“Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” – Elon Musk
Spirit Of Success
Exactly 10 years ago to the day, shortly before 1 pm on March 21, 2006 in California, then 29-year-old software developer Jack Dorsey tapped out a simple message: “just setting up my twttr”. The message itself is not of importance, but the first ‘tweet’ ever started a new area of communication. Twitter was born.
The similarity to another simple sentence is striking: Alexander Graham Bell’s ‘Mr. Watson — Come here — I want to see you’ were the first intelligible words spoken over the telephone. The date was March 10, 1876 and Bell noted: ‘To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said.”
From ‘Telephone’ or ‘Twitter’ to ‘Search Engines’ or ‘Self-Driving Cars’ – innovations are a ‘conditio sine qua non‘ for any progress of human kind, whether it’s technology, medicine or science.
But why is it, that already ‘rich’ and highly developed nations produce the big chunk of life-changing innovations, while ‘poor’ nations – Romania included – are almost never the place where great innovators achieve their goals? (and by the way, I don’t buy the standard answer ‘we have no money’ you hear with a 100% certainty when posing this question).
Because as important as innovative people is, an open-minded and supportive society or state for their ideas/visions/dreams of progress is absolutely necessary.
Many of these visions may prove wrong and end up in a failure, that’s true. But some of them will turn into real innovations in form of technological, medical or scientific breakthroughs everyone can profit from in the end.
Take South-Africa for an example, the country Elon Musk was born. The unconventional thinker wasn’t appreciated there. In school, the physically weak and ‘geeky’ Musk dreamed of other worlds. His endeavors revolve around visions to change the world and humanity.
However, not fitting in the ‘system’ and ‘values’ resulted in him being mercilessly bullied by a gang of schoolboys, being kicked in the head while sitting at the top of some stairs and beaten so badly when he hit the bottom he needed reconstructive surgery.
The dysfunctional schooling and education system or a perverted value-system that sets ‘physical strength’ much higher than ‘intellectual capacity’ (here I see at least some similarities to Romania) were among the reasons, why Elon Musk left South Africa as soon as he could and boarded a plane for Canada in 1989, shortly before its 18th birthday.
In 1992, Musk moved to the US where he got a science degree in economics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Then, in 1995, Musk headed west to California to begin a PhD in applied physics at Stanford University in Palo Alto, but left the program after just two days to pursue his entrepreneurial aspirations in the areas of the Internet, renewable energy and outer space.
The rest is history: The unappreciated ‘dreamer’ from South Africa became one of the most innovative and successful entrepreneurs of the 21st Century. Musk founded Zip2, PayPal, Tesla, SolarCity, OpenAI or SpaceX and – as of March 2016 – has an estimated net worth of 13.5 billion USD making him the 75th wealthiest person in the US. The Financial Times recently described Elon Musk as ‘Silicon Valley’s most driven entrepreneur since Steve Jobs’.
And South Africa? Now they love to claim Elon Musk as ‘one of their own’ and regularly ask him for donations..
Another big roadblock for innovations or achievements in science, technology or medicine are strong religious believes, the tendencies of the clergy to pretend to know everything much better and suppress any different views (Galileo Galilei was under arrest when he wrote ‘’Two New Sciences’’, one of his best known works).
Certainly, Europe overcame the dark medieval age of Galileo and the following area of Enlightenment in the 18th included a range of ideas and ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance and ending the abuses performed by church and state.
One effect of this new open-minded behavior were a string of innovations that led the continent into the industrial revolution, a period that deeply changed the economic- and social organization that began around 1760 in Great Britain. The transition to new manufacturing processes from hand production methods to machines included new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, improved efficiency of water power, the increasing use of steam power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the factory system. Especially the replacement of hand tools with power-driven machines such as the steam engine increased the quality of human life dramatically.
It was no coincidence then, that the driving force of the industrial age was the UK, where the emancipation of citizens from the clergy was much greater than for instance in southern Europe. And the pattern – countries that are intensely religious are less innovative than those that aren’t – is still intact in the 21st century. The relationship is apparent when plotting the percent of the population that describes itself as religious against a measure of patent applications or Nobel-Prizes (see graphic/map).
So poor nations tend to be more religious, are less educated and invest less on Research & Development (R&D). The question remains – why? First, it helps to view the situation the other way round for once and acknowledge that countries are poor BECAUSE of strong religious beliefs, poor, authoritarian education based purley on marks that gives no room to evolve a free-thinking spirit and a very short-sighted view that investments in R&D are too expensive.
That’s a big mistake, since the price of not investing in people’s education and R&D over time is much higher – simply because the best and capable minds indispensible for any country’s progress were forced to leave their nation of birth to find their luck abroad!
Think about the BAC and the most important decision of a youngster – choosing the university he will follow after. Should he follow his dream and go for let’s say genetics research, astronomy and astrophysics, mathematics or he should forget about his dreams and opt for better paid jobs like working for the commercial marine or in IT for non-romanian projects? If he follows his dream be sure that he will pay the price someday. Because what they didn’t told us in school is that the socio-economic factor for a country is decisive. When you don’t have an open minded society and a supportive state your dreams remain just dreams!
A first step for a ‘poor’ country like Romania to make progress in fields like technology, medicine or science would be to drastically rise and improve the quality of R&D spending and undertake a deep reform changing the way teachers and preachers ‘educate’ (by the way, in Romania you get a 10 ‘’pe linie’’ only if you don’t question the teacher’s authority and do only what they say, when they say).
If you’re still skeptic about the negative correlation between religion and innovation, just consider this fact from the US-history: The core contributors to both the ‘Declaration of Independence’ and the ‘Constitution’ were all atheists.
Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence was a Unitarian, James Madison, who wrote the Constitution, did not attend church throughout his adult life and Benjamin Franklin, an inventor and scientist to the core and the moving force behind both documents, had no use for religion.
So it’s fair to say that America was built on atheism, education, and industrious invention – just one, but an important factor that made Silicon Valley possible – and Elon Musk’s dreams come true..