Great Works and bodies of work

Venkatesh Rao began the final newsletter of Breaking Smart, Season 1 with an alluring idea:

“Here’s a truth few are willing to admit: in modern societies, ambition is an unseemly thing. There is a vague sense that the itch to do big things, important things, things that matter beyond your own life, is somehow indecent. We have the sneaking suspicion that all ambition is at best clueless aspie-techie “solutionism,” and at worst an unbridled hunger for power, recognition, and personal gain to fill a personal void. Nice people don’t harbor big ambitions. We may admire those who succeed at big things after the fact, but we don’t approve of people trying to do big things. For those who want to try, the social disapproval can be so high that even admitting to yourself that you want to take on something big can be a challenge. 

Yet, in my experience working with people with ambitions ranging from proving a major theorem to attempting a technological moonshot, this is simply not true. Buried beneath layers of inevitable human fallibility, and the perennial confusion of base motives, there is a always a genuine seed of wanting to take on what I call Great Works for their own sake, simply because they are possible and worthwhile, not because they alleviate immediate pains or deliver immediate pleasures. 

Whatever the outcome of the election next week, one thing is clear: not since the aftermath of World War II has there been a greater need for Great Works in the world, and people willing and able to take them on. In a confused, reactionary way, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan actually acknowledges this deep need, even if the promise rings completely hollow. The Great Works needed are those that build out the potential of software eating the world, not doomed attempts to retreat to a romanticized pastoral utopia that never was.”

I found the concept of Great Works inspiring. Scary, too. if only because it forced to me to re-evaluate the reach of my own ambitions. It forced me to ask myself if I was aiming too small, and if I was, to examine why. Fear of failure? Timidity? An unwillingness to make sacrifices and take risks for what I believe in?

In the weeks and months following my reading of the newsletter, Great Works bounced around my mind and questions concerning my ambitions continued to be asked. But I always butted up against an obstacle. Rao framed Great Works as singular achievements; moonshots, technological leaps, culture shaking artistic projects. He defined a Great Work as something with a big, definite outcome. Yet I found myself wondering, “Can a body of work be a Great Work?”

Take this blog. Individually, the pieces I’ve authored aren’t Great Works. But what about collectively? I hope to do this for decades, so would a collection of thousands of posts on a diverse array of ideas count as a Great Work? Is Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody a Great Work? Or is their entire back catalogue a Great Work? Are Frank Gehry’s breathtaking structures, taken individually, Great Works? Or is it a Greater Work when they’re considered as the total imposition of one man’s will upon his environment? 

Great Works, as Rao pointed out, are necessary in an age where we play small, where we dumb down, where we opt for the easy instead of the possible. But, in my mind, Great Works don’t have to be skewed towards singular, unique, monumental outcomes. They can encompass processes performed over the course of decades. Picasso comes to mind—the artist himself, not his work. I can’t name one piece of his art. But I know he produced tens of thousands of them. The same with Isaac Asimov. His Foundation series is pretty spectacular. But he authored hundreds of books in total, besides that series. And that, to me, qualifies as a Great Work.