When I was a kid, I went to the circus and saw one of the most astounding things I’ve ever seen – an elephant standing on its head. No big deal, right? Back in the day, that kind of thing was bread and butter to guys like Barnum and Bailey, and elephants all over the world were doing it– three shows a week with a Saturday matinee. However, when you’re six years old and you’ve never seen an elephant, that kind of thing sticks with you.
At this point, you have to get beyond the whole animals rights thing. Yeah, it’s not very nice to treat living creatures like toys (and we were all barbarians before 1980) but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a much more complicated concept. The idea that someone could think so far outside the box that they could actually conceive of teaching an elephant to stand on its head. Elephants don’t do that — ever. It’s a completely original human idea. Not only that, but, whoever thought of it, had to figure out a way to convince the elephant that it was a good idea, as well. When you look at it objectively, it’s one hell of an accomplishment.
The fact is human history is built on our ability to metaphorically teach elephants to stand on their heads. We are the dominant species on this planet because we not only envision things that don’t exist but also find a way to create them. For example, nobody invented the wheel – round things roll naturally. The genius was the person who thought of connecting two round things on a shaft so they would roll together, then figured out a way to attach a platform on top of that shaft in such a way that the platform itself didn’t roll. It’s complicated just trying to describe it! But our world is full of stuff like that. Just take a minute and try to explain the mechanics of a button — out loud. It’s the simplest machine in the world, but it’s built on a set of complex principles that all need to be connected to work properly. Yet someone, somewhere (13th century Germany, actually) figured it out – the first time. Levers, pulleys, screws, wrenches and all the other mechanical devices we take for granted were once just figments of somebody’s imagination. But history isn’t just engineering. Think about coffee. Coffee beans on the bush are hard as whalebone and squint-your-eyes bitter, but somebody woke up one morning and thought, “I’ll bet if I pick these beans, roast them, ground them up and pour hot water on them, I’ll get an excellent morning beverage.” Maybe it happened that way; regardless, it did happen! Cuz that’s what humans do. We make something out of nothing.
When I was a child, the circus fascinated me for months. But for years, of all the amazing Greatest Show On Earth things I saw that day, the only one I really remembered was that lady and her elephants. And even though I didn’t truly understand it I knew they were something special.