Ten years can be too short

For greatness

My scientist son suggested that we humans like projects that take no more than a decade. A prime example is President Kennedy’s 8-year goal of getting to the moon in the 1960s. More recently, the New Horizons expedition to Pluto, about which my son and I have both been reading, took around a decade to realize its primary goals (launched 2006, flew by Pluto 2015). Reducing a new langugage to writing and translating the New Testament into it? About 10 years. Many big infrastructure projects – the HS2 rail link and the Hinkley C nuclear plant here in the UK, for example – are sold on a ten-year frame, even if ‘time frame’ is eventually found to be the wrong metaphor as dates and costs balloon ludicrously out of shape like bubble gum in the mouth of a kid.

Ten years is a nice period in a career and a life. We can commit ourselves to a major piece of work, and we can also buy a house and keep the kids in the same school. We can envisage and enjoy ten years. Longer than ten years …. man, it’s never going to end.

Decade-long projects can work extremely well – like the moon landings and New Horizons or like the 2012 London Olympics. Perhaps they work well because they allow for a certain thoroughness and excellence. They work less well when they are just the cloak for much longer projects that would never start if people knew how long they would take or how much they would really cost. (Think: a lot of defence projects.)

Yer can we improve even on a decade-long planning horizon? Possibly.

Doing the grand

  1. Many things have a multi-century grandeur about them. Think of the spread of humans around the world from Africa. How many thousand thousand journeys did that take? How about the slow accumulation of science, technology and power over the millennia, compounding like the investment it is. It has transformed us as a species. How about the development of life on earth, another compounding investment, leading to at least one species that is self-aware and planet-dominating: given several billion years, atoms learned arrangements that made them capable of consciousness.
  2. I can also think of a couple of Christian-inspired projects that were expected to last many decades and successfully did. One is building cathedrals. Another was a 24-7 prayer meeting begun by the Moravians in (what is now) East Germany, and which they sustained for a century. The cathedrals still stand as magnificient holy places across Europe. Has any completed cathedral ever fallen down? I don’t know. The 100-year prayer meeting preceded a great explosion of Christianity that occupied the eighteenth century, and led to Christianity becoming a global faith.
  3. One of the reasons we Christians may find the Kingdom of God puzzling sometimes, and Jesus’ current reign as King, is that he likely doesn’t work on the scale of a decade. He might be working on a scale so impossibly grand that our short lives, buzzing around as we do, miss the scale of his holy ambition.

Being the collagen

Still another way of not being tied into (admittedly attractive and fruitful) human-sized ten-year projects is to lay foundations or build structures that will stand the test of decades. I still remember Steve Jobs moving Apple to the Unix-based operating system OS X. It was a change, he thought, that would be a good foundation for decades to come. Nineteen years after the release of OS X 10.0 ‘Cheetah’, and years after Jobs’ own death, OS X is still powering Macs.

Good workmanship is another way of building across the generations. I used to live in a multi-room mansion. The people who worked maintaining this old property knew where money had been spent originally and good work done; they also knew where corners had been cut, cheap work done, and the results plastered over.

Building to last is such a wonderful thing. Even if it is not followed up, people will look back and see the quality work that was done and lament its loss and be inspired themselves. Quality work is like collagen in living cells, giving structure to the mush and laying down a standard for centuries to come. It is timeless. In the case of bone, which I understand as being collagen plus grit, the skeleton long outlasts the body it supported.

This is so totally inspirational and so deeply motivates us to the patient, the thorough, the well-thought-out, the experienced and the slow. Whatever your field, imagine doing work that centuries later people will still look back on and admire! That is not immortality, but it is a stepping stone over which many generations can tread on their way to even greater things for the human species.