A couple weeks ago, I wrote about Apollo 11 from a professional and personal point of view. And yet, after I wrote the already-too-long post from a personal point of view, I felt something was missing: the real reason I find Apollo (and space exploration) so inspiring. Today, I’ll rectify that oversight and explain why it’s relevant to technical communication.
Some Thoughts on Greatness
But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
–John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962
Jimmy Dugan: Baseball is what gets inside you. It’s what lights you up, you can’t deny that.
Dottie Hinson: It just got too hard.
Jimmy Dugan: It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard…is what makes it great.
—A League of Their Own
I like a challenge. Not everyone does, I know, but bear with me. Over the course of our lives, we overcome physical limitations, social barriers, economic hardships, intellectual puzzles, and social challenges, among others. It’s part of how we grow as people. I’d dare say it’s part of being human.
Space exploration is one of the most difficult things human beings can do. The technical challenges alone required the efforts of approximately 400,000 people over the course of eight years to put two men on the surface of the Moon by 1969 and to do it six more times by 1972. If and when human beings extend the scope of our civilization to permanent habitations on the Moon and Mars, we will have made a leap equivalent to when sea-based creatures moved onto land or when we first employed the use of fire. It will represent an extension of life into a new and challenging domain that will, hopefully, ensure that it does not die out when our sun bloats out into a red giant billions of years from now. If the folks I work for in my free time get their way, eventually, we’ll leave the solar system of our birth and travel to other stars.
These types of challenges enable humanity as a species to transcend our current existence and achieve something greater. Historian Arnold Toynbee called this phenomenon “challenge and response,” wherein civilizations encounter a particular challenge (environmental, social, etc.), find an effective solution to surviving it, and thereby expand the possibilities of human action.
On a similar level, we owe it to ourselves to pursue new and more difficult challenges, be they personal, professional, or otherwise. The bigger the challenge, the more likely that the pursuit will require the combined efforts of other people as well. That is not a bad thing, it’s a way we humans have of creating community: by working together to achieve something larger than ourselves that no one of us could do on our own.
You might not care about space exploration as I obviously do. You might have your own personal cause that you want to see enacted in the world. It might be connected to your technical writing career or it might not. Mine obviously is, and I’m duly grateful for the opportunity. Regardless of your personal cause (obviously I’m assuming your cause is a positive one, not one bent on harming the world or the people in it), you owe it to yourself to pursue that effort as an individual or as a member of a team. It’s not just a matter of the goal itself, but using your intellect, reason, social skills, talents, or other resources to overcome difficulties and achieve what you did not think possible.
Note that committing yourself to a great cause, personal, public, or otherwise, does not guarantee success. Your attachment and commitment to the cause, whatever it is, often provides the emotional fuel you need when you or your cause suffers a setback. The advantage of having a sense of “mission” in life is that it can sustain your perseverance in those moments when you are not doing well.
Pursuing challenges make us better–dare I even say heroic?–as people. So go forth and pursue that degree, that job, that document or book that calls out to you to be done. It might allow you, eventually, to have your own thrilling moment to say, “That’s one small step for a human, one giant leap for humankind.”