Have you ever had the chance to read a book or listen to a speaker whose ideas were so huge and well presented (and backed up by research) that it felt like the world, as you understood it, just grew exponentially? Off the top of my head, I can think of a few books that did this.
I can't remember which one it was, but I remember the first time I read a short story by Raymond Carver. It was my introduction to the power of the short story form and (though it wasn't something I cognitively recognized then, more something I intuited) saw how, freed from the structural weight of the novel, it was able to dive into the depths of the human condition, often in a precise, surgical way. I loved how Carver just dropped you into the middle (or sometimes the aftermath) of a situation and let you watch the cascade of consequences play out.
There are other books I could mention, but I don't want to get sidetracked.
I want to use this post to point you to a website where you can hear short lectures from some of the best thinkers around today. It's called TED. Click on the link, go to the TEDTalks page and then tie a bandana around your forehead because the ideas you'll hear will blow your mind - and I mean that in the best way possible.
I've only listened to three or four of them, but what I found striking was the optimism. I mean this optimism is tempered by recognition of current problems, but while it's easy to get mired in the depressing details, what I find refreshing about the lectures I've viewed so far is how they take the wide view and point to trends that suggest a way forward.
For example, there's a lecture by Hans Rosling that points out misconceptions when it comes to the wide divide between the Western World and the Third World. While there is much work still to be done, his talk provides a refreshing glass-half-full perspective on global socioeconomic trends. (Oh, and as a side note, this lecture is worth watching just for the uber-geeky-cool animated charts he uses. Trust me, you've never seen data presented like this before.)
A good companion to this talk would be the very funny (and, of course, enlightening) talk by Robert Wright who talks about the world as a "nonzero sum game" where (unlike the Super Bowl where there will be one winner and one loser) the possibility exists for all parties to benefit. While this sounds like an uplifting idea (which it ultimately is), he is quick to balance this with pressing, present day problems but what I find particularly amazing about his talk is how, unlike the more common going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket view of the world, he gives us a way forward - a solution other than the simpler (in theory, not practice) method of just killing the enemy.
Heady stuff but presented in a short form format that quickly gets at the marrow of grand ideas from great thinkers. I can't tell you how refreshing it is to move from the daily dirge of nitpicking that is the daily news to a wider view of the world.
TED host (who also owns the non-profit Sapling Foundation which runs the event), Chris Anderson, calls the event, "the pre-release version of heaven." What he means is, one of the great things about being in heaven will be getting to talk to some of the people who changed the world through their ideas and inventions. The TED conference is a way to get a taste of some of those conversations here and now.
Maybe it's easy to forget, since we're living through the middle of it, but we are alive at a time of innovation and creativity unparalleled since the high renaissance. Centuries from now, historians will be pointing to events in our lifetime as moments that revolutionized life on this planet. It may be tempting to think that the current pace of advancement will continue unabated, but if history is any indicator (as it has been for, well, all of history), we will eventually reach a plateau and people will wonder, as they read their history books, what it must have been like to have lived through the whirlwind of change that we're living through right now.
Do yourself a favor and visit the TED website (www.ted.com).
And don't forget the bandana.