Age Of Discovery

The present is a moment of rising uncertainty—of a rising China, of rising machine intelligence, of rising inequality and social strains, of rising extremism, of rising powers to manipulate DNA and quantum phenomena. But step back, take a deep breath and realize: we have been here before. This is our Age of Discovery. Like the last, it is a time of flourishing genius and risk. And fortunately for all of us, much of the wisdom gained from the last remains to help us navigate the new.

‘Perspective is the guide and the gateway, and without it nothing can be done well.’ When he wrote these words, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was counseling artists, but he could easily have been counseling his whole generation. The greater our uncertainty, the more urgently we need to step back and grab hold of a big picture to make sense of it all, so that when the shocks come—and the shocks are coming with ever-rising frequency—we have much better leverage over their meaning…and our response.

Being able to lay a broad perspective atop our present moment empowers us to cope with the upheaval all around us and to thrive in its midst. Seeing our world today through a Renaissance lens very quickly brings urgent priorities—for our personal lives, and for our communities—into sharp focus.

Here are three:

1. Find your Florence.
During the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Florence was one of the most literate, creative centers in the whole Western world. The place gave birth to Donatello, Brunelleschi, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Machiavelli and other innovators, and throughout the Renaissance boasted more artistic masters per capita than anywhere else in Europe. 

Today, it’s tempting to think that place matters much less than it used to. Vital inputs—materials, capital, people and ideas—now circulate globally. In fact, the opposite is true. Creative inputs don’t flow evenly everywhere. Set them into global motion, and they very quickly pool in those places that boast advantages along the remaining dimensions of difference: geography, climate, infrastructure, government policy or the hard-to-define ‘buzz’ bred by the crowds and complexity of a big city. 

Seek the physical place where people from all over go to share your passion. Commit a real chunk of time to being there, connecting there and creating something there. 

2. Make new maps. 
Learned people in the last Age of Discovery completely changed their mental map of the world to suit the new challenges they faced. 

We still have some way to go. The chief obstacle to a more accurate idea of our present earth is the language we use to group countries and people. Simple dichotomies like ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ worlds, ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries, or ‘advanced’ and ‘emerging’ economies are all deeply misleading. Likewise, ‘Christian’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Jew’, ‘Buddhist’ and ‘atheist’ are crude identifiers that often do more to isolate us than to help us find one another. Islamic democracies in Turkey, Senegal, Indonesia and elsewhere, and Buddhist ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, belie our attempts to color-code people based on faith. 

3. Dare to fail.
Machiavelli, a luminary of the last Renaissance, schooled his peers that amidst chaos and uncertainty, the most prudent course is often to take risks. 

Why? Because bold action is what kicks people out of the bad habits that have become dangerously outdated. Audacity is what produces new discoveries that force people to update their awareness and keep pace with a rapidly shifting world. And it is what stokes the public’s confidence in their leaders, and gives them hope that the latter can guide them through the storms ahead. 

Today we need more of all the things that boldness brings—but especially the confidence and hope. At this point, only audacious actions will convince an increasingly skeptical public that our growing entanglement can be made to serve positive ends, rather than just exposing us all to greater stress and danger. 

We each have the perilous fortune to have been born into a historic moment—a decisive moment—when the choices we make in our own lifetime will dictate the circumstances of many, many lifetimes to come. 

By adopting the right perspective, we can make those choices good ones.