25 May 2012

No rocket scientist

How is it possible not to feel deeply depressed about her own CV after reading that of Elon Musk, asks Susan Erasmus.


How can she not feel deeply depressed about her own CV after reading that of Elon Musk, asks Susan Erasmus.

This guy is truly amazing. And eight years younger than I am. He has just designed and sent a rocket into space. But wait, that's not all: he has also revolutionised the internet, and changed the way we generate energy  for our transport. What I usually comfort myself with is that people who state these three things as their main goals in life tend to have name tags around their left wrists and have to be fed by hospital staff. Often more than one.

But here's the thing: this South African-born guy has managed to do all three. It leaves me speechless. And also very grateful that I will never have to land next to him at a school reunion. Imagine that conversation.

Me: So what have you been up to?

Elon Musk: I have changed the world, and now am planning to conquer space.

Me: I see it as an achievement getting out of bed in the morning.


While reading the Wikipedia entry on Musk, I was reminded of Stephen Spender's poem 'I think continually of those who were truly great'. It ends with the very apt lines:

The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire's center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.

In every generation, in every place, there have been those remarkable people who have pushed the human race forward. These are the unsung heroes who got the idea to use two sticks to make a fire, to hollow out tree stumps to make canoes, who invented the wheel, and made tools. A sudden flash of insight, some perseverance, and everything changes for everyone.

In the modern world you need four things to achieve what Musk has achieved: a hugely enquiring mind, a heap of money, business savvy and perseverance. Miss one of those, and it will all come to naught.

We're a competitive species
But the very things that make us human – our ability to adapt and our enquiring minds and our determination to survive against all odds also make us hugely competitive. Especially in the western world, we're not that big on co-operation. But nevertheless we do need to remember that quite a lot was achieved before we were born. The two-pound coin in the UK bears the legend "Standing on the shoulders of giants". And indeed we are.

But our whole schooling system is based on individual competition. The vast majority of advertisements tap into our desire to win, to have social status, to be wealthy.

This is all very well, but the sad thing is that for every winner, there has to be a bunch of losers. I am not slamming ambition, and I certainly don't want to drag everyone down to the level of the lowest common denominator, but I do think there are so many remarkable and brave things in our world that go unnoticed.

The daily sacrifices made by parents (single and otherwise), and loyal employees, and those in the helping professions are huge. Caring for elderly or disabled people with love and compassion on an ongoing basis, is as great an achievement as sending a rocket into space. Just, it's never going to hit the headlines. Brave people include those who stand up for their own rights and the rights of others, those who manage to beat addictions, and those who do truly difficult things against all odds.

They make up the fabric of what we would like to think being human is all about, even though their achievements aren't really noted.

And I am not saying this just to make myself, or you, feel better. And I certainly can't add this to my CV, even though I would like to: in a way Musk's achievement is the achievement of all of us. Of every single one of us who tries to do the best we can, with what we have, where we are.

Never let the light go out.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, May 2012)



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