Individually, it’s often hard to get people to venture outside of their comfort zone, to explore beyond their own perceived or self-imposed limits. This is often due to this simple economic calculus: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Unless the potential payoff of taking risks and exposing oneself surpasses the probable cost of failing, few individuals will wander too far from their home plate – at least as long there’s food on it.
Strangely enough, though, collectively, we are very prompt at trying to find ways to surpass our greatest achievements. There’s always a brave soul within any group willing to dive from ever higher heights, dive a little deeper or spend a significant portion of their lives training to run just a tiny bit faster than the previous record-holder. And, as a society, we tolerate, support and even encourage these behaviours, that allow us to kill two birds with one stone, and eventually three or four.
What dynamics are at play here? These are not the result of collective action per se as initiatives are led by individuals or small groups of them. So what is it, when we are together as a society, that empowers some of us to extend, at their own risk, the realm of the possible for everyone?
Harder Better Faster Stronger
– Daft Punk
We would be hard-pressed to invoke the dynamics of altruism or of the gift economy as a motive for action. Individuals who want their names written in the pages of the Guinness book of records, on the Stanley Cup or on the list on Nobel prizes, don’t do it for the simple sake of helping humanity. And what about that kid who wants to stay underwater longer than his friend. What is he keeping his breath for? And why Jackass?
It is a strange human behaviour, that which makes us spend incommensurate amounts of energy in responding to challenges, even the most insignificant ones. You don’t see wolves daring each other to stray as far as possible from the pack to show courage. Or birds compete on which can freefall from the highest point. But we’ve known for a while that we were strange animals.
For what, beyond pure scientific curiosity, makes a man like Jonathan Webb want to build a powerful electric supercar in just a few months, José Mariano López Urdiales to bring balloon space tourism to new height and Carme Parareda to send manned watercrafts ever deeper? Was it only the thrill of flying that pushed Mercè Marti to suffer through hours of training, preparation and stress to break her speed records while she could have flown for fun, and in safety, like most amateur pilots?
In every great individual endeavour, there is a bit of “I dare you” or “I bet you can’t”. The dare, this "challenge to prove courage", can be to oneself or directed at someone. But the fact that it is done in public, in front of all of society, makes it even more engaging. And the contract goes both way, for we are as thrilled to see our craziest pioneers continually push the frontiers as they are when they risk, and often sacrifice, their lives to make the impossible possible.
There should clearly be an economics of “dares”.
This text is part of a series written in the context of the Fifth edition of the Montreal-Barcelona Summer School on Management of Creativity, organized by Mosaic HEC Montréal and Universitat Barcelona, July 9 to 24, 2013.
Illustration by Studio 923a. Read all posts in the series at blog.fandco.ca/yulbcn.