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Astronauts, Innovation, and Staying a Step Ahead

posted Mar 14, 2012, 1:31 PM by Anthony Severin
Garrett Reisman is an astronaut. One can only imagine what the beginning of a conversation would be like: “So what do you do for a living?” “Oh, I fly the space shuttle.” “Oh, is that all?” But whenever Reisman is on an airplane, and his seatmate pops the question, his answer is “I’m an engineer involved in human-vehicle interaction.” Why? Well, as he writes in a recent New York Times article, “[i]t’s not like I’m lying, but it’s usually a conversation stopper.” But with a background so interesting, why would he resort to such deception? His reason is simple: people have lost the appreciation for space and for exploring the unknown. He facetiously remarks that while kids ask about life in space and if he feels like Superman in zero gravity, his business-class seatmates ask about how you go to the bathroom in a space suit.

His facetious comments truly reflect the nature of humanity; grownups are interested in practical questions (like the facilities inside of a suit) and children are interested in experiences that are, at the moment, beyond their capability. Yet, notably, this childish fascination underlies most development of human thought. Childish fascination seeks to question the assumptions that older people take for granted. Rousseau is not read by scholars around the world because he said what everyone else was saying. Machiavelli is not renowned in rhetoric classes everywhere because he repeated the common knowledge of the time; but because he repeated the common knowledge in a way that exposed it for what it was. The revolutionaries and the world-changers are those who bother to wonder about the things that we consider common knowledge and common thought, and to express those desires which are innate but usually unstated. The desire for freedom, liberty, and justice were not common themes of the day; they were innate desires that no one dared express.

Reisman closes his writing in a February 2012 article, saying “Maybe, like [children], we need to look out the window more when we fly. There's a lot of wonder out there.” Through these next few pages, I think we'll find that there's a lot of things we don't know, and the only way humanity has ever or will ever advance is by innovating and exploring that unknown in childlike humility.

This was originally written as an introduction to a multi-part paper on innovation. I repeatedly returned to this paper as I was thinking about future topics for blog posts. I would encourage you to never be comfortable with your current arguments. Always, throughout the season, look for new arguments with the fascination of a child in a candy store. You should forever be innovating and building all of the arguments you may need to use. Particularly as a negative, never, never assume that just because you beat an affirmative once that you'll be able to beat it again. Sometimes, even a few minutes thinking about it will be the difference between having an upper hand and being blown away. The affirmatives will go back to the drawing board and do everything they can to beat your arguments. To win consistently and be rhetorically effective throughout the season you must stay a step ahead.