New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman used an interesting quote yesterday from Lewis Mumford‘s book “The Condition of Man,” about the development of civilization. Reflecting on the American nation in 1944, Mumford drew a chilling parallel to the decline of the mighty Roman Empire:
Everyone aimed at security: no one accepted responsibility. What was plainly lacking, long before the barbarian invasions had done their work, long before economic dislocations became serious, was an inner go. Rome’s life was now an imitation of life: a mere holding on. Security was the watchword — as if life knew any other stability than through constant change, or any form of security except through a constant willingness to take risks.
Every great civilization that has come and gone through history collapsed first internally before it was vanquished by a foreign power. The collapse, as with the Roman Empire, was slow and hardly noticeable to its citizens. Once complete, however, the people were left stunned and amazed at how a civilization as great and mighty as theirs could collapse so suddenly and so completely.
The same is true with corporations. Many a great and purposeful organization has come and gone according to this progression and industries, like the American automotive industry, are struggling with the intense gravitational pull that builds up beneath years of complacency, self-satisfaction and unrealistic practices.
Where expansion and progress stop, decay begins. Imperceptible at first, the decay, as with dental caries, eventually breaks through to the surface. Early warning systems may raise a few heads in an otherwise oblivious herd, but in most cases the alert is overlooked by people who insist that all is well and that neither introspection nor change is needed.
When life becomes as Mumford wrote: “…an imitation of life, a mere holding on,” something is amiss. The economic dislocations of late can be nothing more than a wake-up call if we take the steps necessary to reawaken the “inner go” of our people. If we ignore the alarm, however, I cannot imagine that we will come out the other end without any game-changing consequences.
As such, I am committed to doing my part with the resources – both inner and outer – that I have at my command. There is but one way to embrace life when it has gotten away from you: reach out and grab it by the horns. Mediocrity cannot overcome lethargy; vivacity and the spirit of service can.
Take time to cultivate and nurture what Mr. Mumford called your “inner life.” Who are you at the root of yourself? What are your deepest convictions, your greatest hopes and your highest goals? How consistent is your “outside life” with your “inner life”? Where there are inconsistencies, there will be tension. And unfortunately for us, unrelieved tension is the precursor to most disease.
Take note, for most people’s lives are destroyed from the inside out. While I hesitate to call this a law, it does work out this way with alarming regularity. The moral of this story? Rediscover your inner go!