Hail The Unknown Explorer

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss; …
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

Kipling, If (or a damn fine woman)

This thanksgiving weekend, I give thanks and my sincerest admiration to the unknown explorer (of whatever space), over the unknown soldier or “successful” trail-follower.

Yesterday jorge commented:

We remember the flashy outliers. But most of those with “interesting” ideas also had fairly standard high-end resumes. For every independent thinker who wins the Nobel or makes a billion, there are hundreds who never got a top job or were denied tenure or had their projects rejected.

He’s right, I’m lucky.  For every luck-out like me who took an independent thinking strategy and achieved a bit of success, many others equally able have failed.  A hearty hail to them!!

Sure most unknown explorers weren’t focused on being altruists, any more than most unknown soldiers.  Many just couldn’t help themselves.  Nevertheless, we owe them gratitude, more than to unknown soldiers or grade-grubbing by-the-book intellectuals.  Soldiers, after all, help one side in a war at the expense of another side.

And when grade-grubbers compete to gain prestigious positions and then play it safe following current fashions, it is not clear what difference they make.  They waste vast resources in a grueling competition, but how different would things be had another grade-grubber beat them out to follow fashion in their stead?

In contrast, successful explorers of new intellectual ideas, business prospects, etc. displace few competitors and gain to themselves only a bit of the benefits we all get.  Let us be grateful to all explorers, both successful and not; even failures deserve honor for valiant attempts.

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  • Aron

    Rand’s choice for funeral poem incidentally.

  • Newerspeak

    This essay has a parallel theme, and contains one of the most Hansonian sentences I’ve read in a long time. It ends in “-archy” if you want to search, but the lead-in is half the fun.

    Running the unforgiving minute has its compensations.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    As a grade-grubbing cryonicist, I hope your payment to them in praise is effective, like the way some of us praise people who donate their brains to medical science brain banks rather than choose cryonic “preservation”.

  • retired phlebotomist

    My suspicion is that most of the potential independent thinkers who have the chops to make a difference are going to go their own way without encouragement.

    No need to give pep talks to them, or real rock stars, or real writers. They’re gonna strike out on their own (and odds are strike out).

    Those who need the boost of a pep talk are the grubbers who don’t know themselves and are gonna fail.

    • John Maxwell IV

      My impression about humans in general is that confidence in one’s ability to succeed is not terribly well correlated with actual ability to succeed.

      If the grubbers fail, is it possible that they might learn something about themselves and succeed next time?

      And what exactly can the grubbers be doing that is a better use of their time than trying out exploration?

      • Jay

        I seem to recall studies showing that entrepreneurs are, as a rule, irrationally optimistic. Given the odds of failure, only irrational optimists would choose to start companies. Having worked for several entrepreneurs, I can personally corroborate this result, and add that destructive narcissism seems to be overrepresented as well.

  • Eric Johnson

    > Soldiers, after all, help one side in a war at the expense of another side.

    Still, it has to be done, the way human nature now is (not that you would necessarily disagree). And its real hard, I imagine. But anyway if it has to be done, then your comparison is a little like praising the liver over the intestine, or one valve of the heart over another valve. (I understand, though, that mankind is not like an organism; thats exactly why war exists.)

    • John Maxwell IV

      What exactly does it mean for something to “have to be done”? By saying this your are disregarding all sorts of useful information about the relative importance of various activities and just drawing a line at a certain level of importance disregarding all information about an activity except whether it is above or below that line.

  • Psychohistorian

    On what evidence do you conclude that more good is done by self-fulfillment-seeking, establishment-snubbing contrarians than by grade-grubbing, workaholic conformists?

    That you are the former is not such evidence. That there is a painfully cliche Western storyline favoring the former over the latter is, at best, very weak evidence.

  • Jay

    You certainly seem to think of yourself as a freethinking pioneer, and maybe you are, in fields that I don’t understand. But I’ve been reading this blog for a while, and your views always struck me as fairly conventional (or, more properly, as conventional within a certain subculture). Most conventional thinkers think of themselves as pioneers, striving against a strawman view of some opposing, older convention.

  • Bill

    Life is random. We all take credit for randomness. How would a molecule moved around by Brownian motion describe its good fortune in hooking up with a complementary molecule–through my efforts I arrived at the correct pair bonding.

    My wife is a reference librarian at a city library. Many of her “customers” think they are independent thinkers. They also need a bath.

  • Doug S.

    What’s the difference between a contrarian and a crackpot?

  • Kakun

    Errr, that poem was written about a soldier, Leander Starr Jamison, and how he recovered from a disastrous defeat during the Jameson Raid into the Transvaal Republic to become Prime Minister of the Cape Colony.

    Though, yes, I do agree that you are a contrarian. The fact that there is an extremely small number of people who agree with you (roughly 1000 people are currently signed up for cryonics) doesn’t disprove that.

  • http://www.rationalmechanisms.com Richard Silliker

    Only by not trying. does failure come about. Success is in becoming.

    Thanks for the disclosure.

  • http://www.rokomijic.com Roko

    I wonder what the many failed explorers will have thanked this thanksgiving? Those who tried to push their incorrect, contrarian ideas and lost their small but hedonically useful stash of youth, talent and money?

    After reading Dan Gilbert’s excellent book, stumbling on happiness, it seems that they too will be glad about the choices that they made. The mind has a way of changing its goals when the old goals are no longer plausible achievable.

  • mjgeddes

    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

    Yeah, that’s actually the gamblers poem Robin. Throwing all my chips into the pot on my own four-fold artificial intelligence strategy;

    ‘Emotion over Rationality’
    ‘Practice over Theory’
    ‘Cognition as Upper Ontology’
    ‘SAI as Teacher and Protector’

    Fame and glory forever or utter humiliation, zero or hero, crank or conquistador, surfing ten thousand galxies of dark matter or washing windows at Denny’s 😉

    The universe or nothing.

    Which will it be….
    Which will it be?

  • jorge

    Whether innovation or conformity is more important depends on whether new ideas or social cohesion is more important at the margin. Some nations like Japan have succeeded while emphasizing maxims like, The nail that sticks out needs to be hammered down.

    That the current Western perception is that pioneers like Britain or the US did well by (relatively speaking) promoting individuality over conformity does not mean that on net individuality is superior. It may well be — in the longer run — that the world makes more progress by emphasizing slow developing empires (cf. ancient China) over fast-growing by politically unstable systems (i.e. modern democracy). Even if this turns out to be false, are you so sure that — at the margin — the U.S. needs more innovation or more conformity?

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  • http://microrax.com Steve Burrows

    I would like to offer accolades to the unsung vain females who dislike body hair and the constant need to shave. The availability and quality of powerful diode lasers has increased immensely, and the cost per watt has come within the reach of a handful of engineers such that they could achieve a remarkable milestone: http://www.lasermotive.com, all because diode lasers are ideal for permanently removing hair.

    Because of those hair haters simple vanity, we will get out into space without the risk of blowing ourselves to smithereens (no space elevator required, the lasers themselves are enough). The technology will lead, in many of our lifetimes, to relativistic travel, which is a good one way time machine to the future, far safer than putting yourself on ice.