A week ago, I decided to pack up all of the high-end coffee equipment temporarily, put it in the cabinets, and break out an old-school style percolator; the type that my grandparents used when they were first married in the 1950s and 1960s.
There was something wonderfully imperfect about it. A few coffee grinds inevitably find their way into the brew, the sound of the whirling and whooshing can be heard from several rooms away once you start the process, and it takes a little more time to make than a regular drip coffee maker or even a French Press. On the upside, the flavor is perfect; far richer than many of the other methods.
More than once, I’ve stood nearby as the process roared, a tempest brewing inside the steel container. It amazes me that prior generations used knowledge of physics, chemistry, and engineering, applied that knowledge in a rational way to make human life better, and then manufactured a tangible representation of that knowledge that was now sitting here, before me. The awe that filled me was the same kind that many people feel when they walk into the Sistine Chapel or see the Bill of Rights for the first time.
What makes mankind great and truly extraordinarily exceptional, is embodied in an old-fashioned percolator. Sure, the advances may seem more impressive with time – tiny microprocessors, space travel, biomedical advances; but the spirit, the core of what we are doing, is the same.
A person who builds a coffee percolator is doing more for civilization, and contributing more to the future of mankind, than a floor full of derivatives traders. In his work, he is virtuous.
This is the reason I appreciate the beauty of a well made piece of furniture or a tightly designed software program; a great symphony or a beautiful work of art. Knowledge is only useful and valuable when it is applied and turned into benefits for humanity. The mission is to make life better for more people. Do that and your time on Earth is an overwhelming success, regardless of your net worth or education credentials, family name or past mistakes.
Until you apply what you know into something tangible, and push through past failures to get there, it doesn’t matter how rich, famous, respected, or admired you are; it doesn’t even matter how much potential you have. The promise of greatness is not enough. As President Calvin Coolidge said, “Nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” The coffee percolator could have sat in a file cabinet drawer, nothing more than a concept sketch. Good ideas alone are a stillborn child; they can only be given life by the power of good execution.
What have you made? What have you done? Looking at your life, what have you contributed to humanity? What is your coffee percolator? How are you making civilization better for not only those alive today, but those who will never know you existed and never think to give you credit? Answer that question and then go about your work with passion. Whatever it is, make sure that any product, service, creation, or contribution that bears your imprimatur gives you a sense of pride so that you, like the God of the Old Testament upon finishing the world in seven days, can stand back and say, with all honesty and joy, “It is good.”