I often tell people I was either born 50 years too late or 50 years too early. In the first case, there’s my interest in classic railroads, old-fashioned Americana, and classical liberal arts (OK, that last one might mean I was born 500 years too late). In the latter case, you have my enthusiasm for astronomy and space exploration/travel, (and the requisite zeal for Star Trek), my absolute passion for computers and technology, and my extreme pursuit of “the coming thing.” From the way that sounds, you would be tempted to assume I never think of today, too consumed by the dichotomy between yearning for a past I never experienced and dreaming of a future that may or may not be.
While I’m not one to rest on any laurels, I do take the time to stop and smell the roses (in my own eccentric way). If there’s any way to accurately describe my state of being, the best universally understood example I can give is Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five who becomes “unstuck in time.” For Pilgrim, there is no “today,” there is only a single space-time continuum that allows Pilgrim to effortlessly travel on any point of his personal time-line. Some refer to this as “mental time travel.” (Incidentally, if it were my choice of Vonnegut characters, I’d be Kilgore Trout, a widely ignored yet prolific science fiction author of 117 novels and two thousand short stories who is known to have only a handful of fans.)
It is not my intention to demean “today,” but, rather, to keep it within its proper frame of reference. Unlike the lyrics to the overplayed Fleetwood Mac song “Don’t Stop,” I view “today” as the very real tangible step to tomorrow. In advising you to “don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,” Fleetwood Mac would have you ignore not just “yesterday” (which is “gone”), but “today” as well. This is the kind of pop pabulum you see spewed from self-declared sophists into receptive young minds. It can mislead some into believing it’s only about “tomorrow.” In truth, without a series of successful “todays,” there will be no successful “tomorrows.”
But there’s an equally dangerous tendency when it comes to “today.” This is on the opposite end of the spectrum from “ignoring today.” Here, one embraces today to a fault. And I’m not merely talking the hedonistic mantra “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” philosophy. I am referring to the propensity for people to get a bit too comfortable with the here and now. These people leave themselves vulnerable to at least unexpected change and, at worst, expected change.
This past weekend I had the honor of being an invited guest to Dean Kamen’s home (along with 700 of his closest friends) for the annual FIRST Robotics Competition kick-off. Kamen, founder of the youth STEM advocacy organization, is an inexhaustible inventor of useful products, most notably the Segway. At the live FIRST public broadcast the following day, something Kamen said struck me. As he was explaining to his world-wide internet audience, unlike previous generations that could spend their entire working lives in a career based on one skill set, today’s students must recognize they will need to continually change (not just update) their skill set as they progress in their careers. Think of it as how we’ve had to re-learn how to use a cell phone every time we upgrade.
What he then said will no doubt become a venerable adage, destined to adorn one of those motivational posters companies feel compelled to hang on the walls of their much travelled corridors. Kamen instructed the millions of youths watching him “Don’t get stuck in today.”
When I spoke to him afterward, I didn’t think to ask Kamen if he had Billy Pilgrim in mind when he said that.