Build a better mousetrap

There is a saying attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” it’s generally used as a metaphor for the power of innovation, the lure of the new. Except he didn’t say it, oh and mousetraps as we know them weren’t invented until 7 years after his death.

What he did say was “If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.” Which is almost the same but not quite. It might seem like semantics but to me there is a subtle difference.

I started thinking of this quote today when I read an excellent blog by Julie Drybrough entitled “What’s your contribution?”. She talked of living in an VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) and how she believes that the quality of our dialogue is immensely important. I agree with this and commented as much on her blog but felt compelled to write more.

The misquote above has become synonymous with progress and rapid change yet Emerson formulated his thoughts in to Transcendentalism and man’s relationship with nature and soul. Ironic then that he is misquoted in support of technology. He certainly lived in a time of great uncertainty. He was born just after the United States doubled in size with the Louisiana Purchase and lived through the volatility of the civil war and the great battles over slavery. He was likewise familiar with ambiguity, ordained as a pastor before turning his back on organised religion. He travelled widely meeting such luminaries of complex thought as Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill and also the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge.

In a rapidly changing world Emerson summed up his work as believing in “the infinitude of man” and I’m minded to agree with him. However complex and uncertain we make our world we also seek to understand and explain it. Nations rise and fall – or if you prefer organisations grow and contract – but human ingenuity continues on. (Making better chairs and knives amongst other things).

Rather than worry about how complex this world is I prefer to get on with making my corner of it a little more certain, a bit more open and clear. I try to encourage that with my clients when I coach and also when I train people. It’s also why I tend to work a lot in the area of mental health and personal resilience because that uncertainty and fear can be crippling, both to individuals and to organisations.

So I guess this is my answer to Julie’s question. My contribution is to help people make sense of their world and make the changes they want to see. Not from fear but from care and compassion and that all starts with a conversation……….


About Jon Bartlett

I'm a coach, blogging on things that occur to me, that I want to share and any other fun stuff I find lying around in the real world.
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2 Responses to Build a better mousetrap

  1. broc.edwards says:

    Nicely done – I appreciate the view that VUCA ain’t new. I am told that the following comes from “The Atlantic Journal”:

    “The world is too big for us. There is too much doing, too many crimes, casualties, violence, and excitements. Try as you will, you get behind the race in spite of your self. It is an incessant strain to keep pace and still you lose ground. Science empties its discoveries on you so fast that you stagger beneath them in hopeless bewilderment. The political world witnesses new scenes so rapidly that you are out of breath trying to keep up with them. Everything is high pressure. Human nature cannot endure much more.”

    Reportedly, that was published in 1837. Times, they are a changin’.

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