The book I chose for this week's plane ride is a biography of Joseph Schumpeter. A little over 100 pages in, it's a fascinating life story so far. Schumpeter's father died at age 31, and his mother left the small town their family had inhabited for generations and moved to a much larger city with nothing but her young son – in search of a better opportunity for him. The author commented that, had he not moved away, he would never have become the intellectual celebrity he was. When everyone around you thinks a certain way, you tend to adopt that way of thinking. Staying in a small farming town would not have inspired a lifetime of examining capitalism.
The comment got me thinking about what would happen if Schumpeter set off from his small town today, and ended up studying in Vienna again. Now, he would find it easy to keep up with his old friends and family via Facebook, Twitter, and his blog. But I wonder if what would be a good thing, or if it would stunt some of Schumpeter's growth.
Social networks are powerful forces in our lives. The web makes it easier than ever to connect with new people, but the flip side is that it also keeps us connected to people from earlier times… people who may not understand or support our goals. Is it possible that in some instances, social networks hold us back? In earlier times students could go away to school and carve their own path, but now with old friends judging every move we make, are we likely to be less unique, less aggressive, and perhaps not live up to our creative potential?
In the movie "October Sky," Homer Hickam's family can't understand why he wants to be a rocket scientist. They want him to stay home and work in the coal mines like everyone else. Does that same mindset translate into our connected online lives to some extent? Not that the type of people who twitter would suggest you go work in a coal mine, but you get the picture. They may want you to go to this or that party or dinner or spend all day watching dumb videos on youtube. There may be pressure from social networks to do certain things that distract from your other goals. Maybe social pressure can tempt an intellectual iconoclast to be a little more "normal."
In Schumpeter's day, there was some advantage to totally severing the old ties. In today's world that is much more difficult to do. For most people, it doesn't matter, because they aren't pursuing some unique life path. But for the ones that are trying to push the limits of their abilities, are the old connections a support network, or a set of chains that that prevent a higher level of achievement?