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Thought for the Week: One Generation’s Wisdom is Another Generation’s Madness

I don’t think any of us want to admit we’re essentially machine-fed brainwashed “sheeple,” but perhaps the most important reminder I can think to give myself on any given day of the week is around long-and-large perspective:

How vulnerable and constricted a human’s belief system is by the forces of its social environment, and how the common and concrete dogmas of one century have a funny way of becoming, for distant descendants, the fairy tales of amusement and caution.

  • Executive: We must confess that your proposal seems less like science and more like science fiction.
  • Ellie Arroway: Science fiction. You're right, it's crazy. In fact, it's even worse than that, it's nuts. You wanna hear something really nutty? I heard of a couple guys who wanna build something called an airplane, you know you get people to go in, and fly around like birds, it's ridiculous, right? And what about breaking the sound barrier, or rockets to the moon? Atomic energy, or a mission to Mars? Science fiction, right?— Contact (1997)

Here are 10 things (which, to be clear, is far from a comprehensive critique of cultural fickleness) that people once considered socially normal or completely insane, or feats of achievement believed by the “experts” to be impossible, only to have that thinking turned on its head by intrepid explorers, boundary-pushers, and (perhaps most importantly) by the dead wood clearing away to make room for new shoots of possibility.

If you find yourself in the position of being told that the way you see the world is too strange, different, or ridiculous, or (to use a specific example from one of my all-time favourite films) should you find yourself pitching a panel on a nutty proposal to use the large array of radio telescopes in the New Mexico desert to search the galaxy for extraterrestrial intelligence and you need to quickly rattle off a list of points in an impromptu, impassioned plea to expand people’s idea of what’s possible, “to just have the tiniest bit of vision,” as Dr. Arroway would say, then return to this reminder.

1. Slavery. While the thought of owning another human being as property may seem morally abhorrent and indefensible today, were you born wealthy and white prior to the 19th century, there’s a high chance that you would have accepted the practice as not only normal, but morally just.

2. Smoking. It’s staggering to think that in 1930s America, doctors — yes, doctors — were endorsing this killer habit. Camels famously ran with the slogan, "More doctors smoke camels than any other cigarette."

3. The 4-Minute Mile. Once upon a time in the land of athletics, experts on human performance considered it to be physically impossible for a human body to run a mile in under 4 minutes. In 1954 Roger Bannister broke the barrier and subsequently thousands of athletes, including many high school students, have followed in his running shoes.

4. Bodybuilding. Prior to the aerobics and physique movement that gained a foothold in the 70s and 80s, if you lifted weights in your bedroom or did “cardio” every day after work and you weren’t in the army or training as a professional athlete, you might be called a weirdo. These days you might be called an Instagram star.

5. Supersonic Flight. Like all other domains of human endeavour that establish expectations for what is and what isn’t possible, in the aviation community it was once widely believed that flying faster than the speed of sound (Mach 1) would inevitably cause a plane to break apart and crash, a belief held right up to the moment Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947.

6. Sugar. In 1972, John Yudkin published “Pure, White and Deadly,” which raised the alarm about the health dangers of sugar. In a fate similar to critics of cigarette manufacturers, the food industry sought to discredit Yudkin and only in recent years have other researchers come to vindicate his conclusions (though Yudkin died in 1995). Traditional food pyramids and proponents of “high carb, low fat” diets have similarly come under increasing scrutiny.

7. Lobotomies. A “lobotomy” was a disturbingly commonplace surgical procedure during the mid 20th century, involving the removal of a portion of one’s brain, usually making the personality of the patient (victim?) more docile while also making them “restricted in their intellectual range.”

8. Childbed Fever. This one especially breaks my heart. In the mid 19th century, many women died shortly after childbirth because doctors and nurses didn’t wash their hands. (Germ theory wasn’t really well developed.) Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis recognised this, gathered the data, and offered a solution. Instead of being treated as a saviour, his findings were mocked by the medical establishment. Due in part to his shy nature, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental asylum where he died, after being beaten to death by guards.

9. Trump. Once upon a time in the land of U.S. politics, a controversial real estate developer and reality TV star was given essentially zero hope of winning the 2016 presidential election by the leading pollsters of the day and his victory left pretty much everyone in disbelief.

10. The Titanic. I think we’re all familiar with this one. To recap, there was once an “unsinkable” ship that sunk.






Theo Winter

Theo Winter

Client Services Manager, Writer & Researcher. Theo is one of the youngest professionals in the world to earn an accreditation in TTI Success Insight's suite of psychometric assessments. For more than a decade, he worked with hundreds of HR, L&D and OD professionals and consultants to improve engagement, performance and emotional intelligence of leaders and their teams. He authored the book "40 Must-Know Business Models for People Leaders."

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