The theory suggests that consciousness arises as a solution to one of the most fundamental problems facing any nervous system: Too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed. The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence. If the theory is right—and that has yet to be determined—then consciousness evolved gradually over the past half billion years and is present in a range of vertebrate species.
Yet less than a decade after Mencken’s bold gesture, Yankee English was well on its way to conquering the world. In a peculiar role reversal, writers and artists in other countries would now feel compelled to learn from American role models.
For more than a decade, Mats Alvesson and I have been studying smart organisations employing smarter people. We were constantly surprised by the ways that these intelligent people ended up doing the most unintelligent things. We found mature adults enthusiastically participating in leadership development workshops that wouldn’t be out of place in a pre-school class; executives who paid more attention to overhead slides than to careful analysis; senior officers in the armed forces who preferred to run rebranding exercises than military exercises; headteachers who were more interested in creating strategies than educating students; engineers who focused more on telling good news stories than solving problems; and healthcare workers who spent more time ticking boxes than caring for patients. No wonder so many of these intelligent people described their jobs as being dumb.
“They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought,” Dr. Hawking said in his famous robot voice, now processed through a synthesizer. “If you feel you are trapped in a black hole, don’t give up. There is a way out.”
Six months ago I made a pledge to jump out of the consumer rat race and embark on a no spend year, and I can honestly say the past 183 days have changed my life for the better. Deciding to stop spending money was a shock to the system but one that I, and my spendthrift ways, sorely needed.
Getting what we want, or think we want—in those brief moments when we actually do—always seems to be more complicated and fraught than what we pictured.
But maybe getting what we want isn’t really what we want in life.