|Japanese society has an admirable habit of honoring its outstanding contributors as if they were national resources. Individuals who have developed their abilities to a high level or who have given generously of themselves are designated “living treasures.”
Every nation, indeed every neighborhood, has its living treasures, people who find their greatest reward in contributing to the society. Some are well known, but millions are quietly going about their heroic tasks perfecting their work, trying to serve more, not less.
Most of these people grasp the content of the body of wisdom Aldous Huxley called the Perennial Philosophy. They recognize that their fate is tied to that of others. They know that they must take responsibility, maintain their integrity, keep learning, and dream boldly. And they know that this knowing is not enough.
They are making clear that what they need now is the so-called “nitty gritty,” the small steps that precede a leap. They want a technology transfer from the people who make their dreams come true.
Radical common sense says that we should collect and disseminate such secrets for the good of the whole. And, not surprisingly, that most capable people are not only happy to share what they have learned; they are also eager to benefit from the experience of others.
It is little wonder that our individual discoveries don’t become common knowledge. When we stumble across certain tricks and short-cuts we usually don’t think to tell anyone else. For one thing, they probably already know. Or we’re competitive.
The more successful we become at our chosen tasks, the less time there is for analysis and reflection. The coach may recall that the gold-medal figure skater was once graceless or fearful. Certain psychological and technical breakthroughs made the difference. The champion, also a subtle observer of change, is too busy mastering new moves to spell out the anatomy of a winning performance. The same could be said of the outstanding entrepreneur, statesman, or parent. They aren’t teaching because they are so busy learning.
Think for a moment of your own breakthroughs. Did you record and track your learning? Most of the time we notice improvement in retrospect, if at all. And we rarely think to mark the trail for others to follow. “Live and learn,” we say, acknowledging the value of experience. We usually forget about “Live and teach.”
Radical common sense says that our collective survival may depend on our ability to teach ourselves and others. By pooling and organizing the wisdom of many scouts we can assemble a kind of guide and companion for travelers everywhere.
Apply certain laws of life, and you have nature on the side of your dream. You are less reliant on luck and, at the same time, better equipped to take advantage of it. You can contribute your best without compromising your values, undermining your health, or exploiting others. You can be an explorer and friend to humanity.
Achievers have an enabling attitude, realism, and a conviction that they themselves were the laboratory of innovation. Their ability to change themselves is central to their success. They have learned to conserve their energy by minimizing the time spent in regret or complaint. Every event is a lesson to them, every person a teacher. Learning is their true occupation, and out of it flowed their profession.
These four-minute-milers of the spirit insist that they are not unusually endowed, that others can do what they have done. They know factors of success more reliable than luck or native ability.
The not-so-hidden agenda is the conviction that leadership must become a grassroots phenomenon if our societies are to thrive. If that strikes you as unlikely, consider first of all that nothing else is likely to work. And secondly, be aware that people already secretly suspect that they are capable of taking charge. Sociological surveys have shown repeatedly that most people believe themselves smarter, more caring, more honest, and more responsible than most people.
Apparently we can’t show these traits because “it’s a jungle out there.” It’s as if to be “smart” we must hide our caring lest we try to live up to our responsibility in the jungle. So the dangerous jungle persists as a self-fulfilling prophecy from our collective self-image. One of the ways we can spring the goose from the bottle is to unite as free and honorable individuals who have the nerve and good sense to challenge defeatist assumptions. In so doing we have to pierce the veil that separates our heroes from the heroic in ourselves.
As our societies go through their identity crises, we can view the chaos as a sign of life, the turbulence as a healing fever. Radical common sense paraphrases Socrates: The unexamined collective life is not worth living.
The more sensitive I am as an individual, the more permeable I am to healthy new influences, the likelier that I can be molded into an unprecedented Self. That Self is the secret of success of a society. It sees the ways in which its fate is joined to the whole. It has the attributes we sometimes call soul and the passion we have called patriotism.
Radical common sense is the wisdom gleaned from the past that recognizes the perishable opportunities of the moment. It is the willingness to admit error and the refusal to be deterred by failure. Heroism, it becomes apparent, is nothing more than becoming our latent selves. Victory doesn’t lie in transcending or taming our nature but in progressively discovering and revealing more of it.
Great problems, like the wars of old, may be a stimulus to achievement, but we don’t have to rely on external challenge. Radical common sense says we can challenge ourselves. Or as the Taoist tradition puts it, we can embrace the tiger.
When asked for his most important discovery, a famous corporate trainer said, “I finally realized that people learn from only one thing: experience. And most people aren’t very good at it.”
Beyond a certain point all education is self-education. New learning comes slowly unless we choose it. A self-defined challenge is an irresistible teacher.
In encompassing the simple secrets of the visionary life, radical common sense may be the long-sought Grail, a powerful vessel in which we might shape ourselves and be shaped.
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