On the power of people

People are amazing.

Seriously. Think about the last crazy YouTube video you saw of someone playing multiple musical instruments using only his voice or programming and juggling quadracopters, just to pick a couple that I’ve seen recently. I’m sure that you can think of your own examples. People are amazing.

But individual achievements, as impressive as they are, pale in comparison to the power of people working together towards a common goal. Think of the space program. Think of the development of the Internet. Think of the amazing medical advances we’ve seen over the past decade. On the flip side, think of the various wars that the twentieth century saw. Think of the Manhattan Project and the development of nuclear weapons. None of these things were the result of individual effort. Rather, for better or worse, they were the result of coordinated effort. People working together towards a common goal.

This makes me think of the story of the Tower of Babel. Humanity is gathering together after the Flood, and they are building a city and a tower to heaven. The Bible records God’s response:

And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. (Genesis 11:6, emphasis mine)

Nothing will be impossible for them. Let’s allow for maybe a bit of hyperbole here, but I think this gives me a fairly secure foundation to make an audacious claim:

People working together can do just about anything.

I’m leaving myself wiggle room, because there are probably things that are past the boundaries of our collective abilities. But I don’t think that we’ve found the boundaries.

Not even close.

But, there’s a caveat. Interestingly, it’s embedded in the same verse I quoted above:

“Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language….”

Our ability to channel our powers together is directly dependent on our ability to communicate with each other.

The rest of the story of the Tower of Babel unfolds around this point. God confuses the language of the people, thus breaking their ability to communicate and therefore shattering their collective power.

And ever since, the bugaboo of every human effort has been inefficient, incomplete, and incapable communication. We are limited not by our potential but by our ability to coordinate that potential around common goals.

That’s why every joint human effort–be that a marriage, a company or a social movement–spends so much time and effort on developing effective communication. That’s why larger joint efforts have dedicated personnel whose primary responsibility is to ensure that communication occurs regularly and effectively in order to accomplish the goals of the joint effort.

We call this function management. And boy, do we have a lot to learn about it.


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