionally, the narrative of work is presented as an 'either/or' proposition: work or life, stability or passion, profit or purpose. However, these dichotomies seldom capture the full narrative. Rather, they create a creative tension suggesting a nuanced reality lying just beyond our immediate comprehension.
Our contemporary industrial economy often juxtaposes emotional autonomy with innovation feedback loops. This juxtaposition stifles our creative potential and dulls our sense of wonder, potentially undermining America's sustained creative contributions to the world and fueling what some have termed a 'loneliness epidemic.'
Yet, other perspectives exist. The emptiness we experience when looking at the unoccupied chair of a departed loved one or the echo of an unanswered question residing in the unknown realm of unrealized choices can be perceived differently. This absence doesn't solely signify loss but also heralds the potential for new wisdom and insight. Hidden behind the questions that once shaped our values and possibilities, this potential emerges when our emotional or physical dimensions change beyond our control. An epiphany stands at the threshold of our consciousness, inviting us into a landscape of untold stories, unlearned lessons, and unrealized opportunities.
Today, in the face of cultural and technological flux, American scientists, entrepreneurs, and educators often feel overwhelmed by grand challenges that seem too big to grapple with in daily life. They are, after all, humans first and prone to the same challenges and cognitive biases as the rest of us. Consequently, they often settle for incremental solutions that momentarily alleviate their creative tension and cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately, when combined with the immense resources deployed in America’s scientific and business ecosystems, such small solutions carry an outsized opportunity cost.
Ultimately, America’s siloed way of working, a vestige of an old industrial economy, leaves us with insufficient emotional resources to address the complexity of interrelated issues that define our so-called Grand Challenges. America’s biggest challenges are likely not technological concerns but cultural issues related to brain health and human behavior.
At moments like this, we need to bring artists more closely and intentionally into the innovation value chain in the American Enterprise. Just like our brains need oxygen to function, it is artists who have performed the greatest data visualization projects (e.g., Picasso's Guernica, Holocaust Memorial, AIDS Memorial Quilt, National Lynching Memorial) of the past century. While they did not change reality, these projects provided the “cultural oxygen” needed for objectivity as we collectively attempted to navigate complex stories shaping all of our lives. Stories like these and others can feel too big for us to have enough meaningful agency to act upon as we attempt to create the necessary space to shape new possibilities and futures.
The same thinking that moved us to where we are today is unlikely to serve us in the newly emerging grand challenges we face. Collaborative cognition and principled creativity are required for transformational innovation. Both demand unlearning and upskilling the processes we use and privilege in working together. DH Lawrence once described Walt Whitman as embodying the spirit accompanying those who endeavor to “pioneer into the wilderness of unopened life.”
I believe this is a fitting clarion call for America to reclaim our sense of wonder. The call is not one requiring certainty and bravado. The call comes to approach the future with a sense of awe, humble curiosity, and, of course, that which defines who America is in our finest moments. Namely, we are a nation built by people of all kinds through acts of courageous imagination.
A book posthumously published after John O'Donohue died, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings - put it this way...
"May I have the courage today, To live the life, that I would love, To postpone my dream no longer, But, do at last what I came here for, And waste my heart on fear no more.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Theo Edmonds is a Culture Futurist™ & Analytics Innovator | Bridging Creative Industries, Social Brain Capital, and the Future of Wonder. A lifelong artist and poet, they are the Co-Founder of Imaginator Academy, IDEAS xLab, and lead the global Creativity Infrastructure Working Group for the Brain Capital Alliance.
(2) Benedek, & Fink (2019), Toward a neurocognitive framework of creative cognition: the role of memory, attention, and cognitive control, Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, (2019)