A few days ago I got an email from a close friend. He wanted me to make an illustration for his home.
The brief is: awesome things that exist in the world. A small print, suitable for framing. It can be one thing, or many things, or an idea or concept. It has to be real and it has to be awesome. It should plausibly pass this test: that someday it would be the catalyst for a conversation with a child that starts with “What’s that?” and ends with “That’s awesome.”
This must be a special time in his life. He’s a freshly minted father, and though I’m not a dad myself, I suppose one of the most important and fun things to do these first few months is to begin to plot how to introduce the world to this little person. It’s absolutely fitting that he’s chosen to dress the world up as an amazing place. The world is wide, wide.
So, what’s so amazing here? I eventually have to draw something, so I went for a walk to think about it. As far as I can tell, there is plenty of amazing in this world, and after a few blocks, I realized what impresses me can usually fall into one of three categories.
The first is natural amazingness. Animals and nature are truly awesome, in the literal sense. Redwoods grow as tall as skyscrapers from little seeds, because that is what redwoods do. Mountain goats live miles up and stand on surfaces the size of Coke cans without a hint of worry. Iguanas’ eyes move separately like two ball-bearings spinning around. Cicadas sleep in the ground for years, then all spring up at the same time to clutter up the sky. All of these qualities are exceptional to us, yet they are simply the way of life for these creatures. Natural amazing is a quiet amazing, since gloating is the opposite of being natural. Nature very rarely flaunts itself; it is patient and will wait for you to discover it.
The second kind of awesome is the technology with which we surround ourselves. The electric grid. The microwave that excites the water in my food to heat it. Building the pyramids to perfect coordinates by measuring the stars. The vibrating atoms behind your screen. Goodness: we put a man in a tin can, had the moon’s gravity grab him, then slung him around to shoot him back home. Technology is loud, brash, and brazen. It wishes to boast, if only to call attention to the distance between where we were and what is now possible. It is surprising how often new technology must begin with an act of showmanship, from Franklin’s kite, to Tesla’s electricity demos, to Jobs’ Apple keynotes. While nature is perfectly content without our gaze, it seems that technology demands our imaginination to fuel it. That imagination is to credit for everything that’s happened since our stone tools.
The last kind of amazing is our behavior. People choose to do awesome things all the time, simply because they will it to be. People run marathons. They swim the English Channel. Bounce around their city and learn parkour. Write novels about life and death and love. Walk a tightrope between the Twin Towers. Teach themselves guitar and pair lines with rhyming words. Even small things, much less in stature than these, but so much more important. Every day people choose to be kind. To be selfless. To sacrifice personal convenience and gain for the greater good. Which is all a miracle, if you really think about it.
It may seem small, but this last sort of awesome is the most profound. Technology will always be based on the dream of what we haven’t got. Nature is fixed, and a redwood has no say in whether or not it grows big. But behavior? All you have to do to get what you wish is to choose to act differently, which means you already have everything you need. A form of amazingness completely based on how you choose to think and act? That is, indeed, awesome.