Several years ago we were driving in the New England countryside, on our way to a family wedding. It was a beautiful afternoon. I admired the many neat rock walls along the road; we don't have such things in our part of Texas, mostly because we don't really have rocks here.
I noticed that the walls contained all sorts of odd-shaped stones. I had a very good idea what it took to build walls like that, because my dad did the same thing for the terraces in his yard some thirty years ago. My folks' house is on a hillside at the edge of the Texas Hill Country. Road-construction crews working nearby were looking for places to dump enormous chunks of stone that they'd dug up. Dad had them dump the stone in the yard.
For months, Dad and my younger brother would break big rocks into pieces with sledge hammers. They'd assemble the pieces into terrace walls, fitting them in wherever they could, wringing the maximum possible use out of the available materials. (I was off at college and then in the Navy, but I'd help out when home on leave.)
These New Englanders apparently had done much the same thing. It was a very pleasing effect; I was impressed with their work.
Then a thought popped into my head: God doesn't waste any rocks either. Whatever materials are at hand — including what we think of as "evil" — he seems to put them to use somehow in his on-going creation of the universe.
(This is a conjecture, of course, but it seems to fit the way that the universe has evolved over billions of years.)
I thought of this when I read an essay in today's New York Times, "Genius and Misfit Aren't Synonyms, or Are They?" by technology writer G. Pascal Zachary. Mr. Zachary points out that, while successful geniuses can get a lot of media ink — he mentions Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and The Steves, Jobs and Wozniak — their successes typically rest on the unheralded work of a lot of other, more-conventional people:
Does this mean the misfit is always worth betting on? Not really. The often-ignored side of the Kuhn theory is that for long stretches of time, the frontier of science and technology is ruled by diligent people who are quietly filling in the grand vision that spawned a new paradigm in the first place.
These people are heroes of their own sort, keeping the home fires burning until the reigning paradigm is played out. “The celebration of misfits promotes a worrisome anti-intellectualism and presents a distorted picture of the innovation process,” says Mr. Hollinger, the historian.
Indeed, technological innovation — not to mention new scientific knowledge — is increasingly a result of large teams, working in routine, predictable ways. Individuals matter, but their contributions often can no longer be measured, nor can credit be accurately apportioned — even by the people working closest with them.
Perhaps the steady rise in power by faceless teams of engineers, technicians and scientists explains the persistent romantic appeal of the lone misfit.
By any measure, successful misfits are the exception, and there is no handy tool for distinguishing the next college dropout with a bright and wealthy future from the dropout who faces a heap of woe.
Think about it — both the geniuses and the patient plodders seem to have their work put to use in the service of the Creation. How absolutely marvelous!
- Doing God's Prep Work
- See also the "Building a Universe" posts listed in the right-hand column.