Reading Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, I came across an insightful passage about the dangers of conformist thinking:
Nell encountered the footprints of another traveler on the road, who was soon joined by another traveler, and another. This continued until nightfall, when Purple examined the footprints and informed Princess Nell that she had been walking in circles all day.
The passage is from a story in A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, an interactive textbook intended to instill subversive thinking in its reader. An important political leader in The Diamond Age supposes that his society’s educational system has become too conformist and will fail to raise children who will lead “interesting lives.” He further conjectures that “interesting lives” are the source of the most talented adults and are what push society forward. To him, subversive thinking is the key to an interesting life.
Hackworth, the engineer enlisted to build A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, led an interesting life and is immensely talented, but he regrets never having tried to start his own company. If only he were more subversive, perhaps he would have had the confidence to go out on his own. In The Diamond Age,there is a huge gulf between the income and lifestyle of Equity Lords and the rest. Starting a business is depicted as the path to a higher echelon of life and true freedom. Hackworth is inspired to build the Primer so he can give the gift of subversive thinking to his daughter. Hopefully, she can achieve what he did not.
The Primer includes dozens of great entrepreneurial lessons, but the passage stood out. In it, Nell is the book’s audience, the one learning subversive thinking. (Incidentally, she’s not Hackworth’s daughter. Read the book to find out what happens.) Purple is the voice of the Primer. Purple’s realization that they were walking in circles struck a chord with me. She might as well have said, “So many people have started businesses before and are willing to give advice. But, if you simply join the other travelers and follow their paths you end up walking in circles, merely repeating what everyone else has done.”
With the help of her interactive book, Nell figures this out and learns to build a compass so she can find her own way.