Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Essay: Celebrating Discovery — About Ourselves

One of my more "professional" bits of writing...
Posted on National Review Online, in their section "The Corner"

Posted on October 22, 2011 9:16 PM
October is a month of discovery — after all, it is the month we actually commemorate discovery with a federal holiday. Christopher Columbus might be debated in the halls of political correctness, but we can still use him as an excuse to celebrate the concept of discovery and the essential desire to explore and learn.
This desire is key not just to living a good life, no matter where or who you are, but is especially so to the American way of life. Our nation was founded by people willing to risk everything for a new life in a faraway land: a life that held no guarantees, but only possibilities and potential. It is this spirit of adventure and discovery that gives our nation its unique character, and has provided such inspiration to millions.
It is this spirit that we seem to have lost recently, and that we must reclaim for not just our own individual benefit, but for the benefit of the entire country.
Certainly, the past few weeks have provided plenty to remind us of why this spirit is so important, why focusing constantly on learning is so important, why all of this makes such a huge difference. In that time period, we have lost two creative and innovative men who changed their respective industries forever. Steve Jobs and Max Dercum were two men who spent their lives constantly exploring, learning, and teaching others about their discoveries.
For whether or not you own an Apple product, it is clear the influence Steve Jobs had on how we live our lives. He, as so many have pointed out, was able to envision new, different, better ways of doing things — products that we did not even realize we needed, and now many cannot live without. Love him or hate him, Jobs did change the world.
Consider Nick Schulz’s lovely essay on him from August. Schulz discusses how much of Jobs’s success can be directly tied to his failures — from the fact that he did completely and utterly fail. He was not “too big to fail” (perhaps one of the biggest complaints and frustrations of the “Occupy” protesters — this sense that others were too big to fail, but they were not). In fact, it was because of his failures that he was able to achieve success. For he ensured that the failures were learning opportunities — chances to discover more about himself, about popular tastes, about what works and what does not.
If there is one thing that everyone seems to agree upon regarding Jobs, it is that he was always curious — that he was obsessed with learning and discovery, with figuring out what the average person needed before the people themselves knew.
Max Dercum, on the other hand, is a game changer of whom most of you have probably never heard. Yet he was also someone obsessed with learning and discovery, and thereby changed our nation — or, at least, one of our great outdoor pursuits.
To many, Dercum is the father of downhill skiing in America. Previously, downhill skiing was virtually unheard of and rarely practiced, making Dercum’s efforts key to spreading this brand-new sport throughout the country. Along with his wife, Edna, to whom he was married for more than 70 years before her death in 2008, he tirelessly championed this sport, the two of them dedicating their entire lives to it. In fact, Dercum co-founded two ski resorts in the mountains of Colorado, both of which remain popular skiing destinations, as well as founding the Professional Ski Instructors of America.
He was constantly enthusiastic, full of life, and gregarious. He remained active and curious, skiing into his 80s and always involved in new projects and activities. He was the instigator and spirit behind his family’s new Dercum Center for the Arts and Humanities (www.dercumcenter.org), a “haven for life-long learning.” After all, he certainly never stopped wanting to learn and discover — even mastering the iPad (thank you, Steve Jobs!) in the last months of his life.
I never met Max Dercum myself, but I have met his children and several of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It is clear that his legacy is not just his vision in regard to skiing, but also his vision of life: of love of life, of constantly learning, and of all-embracing friendship — a vision that he passed on to his family.
We do not have to be technological savants to appreciate Jobs or to benefit from his accomplishments, nor downhill skiers to appreciate and benefit from Max Dercum. The qualities that both men illustrated are ones that are crucial to our American character. Their joy, their vision — their dedication to discovery, innovation, constant learning and experimenting — are the characteristics that have made our country so great, and that will allow our country to rise out of this recession and reclaim that greatness yet again.
As October reminds us to commemorate discovery, let us do so for ourselves. It is said we do not have to change the world, we only have to start at home — and in so doing, we may change the world too. So let us start at home: Let us embrace the spirit of discovery, of learning, of enthusiasm, of trying new things, of working hard, of embracing life. Let us remember the great men and women who embraced a passion and changed their lives, and then the world. Let us remember that we live in the country of possibilities, a country where we all have potential.

— Jana Novak, who spent more than a decade working in politics, is a freelance writer with two books — and several renovations, repairs, and natural calamities — under her belt.

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