After reading Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now, you might never complain again about a delayed flight or a long line at Costco. And if you do, you’ll feel bad about it.
Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and Pulitzer-prize winning finalist, has written a book that Bill Gates calls his “favorite book of all time.” In the 500-page book, Pinker tells “the greatest story seldom told.” What is the story? In a sentence,
The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being and almost no one knows about it.
Pinker reminds us of the daily gifts we take for granted. For example:
“Newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with a flick of a finger, and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painful infection… critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world’s knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket.”
The graph below shows the stunning progress that America and the developed world has made since the recorded calendar began in the first century. As Pinker notes, the history of civilization has been marked by extreme poverty among everyone except a few nobles. Massive wars that collectively killed millions were common, as was famine, starvation, and early deaths (most children never made it past their 5th birthday), and no access to the life-saving medicines, vaccines, and procedures that have only arrived in the last half century. Around 1820, something changed. The ideals of the enlightenment—freedom of ideas—began to flourish. And then suddenly—BOOM—the world made “spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being.”
The Mental Bias That Will Hold You Back
So why don’t people know this story? Blame a mental bug we’re all born with—the availability bias. In 1971, Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman and his academic partner Amos Lewis Tversky discovered the bias. They defined it like this.
People estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind.
In other words, if you’re glued to the news and you stick to the echo-chamber on Facebook or among your friends and peers, your view of the world will be distorted by the problems and bad news you’ll hear over and over. Our brains are wired in such a way that we look at the available information and extrapolate the future based on what we see today.
According to Pinker, “Every day the news is filled with stories about war, terrorism, crime, pollution, inequality, drug abuse, and oppression…news is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying, ‘I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out.’”
What does all this have to do with leadership? Bill Gates says you cannot move the world forward if you’re not motivated by the progress that is happening every day. It’s only by learning about what works that we can spread the progress. If you consume negative news, studies show you’ll become more glum, have a higher and distorted picture of risk, higher anxiety, lower mood levels, more hostility, and—very dangerous—fall into learned helplessness, which means you give up on bettering yourself. And remember, A great leader sees around the corner. You’ll be more successful if you recognize and manage the bias.
Great Leaders Have Perspective
Pinker advised us to maintain perspective. “Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat, and not every change is The of This, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era…problems are inevitable; but problems are solvable,” Pinker writes.
The story of progress is truly “heroic, glorious, and uplifting.” If you need a lift, pick up Pinker’s book. It might change your life–it did for me and Bill Gates.
Carmine Gallo is a popular keynote speaker and bestselling author. Carmine’s new book, Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get from Good to Great, is available for pre-order (June, 2018 St. Martin’s Press)