Thomas Friedman is a world traveler, distinguished author, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, and regular columnist for The New York Times, but the part of his life that has most impacted his views on addressing today’s global challenges comes from growing-up in St. Louis Park, MN.
That reality came through clearly during a public presentation he made to nearly 700 people Thursday night at the Knoxville Convention Center and discussions during a follow-on dinner gathering with about a dozen Knoxville community leaders that we were privileged to attend. Both were sponsored by Connect Knox, an initiative of Leadership Knoxville that plans quarterly “Plug in” events like the one Thursday night.
Much of Friedman’s nearly 60-minute public presentation focused on the key themes from Thank You for Being Late, his latest book that is focused on how humans, normally fairly adaptable, are being overcome by a “supernova” created by three continually accelerating things: technology, particularly Moore’s Law, the market and Mother Nature.
“We are at a place where technology is changing faster than the individual or community can adapt,” Friedman said. To illustrate the point, he cited an unbelievable number of developments that occurred in a single year – 2007. They included introduction of the first iPhone; launch of Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb, and Bitcoin; creation of Hadoop; acquisition of YouTube by Google; launch of IBM’s Watson; birth of Cloud computing; and return of Michael Dell to the company he founded.
“It was a great technology inflection point,” Friedman observed. “We missed it. Why? It was 2008. Everything froze because of the deepest recession since 1929.”
Today, Friedman explained that all three are changing at hockey stick rates, and the interaction among the three – somewhat akin to the old saying about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts – is seriously challenging our ability to adapt.
Where can we look for help? One key is Mother Nature; the other draws on the values instilled in smaller communities and families.
“What makes Mother Nature work,” Friedman asked? “It’s adaptable, entrepreneurial, diverse, and sustainable.” Those same traits can serve individuals, enterprises, and communities in today’s dynamically changing environment.
As he closed his presentation, Friedman used a hurricane to further illustrate his Mother Nature analogy. Noting the constant struggle between the hurricane’s outer walls where the winds are whipping and its much calmer eye, he asked the audience if they wanted to be eye or wall people.
“Live like a hurricane,” Friedman suggested. “Move with the storm, draw on its energy.”
The engaging, insightful and humorous author focused most of the concluding portion of his presentation on an optimistic message that emanated from his early years growing-up in the city just west of Minneapolis.
“We are standing at a moral intersection where we have never been before,” he said, observing that “we’re now living 51 percent of our time where we’re all connected and no one is in charge.” That reality can be frightening, but it can also be inspiring for those who embrace a concept they learned in their early years.
“The Golden Rule comes from strong families and healthy communities,” Friedman said of the “Minnesota nice” way of life he learned growing-up in St. Louis Park. He urged communities to form complex, adaptive coalitions where citizens work together to address the forces they are facing. It was another analogy with Mother Nature, in this case complex, adaptive organisms.
“If you want to be an optimist today, stand on your head,” Friedman said. “The world looks so much better from the bottom up.” That observation, in our view, was a clear reference to the importance of work like Connect Knox’s mission. As the late Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.” Friedman’s message was very similar. Individual communities are the best place to address the many forces of change, starting with similar values that their citizens have.
Knoxville was Friedman’s third Tennessee stop following presentations Wednesday in Memphis and Nashville.