Long Term Thinking
I was sad to see the fires rise above the Notre Dame cathedral. I love the history and grandeur of ancient architecture. Though I have never seen Notre Dame, I have enjoyed visiting many other grand and historic buildings around the world. Often built with rudimentary tools, they speak of an inter-generational commitment to a vision that many of the designers and builders would never live to see realised.
I’ve found this idea best evoked in the art and writing of David Macaulay. He’s famous for using endearing and earnest mammoths to explain our modern world in ‘How Things Work.’ However, he began his career in architecture and has a long-held fascination with how we designed and built some of the world’s most amazing places. This includes cathedrals, castles, entire Roman towns and mosques.
Many of David Macaulay’s books reflect this passion, and among his most striking is “Cathedral”, which covers through entire conception, planning and construction of an entire Medieval cathedral, and also serves as a useful proxy for the construction of Notre Dame. In his imaginary example, the people of a Medieval town spend 86 years building the cathedral. This means that there was likely at least three generations between the original designers and those who witnessed its completion. Does that sound improbable? Not when you realise that Notre Dame took at least 100 years to complete.
Today, we are barely able to commit half a decade to infrastructure projects a fraction of the size, much less committing a century. The fast rising skyscrapers of our modern era can appear in months. Does our obsession with immediacy stop with architecture and construction? Hardly. Technological improvements have reshaped how we build most things. Homes, cars, electronics, clothing and other goods and services are all planned, produced and transported to us more rapidly than at any other point in history. The technoculture has reshaped how we work, live and even think about our world.
We want transportation immediately. Food at the press of a button or within minutes of an order. Skills learned in scant few hours. Work completed at top speed. Relationships built on a few quick (and usually virtual) interactions. Opinions formed on the fly by tweets or by rapidly scrolling news tickers. Even with the biggest and most complex problems, like our environment, we are no longer willing to accept it may take years to gather data on such complex problems. We want simple answers and even simpler solutions.
There are those resisting this trend. Thinkers like the computer scientist Cal Newport fight for a return of ’deep work’, our ability to block out an ever shifting set of distractions and focus on a single topic or task for long periods of time. This seems a natural extension of the attention revolution; a desire to resist how short term manipulation of our attention serves advertising-driven business models.
Granted, large scientific, infrastructure or knowledge projects require perseverance stretched over months, years and decades. Perhaps the secret hides not within moment-to-moment deep work, but instead within the recently highlighted personal characteristic of ‘grit’? Most recently re-popularised by Angela Duckworth in her work, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” grit is a measure of an individual’s ability to persevere towards a long term goal in the face of adversity.
I’m not sure if grit is anything but a repackaging of what we might have once called ‘fortitude.’ But regardless of its conceptual packaging, there is a condition that seems to drive it above all else. The strongest perseverance comes from those who care deeply about the outcome.
This could include the generations of people who believe that erecting the best cathedral possible represents their deeply held religious devotions. Or scientists who are deeply passionate about seeking insight to how something works. Or writers who are desperate to share a story that throbs within them. Caring isn’t always altruistic. Sometimes people labour at a task for years because they care about the chance of fame or social immortality they think it will bring. Either way, the only real way to survive the emotional upheaval of the inevitable ups and downs of a lifetime-sized piece of work is to be driven by something within.
As Notre Dame burned, it turned out that someone else’s passion and perseverance has set the scene for Notre Dame’s restoration. Before he died, the late Professor Andrew Tallon, an architectural historian and avid fan of the cathedral’s architecture, used cutting edge ‘point-cloud’ technology to map the interiors of Notre Dame to a revolutionary level of fidelity. Thanks to his work, it may be possible to reconstruct or rethink Notre Dame with an accurate image of what the cathedral used to look like. Likely a project that will take years.
So the only question remains, do you have the fortitude to commit to a project that, if done properly, could take decades? What would you be willing to commit decades of effort for? If it isn’t what you are currently doing, then that raises interesting questions.
Bhargave, P (2017) Deep Work: A Productivity Superpower. Current Problems in Diagnostic Radiology, January 2017.
Duckworth, Angela (2016) Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner. USA.
Macaulay, David (1979) City, Castle, Cathedral; An Introduction To Architecture. W. H. Smith: UK.
Madrigal, A. C. (April 16 2019) The Images That Could Help Rebuild Notre-Dame Cathedral. From: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/04/laser-scans-could-help-rebuild-notre-dame-cathedral/587230/
Notre Dame from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notre_Dame_de_Paris
Notre Dame Photo by Nivenn Lanos on Unsplash.