This is a personal post, so I am grateful for your time in reading this. We are living in tumultuous times. They call for courage, which also means to admit vulnerability.
I share the fear in everyone’s heart that is crushing the noblest of each of our dreams. My family is dispersed around the world inaccessible to me, life savings are evaporating, and loved ones are scared.
This path for me started well before the developments of COVID-19.
Eight years ago, my chosen career path in science and business had reached a dead end in Canada. I moved to the United States. I never intended to be in the U.S. for more than a few years. With each year since, my connections with friends, former colleagues, and professional contacts in Canada grew weaker. Eventually, I found myself “stranded” in America—legally, and it’s sad that I need to state this in these times—not knowing how to tack my career back upwind to Canada. I became more isolated as historic events unfolded.
After the Brexit referendum, Theresa May proclaimed, “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Science is a global endeavour. If one is passionate about unravelling the mysteries of nature and the universe, for the betterment of all, one must connect to citizens of the world, to the very best. I felt deserted by the winds of the world.
I reached the depths of despair one year ago. My efforts to reboot professional networks in Canada were leading nowhere. Former contacts from my hometown of Toronto ignored me. That was when I started this blog. It was my attempt to build new connections with those who demand to live in a better world, and who are working to do that, so that we can do it together.
I wrote about science and entrepreneurship. I wrote about startup companies. I wrote about economic development and policy, because I believe Canada has been doing it wrong. Then I connected with a wonderful group in Montreal, and then I connected with an ambitious team in Vancouver. I strengthened connections in UK and Italy and Switzerland and China and Taiwan and Russia and a huge network in India.
As I wrote, I started to find my voice. I gained clarity in my view of the greatest challenges that confront the world today and in the future. These two posts, written four months ago, echo my emerging voice:
What important truth do very few people agree with me on? The future is not all about A.I. and machine learning and “tech” in the digital sense. The world is rooted in physical things, and the problems of sustainability and human health and the health of all species involve the science of matter: chemistry, physics, and biology.
What is the duty of the scientist and entrepreneur? In the backdrop of global nuclear war in 1950, Nobel Laureate for Literature William Faulkner asserted that he will ‘decline to accept the end of man. Humanity will not merely endure, but prevail. Humanity is immortal because we have a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s duty and privilege is to lift our hearts to help us endure and prevail.’ Those words have come back to be relevant today as they were seventy years ago. Back then, adversarial nations threatened humanity. They still do today, but they will do so at the peril of a greater adversary created by all of us: the sustainability of our species and all other sentient species on this planet. These are more powerful “enemies” encroaching us all on many fronts. Faulkner regards the writer as a rebel against the inhibiting forces of the external world. The same can be of the scientist. The scientist’s duty is to explore these things. It is the scientist’s privilege to help our species and our fellow species endure by creating the pillars to help us endure and prevail.
As COVID-19 has created a global pandemic, this new kind of war is becoming clear to some people. Yet it is not a war. It is a battle, because this is just one of many more to come. Imagine this pandemic in parallel to a continent on fire and hurricanes flooding great cities and locust swarms devouring crops of nations and collapsing societies dislocating huge waves of peoples. These are all happening now, and if they converge more, it will get worse. Fortunately, our planet is not dying. It was here long before us and will continue irrespective of us. Nature is revolting against humanity’s unsustainable ways.
In my prior post about leaving my job, many people reached out to ask me where I was going. Out of respect to my former company and my colleagues, I had to speak of them first. When I started my last job, an Indian colleague shared this wisdom with me: courage is giving up what you have, not embracing what you are starting.
I have since joined a venture capital firm that runs startup accelerators, SOSV, at their new life science accelerator in New York, called IndieBio New York. It invests in startup companies that have solutions for “human health and planetary health.” That seems appropriate at this moment in time. I will shy away from any “congrats.” The real heroes are the company founders who demand to live in a better world, and who are working to do that, and I will be honoured to help them towards their goal.
Over fifteen years ago, on a wintry Saturday night in the dying days of my aspirational youth, I walked past the bars and clubs of Richmond Street, an entertainment district in Toronto. Instead of walking into any of the clubs, I walked into a Chapters bookstore. One book on the discount rack caught my eye, because of the author: Nino Ricci. His immense talent won him the Governor General’s Award for his very first novel. His fourth book was sitting there staring at me. The book summary on the back cover captivated me immediately:
“Set in a remote corner of the Roman Empire at a moment of political unrest and spiritual uncertainty, Testament is the timeless story of how a man of enormous charisma and passionate belief alters forever the course of human history.”
Here is a poet who can also lift hearts to help us endure and prevail. His prose was poetic and danced with life and urgency. I still remember this passage, whose allegory rings as true today as it could have been two millennia ago:
“As a young man, I believed I would define who I was through my actions; when that failed, I hoped at least for wisdom. But wisdom, too, eluded me. I had visited a dozen nations, and heard tell of a hundred philosophies; but what had most struck me in this was how little value there was in the world, how men were deceitful and base and would espouse to you the loftiest ideals in one breath and contradict them in the next. When the chaff was sifted from things there seemed only further chaff, the same tired notions, the same predictable vice… I thought of the times in which we lived, of the murders and massacres, the kings who only thought of their treasuries and the bandits who robbed and killed the innocent in the name of justice; I thought of how miserly and mean even the common people had become, so that in every village the gates were slammed shut against any stranger and the poor died of hunger by the road. Perhaps then, we were truly at the end of days as some of the madmen in the desert preached.”
“Thus when I considered what it was… that held me to him, it seemed exactly the hope of something new… a new way of seeing things. I thought if there was a single person who had found the way to speak the truth, perhaps the rest was worthwhile… there was in [him] that quality that made one feel there was something, still, some bit of hope, some secret he might reveal that would make the world over. Tell me your secret, I had wanted to say to him, tell me, make me new.”
[Nino Ricci, Testament, 2002, pp. 121-122.]
We all wish there was such a person, a leader who can solve the complex problems around us. That leader now is each of us, whether it is to care for our loved ones and others, or as a scientist or entrepreneur solving these problems. Courage is giving up what you have, not embracing what you are starting. We all need to have the courage to do that now, because the world is changing.
As I said in my previous post, when we take these steps, our steps will intersect, and the connected links in our lives’ endeavors will represent constellations. Each constellation plots the story of the greater victory that we as its participants won together. Meaningful endeavors are universal. Constellations are seen and shared by all nations, guiding weary travelers and comforting lost souls. They are celestial mythologies that tell us what is enduringly purposeful, millions of years before we were even here, and millions of years henceforth, as we journey together on this ark that is our planet.
Though we are distanced, we are doing this together. We will fight these battles together while apart. When we succeed, we will know, because we will finally greet, reach out our arms, and look each other in the eyes.