06/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Conundrum of Success and True Nobility

For most of human history our ancestors had a predominant and shared life purpose ... to survive. On a day-to-day basis working to establish safety and resources was an exceedingly meaningful and full-time endeavor. However, with the march of evolution we inevitably developed more effective means of surviving that allowed us increasing quantities of free time, safety and resources, and with this, humanity found itself face to face with what I will call the conundrum of success. That is, success brings freedom, freedom brings choice, and choice brings responsibility. Thus, as our species became better at surviving we also became increasingly challenged with the task of having to creatively direct the course of our own lives. We had to decide 'who we were' and 'what we wanted to do' when nothing was imposed. This was, and is, a profoundly difficult task. So much so that throughout the ages we have invested great energy into devising various dogmas, secular and religious, that have helped to limit the scope of our gained freedoms and lessen the blow of our confrontation with choice.

This conundrum of success was certainly felt by our earliest ancestors who found ways to secure some degree of leisure-time, but the challenge of what to do in the vacuum of choice has been perhaps most profoundly confronted by those (historical and contemporary) who've acquired generational wealth (i.e., old money). Such wealth allows multiple family members to exist across several generations without any thought of survival (i.e., no have-to and lots of choice). In a most pronounced sense, such people confront the challenge of having to creatively infuse their lives with purpose and meaning when none is imposed. History is replete with the stories of this evolutionary battle: Dionysian gluttony, power mongering, wars over ideas and beliefs. Clearly, humans can do great harm wielding the sword of leisure. Nonetheless, amidst this fumbling there has been one very good idea, an idea undoubtedly distilled from the chaos and misery of untold ages of ill-advised wanderings. This idea gave purpose and meaning to the lives of those struggling with choice and particularly for those who could have or do anything at all. This was the view that with free-time, safety, and resources well-secured one should turn their attention to the investigation of, and the betterment of, the human condition -- i.e., to seek the boundaries of their own and humanities potential, to study the landscape of human life and the natural world and venture to know what can be known and to do what can be done. For those who found their way to this "good idea" it reflected a key moment in human history when humans began to work proactively, consciously, and specifically for the sake of our own evolution. This, in my view, marked the beginning of what I will call true nobility.

Nobility, as described here, was our leisure-possessing ancestor's best idea as to how to contend with the conundrum of free-time, safety, and resources. It was a philosophical stance asserting the value of the pursuit of human excellence. Imagine the stature and influence such a truly noble person must have had in the old world. The vast majority of people struggling day in and day out to survive, and here was prince so and so who traveled the world, studied art, music, culture, literature, science, philosophy, martial arts, etc. Such a person was, in a way, an early hub of global information, a pre-technological internet of sorts, and perhaps most importantly, a living tribute to our collective human potential. Such a person sought out and surrounded themselves with the best that humanity had to offer, not as the high-browed marks of alpha-status, but as the curriculum of a noble life seeking to know the boundaries of human potential. Indeed, this is the true meaning of 'an appreciation for the finer things in life', and why merely being rich has never been sufficient to earn the mark of nobility. I believe that this mark, in its purest original form, meant to recognize the pursuit of human excellence.

Of course, the vast majority of people do not come from old money or privilege and certainly live with abundant constraints. Still, in the modern first-world there is a degree of free-time, safety, and resources afforded us all. In fact, people today have more opportunity to muse over 'who they want to be' and 'what they want to do' than ever before, and with the internet and other technologies our ideas have a breadth and influence previously only known to kings and emperors. Hence, the challenge and responsibility of choice has become a collectively shared dilemma. Unfortunately, we have yet to fully recognize the gravity of this responsibility. We have yet to comprehend that the march of our own evolution has put the steering wheel of life into our own hands and said, "OKAY, NOW YOU DRIVE!" We have yet to realize that we've crossed a crucial evolutionary boundary where rather than merely reacting to our world, we are creating it! The conundrum of success is indeed upon us like never before, and with the birth of the information age our cultural and/or religious dogmas no longer provide adequate shelter from this overwhelming task of choice. Thus, we stand collectively and vulnerably before the blank canvas of life with no clear external forces to guide us. Our lives and our world are in our hands ... we are steering the ship.

My hope is that we come to collectively realize this and find our way to 'the good idea'. I believe that we can. The inclination to seek our potential is within us all. It is a latent trait unfolding in the vacuum of choice that we've established. It's why people who don't have to do ... still do. It's why a Kobe, an Oprah, or a Bill Gates wakes up everyday and goes to work. It's evidence that within us is the capacity for a new age of human experience where the need to survive gets supplanted by the need to achieve. Technology will only bring us more free-time, safety, and resources, and with it, increasing power to make or unmake our world. We are inescapably destined to confront this challenge of choice, and unfortunately, there is a real possibility that we might destroy ourselves (like so many privileged individuals who've faced this battle and lost). Indeed, our ancient survival mind is wrought with instinct and sentiment that once amplified by the power of choice and resources can do great harm (e.g., Tiger Woods). Still, the historical and contemporary manifestation of true nobility, the "good idea," gives hope that we can collectively reach the summit of this evolutionary Mount Everest and bring forth the next epoch of our human story ... the age of true nobility. Indeed, with the power and choice that technology will undoubtedly and increasingly provide ... there is no other way ... nobility must prevail.