Op-Ed: American exceptionalism is alive and well
"American exceptionalism" — we have all heard the expression and have our own idea as to what that means. But I believe we can all agree that the term "American exceptionalism" would easily apply to Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple Computers, who brought us the iPad and iPhone. I believe that Jobs was one of the most creative thinkers this country has seen in the last 100 years.
But we've been very fortunate in our country from its beginning to have witnessed many great thinkers. As a matter of fact, 90 percent of all technical innovations in the world come from our country, and 75 percent from right here in California.
Recently, a Russian delegation asked if they could come to California and visit one of our thinktanks in the Silicon Valley. They wanted to find out what it was that gave Californians our exceptional creative ability. They just couldn't understand how so much of the creativity could come from one small place on this vast planet. The first thing that surprised them was the relaxed environment prevalent at the thinktank. The participants, who were well-paid men and women, were walking around in shorts and flip-flops. In one room, they were playing ping-pong and in another they were playing chess or just sitting in the library reading or talking.
When the Russian delegation was about to return home, the question was asked, "How do you intend to implement what you have learned here upon your return to Russia?" The answer surprised everyone. They said "We plan to go back to Russia, complete our report and submit it to the Central Committee. At that time, the Central Committee will gather the smartest people in the country, put them in a room and say, 'Now, be creative.'"
As a free market economy, we know it just doesn't happen that way. As Albert Einstein once said, "Creativity is not the product of a logical mind." Put another way: If you put 100 geniuses in a room and ask them to be creative, you may not get the results you expect. There is a story about Benjamin Franklin who was approached by a young admirer who said, "Mr. Franklin, I've always admired your creative ability. Some of your ideas have changed the world. Where do these ideas come from?" Franklin, who was a modest man, said, "I don't know. I just close my eyes and shut off the negative voices that say I shouldn't challenge conventional wisdom." When the young man looked puzzled, Franklin bent down, picked up a piece of wire from the ground, bent it first one way, then another way and handed it to the man. When the young man said, "What is this?" Franklin replied, "I don't know, call it a safety pin." The young man went on to patent the safety pin and made a fortune.
Whether we are talking about Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin or Steve Jobs, we are all standing on the shoulders of great thinkers.
I have always been curious as to what it is about the American spirit that distinguishes us from everyone else. I don't have all the answers, but having spent time in different countries in Western Europe, I always found it strange how we define the word "failure" differently from the rest of the world. In most parts of the world, failure is a sin that will follow you to the grave. Statistics show that once a person fails at a start-up business in Western Europe, the probability of them starting another business is very unlikely. Conversely, in this country, failure in business is looked upon as a badge of honor. Many businesses, including my own, have failed at least once before they succeeded. Most captains of industry will tell you that they failed, once, twice and sometimes three times, before they became successful.
If there was ever a speech that captures the meaning of American exceptionalism it was one given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910:
"It's not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
At a time when a 24-hour news cycle is telling us that the American dream is dead and the current economic quagmire is the new normal, we must have the courage to shut off those negative voices that tell us not to challenge conventional wisdom.
We are still the greatest country in the world, the beacon of light on the hill. American exceptionalism is not a campaign slogan, but a phrase now throughout the world.
Douglas Binderup is a Dobbins resident.