I recently got news of a hugely accomplished oil man dying. This guy was the top guy in charge of finding oil for Exxon across most of the USA (barring California and Alaska) when he retired. Years after retirement, he once told me that we had just gotten “spoiled” and our addiction to cheap oil was basically unsustainable.
This man was by no means a cleantech enthusiast or “environmentalist.” He did spend a lot of his time outside … hunting, fishing, and golfing. But he was a Texan oil man through and through, fitting many of the stereotypes you might presume.
I got to know this man a little bit when I was 14 years old. I learned at that time, to some extent, how he ended up a successful oil multi-millionaire at Exxon — he loved rocks. He loved geology, loved learning about the different layers of rocks and how they formed, and presumably loved playing in the rocks.
This man’s passing — particularly just as Tesla Model 3 production has begun — has gotten me thinking a little bit. The leaders of tomorrow will, like this 20th century oil extraction giant, follow their passions, follow their simple interests. Those passions and interests will funnel them into attractive, available jobs. I have to wonder where someone in his early shoes would find themselves in today’s world and economy. Where would he find himself if timewarped forward 60 years? Would that fascination with rocks lead him into mineral exploration for EV batteries? Would that curiosity have led him into a totally different field — wind turbine design, for example? Would he still have gone into the oil & gas industry? If the latter, would he have had a lucrative career or would he have been laid off a few months after college and had to find some other kind of work?
This example of an individual life and career of the 20th century compared to a hypothetical list of options today — simple as I am presenting all of this here — is a particularly interesting way of looking at this transition. Society changes, technology changes, and that changes opportunities for different populations and for different types of people. It’s easy to see why some people are having such a hard time with the shift we’re beginning, and why they have such a hard time accepting the threats of climate change and our modern way of life.
If it all puts a darkness and even a financial threat on your family, that’s hard to accept. If it threatens the lives of your friends and colleagues, it’s easy to join a rallying chorus against the threat (even if certain brain cells tell you the arguments don’t hold up to Mother Nature). If your entire region is wealthy because of an outdated, downward-trending industry, heck, put some money into slowing the change! That’s the knee-jerk reaction.
But change does not stop for individuals, for communities, or for countries. Change is built into the nature of this world and universe. Trying to stop change because of some momentum you have in your bank account, in your career, or in your family’s and friends’ ties is hugely tempting. It’s often easier to believe the world is not headed where it is than to go with the flow.
Tesla Model 3’s final unveiling is today. I’ve been driving dozens of people around in a Tesla Model S in recent weeks. Anyone without a deep bias can see with just a little bit of time and experience why electric cars are so much better, why Tesla is opening the doorway to a new world, and why the lucky 20 year-olds today are the ones exploring battery chemistry or computer software rather than geology.
To have an interest in rocks is not a crime — it’s an asset. But to claim a rock is more powerful than the sun is a mistake.
We are all humans (unless we are Google bots — you know who you are) and we are all limited by whatever it is that limits human understanding and experience. But we are also blessed with the opportunities presented only to us every day. Every moment, we have opportunities to pursue one path or another … or a million others. Inertia and legacy try to persuade us to not change, but to not change is to miss those opportunities to improve our lives and the lives of others on an obsessively frequent basis.
This oil man’s passion for rocks created a better world for many people. Elon Musk’s and JB Straubel’s passion for electrons will also create a better world for many people — people in their own families, people in their personal networks, millions of people in the United States, and millions or even billions of people in the world at large. The question each of us can ask ourselves is, how can our passions and interests help more people?
Furthermore, deeper than all of that, how can we focus our attention throughout the day, every day, to improve our lives and the lives of others? It is an ongoing question. It is a question that I think should always be on the forefront of our foreheads.