The knowledge hero

There is a particular type of hero out there. Let’s call them the knowledge hero. You’ve come across them if you’ve ever watched a feature documentary. It’s the voice of the narrator telling you ‘I was on a Welsh River, and I caught an enormous salmon that year. I was immensely proud. But I think it’s the last anyone’s ever caught around there. I kept going back, but nobody caught anything. And that’s what got me thinking: what was happening to the fish in the sea? That’s what I decided to find out.’

It’s a simple proposition: a single person – a man preferably – identifies a pattern in the world that they think is not right. It’s a change they dislike, or it’s a phenomenon they’re concerned about. Or maybe they’re just curious about something. It’s motivating enough, somehow, for them to go on a large, concerted and coordinated series of efforts to find out what the truth is.

That same character, is the common protagonist of detective novels: about a third of the books sold out there. Many romance and adventure books also contain an element of truth discovery. It’s about finding out what really happens, who the real problem is. See, we like to paint ourselves as adventurous pleasure seekers, or cynical money-makers, but we seem to be, first and foremost, a truth-driven species. And a man on a mission to figure out the real cause for something, and share it with the world, is a definite hero to us, in America, France, or Japan. Why is that? Because knowledge is power, knowledge allows you to make informed decisions on future behaviour, change the way that you behave, and from there, change the world around you.

Culture and barbarians

We think of knowledge as an abstract entity. Yet it plays a direct influence on our behaviour and relationships. Here is a little story about that.

On New Year’s Eve, my partner and I hosted a big ‘open-door’ party: friends of friends were welcome, whoever came was the right guest. Towards the end of the evening, at about 1h30am, a dear French friend came with his wife. He was quite drunk, tottered around the house, but kept his composure as he drunk glass after glass of rosé. Then, he lifted his head and noticed our alcohol collection on the tall shelf above the kitchen cupboards. ‘What do you have up there?’ he said. Gin, whisky, Rum, and white fruit eau-de-vie from Alsace – strong fruit schnaps from my home region, imported directly from a previous trip.

‘Would you share a glass with me,’ said the friend. I nodded – grabbed a chair, and took down a small bottle of raspberry schnaps, then poured us two little glasses. He sniffed, closed his eyes, and started analysing the nose – rich, floral – then took a sip, and reflected more. He was appreciating, smiled, spoke. We bonded over the sensual experience. People were gathering, asking about our drink. He shared his glass, offered a sniff or taste – ‘it’s strong’ – and recoiled.

But one of our guests had a different attitude. Australian, female, thirties, wild. ‘What are you drinking,’ she asked. He turned, handed the glass: ‘try it, guess what it is,’ hopeful. She grabbed the delicate little glass, and swiftly drunk the whole content, pushing her head back, and said ‘Tequila’, with a lilt, then handed back the glass, and headed over to the table. My friend and I smiled. One of us muttered the word ‘barbarian’ . Then I shared my glass with him, and we continued on our sensual exploration of Framboise d’Alsace.

On learning from people

I headed out to read a book, and ended up having a conversation.

Last month, I joined a club called ‘Henley’ that brings together ‘interesting and interested’ people. Membership comes with access to a pleasant space in the City. Today, around 4h30, I got out of the house to read a few reports, preparing for a new role I’m about to start. Rather than pay for a cafe, I headed to the club.

Most of the good spots were taken. As I walked towards the bar, a friendly-looking guy sitting in a red armchair commented on my bag. I sat down next to him, and we spent the next two hours talking. His field of work – science communication – is the one I’m heading towards. “There’s so much I could learn from you,” I quipped. And I did.

Often, if we want to learn something, we turn to the written word, or possibly formal events. People around us, simply sitting on an armchair, are a distraction from learning.  Today, I did not only learn about science communication and synthetic biology. It was embodied learning, made emotionally relevant by a sense of personal connection. The process, meanwhile, was thoroughly pleasant, happily lubricated by a glass of wine.

What would it take for us to shit this mindset, and think of every person we pass, on the street, on the tram, at the cafe, as a potential source of knowledge? Maybe no more than replacing greed and self-importance with curiosity. To start with, we could reframe our networking events in that manner.