Brad Keywell

The Golden Links of Destiny

I believe we humans are far too often guided (and, sadly, irrationally crippled) by fear or by a default setting pointed towards ‘longstanding tradition’ (which often proves baseless).

The word quarantine itself comes from the Italian quaranta, meaning ‘forty’, itself derived from religious writings (forty days of Lent, forty days of flood in the book of Genesis, etc). Fear of the worst too often overpowers the clear present and the dear future.

Our cognitive biases (especially our fertile imaginations of worst case scenarios) tend to remove us from the opportunity of being our best selves in the present moment (what I call ‘the present of the precious present’). To remind myself of the possibility contained within the ‘now’, I often refer to Winston Churchill’s quote, ‘It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead -- the chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.’

Speaking of Churchill, I’ve been watching World War II on Netflix, an incredibly clear and vivid retelling of the major events and underlying themes of and around that global crisis. Early on, it proposes a thesis – that certain generations are called upon to rise up and lead humanity through great adversity with grit and resilience, and to lead us in defining and creating an even better future.

Are we one of those generations being called upon? Not too long ago, the story of this generation was grounded in a lack of adversity, absence of grit, and ignorance of resilience. A University of Wisconsin student shared this sense in a 2017 letter to the editor of the student newspaper, titled ‘Millennial generation has not faced true hardship’, followed by this subheader -- ‘Compared to the hardships faced by past generations, millennials need to remember how great it is to be living right now’.

Hardship and challenge are now front and center. Reaction to this present hardship will likely be the story that defines our generation. What will be our action, in reaction? To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. The stories of innovation and creativity (and its foundational optimism) rooted in reaction to human adversity are remarkable – and, at least in my opinion, not well appreciated. Consider these:

  • The Black Death Plague in Italy and Europe (mid-1300s): Spread from Russia and carried by rats, the plague resulted in radical fear and social isolation, brought world commerce to an effective halt, created mass unemployment, and … a questioning of the status quo. The monarchy was questioned, the absoluteness of religious construct was questioned, and the potential of human creativity was explored. What resulted from the horrific black death plague was the Renaissance itself, perhaps the most defining shift in societal orientation that has framed our present lives. The Renaissance liberated the human imagination in art, architecture, scientific discovery, literature, commerce, and more. In essence, tragic crisis forced humans to question most everything, which led to a re-imagining of most everything.

  • The cholera plague in the late 1700s and early 1800s led Napoleon to abandon his attempt to overtake Haiti, and then provoked him to sell the Louisiana Territory to America.

  • In response to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1917, human ingenuity sparked the creation of new variations of electron microscopes for virus identification, as well as the use of fertile chicken eggs (rather than sick humans or live animals) to grow the virus, which paved the way for expedited vaccine discovery.

  • A fascinating study using industrial firms in Sweden as its source of underlying data concluded that real innovation is a creative response to discrete events that present widespread challenges, including our current reality of better-than-ever workplace safety (provoked by the asbestos health crisis) and better-than-ever renewable energy (provoked by harmful effects – on humans and the environment – of generating and consuming other sources). The study also shines a fascinating light on Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction, and his championing of entrepreneurship as necessary to human progress.

  • While we know the ‘Great Depression’ to be the events starting in 1929, the original ‘Great Depression’ is now referred to as the Panic of 1873, of which contributing factors include the ‘equine influenza’ outbreak of 1872 and (notably!) the Chicago Fire in 1871. The Panic of 1873 spread across both Europe and America and led to bank reserves going down 70%, the closing of the NYSE for an unprecedented 10 days, 115 railroad bankruptcies and over 18,000 business failures. During this bleak time, General Electric was started, creating durable value in response to societal crisis.

  • An earthquake in San Francisco in 1906 led to financial panic and then recession that didn’t end until 1910. In the midst of this recession, General Motors was founded by William Durant and Charles Stewart Mott in September 1908.

  • Disney started during the recession of 1923-24, HP began during the Great Depression, FedEx started during the Oil Crisis of 1973, and Bill Gates and Paul Allen started Microsoft during the recession of 1975.

  • Candy Land, a game owned by over 60% of American households that still sells over one million sets per year, was created by Eleanor Abbott, a schoolteacher who worked in a polio ward during the epidemic of the 1940s and ’50s. It is said that her ingenuity arose from her empathy with the children she taught in the ward, as well as herself having contracted and survived a polio scare. She described the winding flow of the game board as therapeutic relief for polio patients otherwise stuck in iron lungs and regimented treatment protocols.

Ok, I guess that’s more than just a few examples :)

What’s clear to me, now more than ever, is the powerful disruptive force of change that is unleashed through a crisis as widespread as this Covid-19 pandemic. History tells us that innovations that enable better – better conditions, better outcomes, better reliability, and so much else ‘better’ – that are initially not fully embraced due to ‘it’s not top of mind’ or ‘things are fine as is’ or ‘I can’t get our team to prioritize this’ or ‘I see it, but it’s not a priority’ (to name just a few of the excuses for avoiding action on objectively profitable, materially beneficial, and positively impactful technologies) become high priorities and clear mandates in the face of (and in reaction to) widespread crisis and societal challenge.

Perhaps crisis is an instigator and clarifier of cognitive bias. Perhaps the quiet created by pause (due to plague or other crisis) allows for quiet reflection of the role each of us plays in permitting ‘the way it’s always been’ to get in the way of ‘the way it can be’. Perhaps the fear of pandemic sparks our visceral reaction to embrace all possibility for improvement, opening us up to our primal human orientation of enabling and facilitating whatever innovation allows us to realize the fullest of our potential.

Which, of course, brings me back to now, the precious present, and the innovation-dedicated, improvement-oriented, passion-driven, learning-committed company I founded five-and-a-half years ago -- Uptake.

Uptake exists to enable and empower global industry – its machines, its people, its output, its reliability, its safety, and its societal impact – to be better.

Uptake stands for the harnessing of the best – the best data, the best machine understanding, the best technology, the best data science, the best connectivity, and so much more – so that our customers can be their best.

Uptake stands for the greatness of innovation and the power of insight, greatness and power that perhaps shines brightest when things are darkest. Things are challenging, confusing, and uncertain – that we all know. Yet we also know the power of teamwork, an essence tenaciously pursued at Uptake, optimized by focusing on what’s in our control.

At Uptake, we believe we have the opportunity to be a source of shining light to global industry. To paraphrase Churchill, we believe the destiny of industrial operations is precision-based, predictive-instigated activity that produces fully optimized productivity, reliability, and safety. We believe the chains of destiny will take us there, yet (as Sir Winston wisely observed) these chains can only be grasped one link at a time.

Despite the fear and unknown that surrounds us, the Uptake team believes our role is to fully grasp this link of industrial progress. And if leaders of industrial companies firmly grasp the links within their reach, they will be distinguished for their valor (amid crisis) of pulling humanity into a more reliable, more plentiful, and safer destiny.

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© Brad Keywell 2021