Yesterday I had the honor of helping organize and then attending TEDxStanford, a local and independent version of the TED conference designed to give a stage to ideas that can change the world. Out of a fantastic array of speakers and performers that rivaled any TED conference, one talk in particular has set its hooks into my mind. It is a simple idea with tremendous consequence.
Banny Banerjee, the director of the Stanford Design Program, described how we often frame the most important questions of our time as opposing alternatives: Either we follow our passion, or we get a well-paying job. Either we enable economic progress, or we save our biosphere. Either we have national security, or we stay out of war. The way we frame the questions ensures that we can never have both: It is a zero-sum, win-lose scale. In this polarized one-dimensional world, we leave no space for innovation.
What if our framing of the important questions of life is fundamentally flawed? Following your passion is not opposed to getting a well-paying job. It is in a different frame of reference. Following your passion is opposed to not following your passion. Getting a well-paying job is opposed to getting a low-paying job. If we recognize that these two dimensions are orthogonal, we can see the world in a completely new light. Rather than the one-dimensional polarization of everything, the challenges of our time are full of wide-open multidimensional spaces waiting to be filled with creative new ideas.
The space up and to the right where both following your passion and getting a well-paying job are possible is the space for creative thought. The space up and to the right where economic progress and preserving the biosphere are both possible is a where we can be inspired to invent new possibilities, to experiment and to innovate.
Banny described compelling questions to fishhooks that get lodged in your brain and continue to tug at your thoughts. The idea of reshaping the landscape in which we think about the challenges around us is one of those fishhooks – whether those challenges are in our own lives and communities, or facing our planet as a whole. Where is the innovation space? How we frame the question opens up entirely new possibilities. Thank you, Banny Banerjee, for sharing an idea worth spreading.