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World Changing Innovations Start with Awe

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In a world of high technology, it is all too easy to be preoccupied with the screen, absorbed in the worlds of our making...absorbed in ourselves.    Needless to say, that world is often filled with stress, anxiety and a sense of powerlessness.

The solution?

A slight twist on powerlessness: A sense of awe.

Researchers have found that experiences of awe, not only get us out of our egos, but instill concern for others, and other prosocial behaviors.  The best part?  Awe can actually be healing and make us healthier.

Awe is an experience of more, of greatness, of wonder.  Albert Einstein wrote in Living Philosophies:

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."

Since awe can literally create a sense of wholeness in the individual, and similarly bring humanity together, creating awesome experiences is good for humanity!

How do we do this?

Innovations toward awe can be accomplished passively or actively.

Passive experiences of awe are largely accomplished by not inhibiting experiences of awe. 
Example: Just two minutes ago I realized I had left some flowers in my car, and as the temperatures will be tickling freezing tonight, I figured I should bring the daffodils inside.    I stopped typing, put my shoes on, walked into the blackness of night and looked up at the stars.  I saw the constellation Orion in the west, the planet Jupiter in the south east, and I stopped and simply stared...


This experience would have been diluted, if not totally impossible, had the streetlights not been shielded and focused on the road as opposed to beaming unconstrained in all directions.  Innovative street lighting technologies should not get in the way of  experiences of awe.

This passive innovation (shielding of high intensity, energy efficient street lights) can be contrasted with an active innovation: creating realistic (and more costly!) experiences of the night time sky in a planetarium.  While both innovations help instill awe, one takes a much more passive approach, permitting a more widespread experience at a lower cost.  It's an innovation that doesn't diminish the experiences of wonder that cross our paths every day. While these low costs experiences of awe in the outdoors might be preferred, getting people outside, especially children, is itself a challenge.

One study found that one-third of the children in the UK spend less time outdoors than prison inmates.  Another found that children in Australia spend more time indoors than ever before.  These numbers aren't simply due to an over-reliance on technology.  They are also due to fear of what can happen outdoors:  a fear of crime.   The outdoors is a place where we all are taught to look out for number one, to focus on ego.  Our cultures even elevate the need for this recognition through social media.

Contrast this with the thoughts of professor Paul Piff and colleagues who described religious institutions as places that, 'elicit, organize, and ritualize awe.' 

Perhaps that should be the focus of entrepreneurs and innovators everywhere: Elicit, Organize and Ritualize Awe.

Innovations have the potential to elevate and inspire or indulge the ego.  We can help people feel connected with others, help them ponder, provide opportunities for awe that inspire acts of kindness and social good, or we can design innovations that, as Einstein says, close our eyes to mystery and wonder. 

The choice leading to a better world is there for the making...

Michael Plishka is the President of ZenStorming(TM), a design and innovation consultancy.  He can be reached at michael@zenstorming.com.

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