The allure and power of an automobile engine is a product of its speed, acceleration, towing capacity. These three different phenomena of physics are measured in a simple unit: horsepower, a unit of measure to compare the amount of work done at a certain speed. The term was first mentioned in engineering texts the 1700’s and was standardized by the end of the Industrial Revolution in the 20th century. In the United States, the Industrial Revolution was best known for producing machines that dramatically increased the horsepower available to the average American, including the automobile.
When one mentions the Industrial Revolution in America, many immediately think of Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company. Ford invented neither the automobile nor the assembly line, but because of the impact of his cars and assembly line production on American life, many credit him with these inventions. One correct attribution to Ford, however, is the following quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Henry Ford was born in a society dependent on horses, both in cities and in rural areas. People were limited in their mobility, and productivity by the strength of the animals pulling their plows and carriages. Only the rich had automobiles, and for the average American, being able to afford such a vehicle was an unimaginable luxury. They could only imagine being able to perhaps buy a faster horse, a slight improvement on what they had in front of them. They couldn’t imagine anything different, but they knew they wanted to travel faster, work harder and accomplish more.
The problem is that people don’t know what they truly want. They don’t know what’s best for them, and most do not have the vision to imagine things far outside their small sphere of knowledge and familiarity.
It takes vision and creativity to invent something far outside people’s comfort zones. It takes perseverance to proceed through all the ways that are ineffective in order to find the one that works. It takes rhetorical skill to be able to present such new solutions in a way that people want to adopt them. These are all necessary skills for an inventor, but few become inventors. Indeed, Henry Ford invented nothing new. When he emerged on the scene, cars already existed, the assembly line already existed. Instead, he pioneered new ways to use and apply technology that had already been invented in order to meet needs that people didn’t even know they had. He didn’t need to invent the wheel, he simply needed to bring more wheels to everyone. Through this, he revolutionized work, access to technology, and thereby completely changed American society.
The professional mantras of “work hard,” “persevere,” and “speak well to influence people” are hardly unique. Ford’s insight, however, shows us that there is something even more foundational than these. To be able to meet the needs of people, one has to know people.
Know people in such a way that you understand how they live in their daily lives.
Know people such that you know their struggles, what they fight against and wrestle with, what they wish they could change but cannot.
Know people so well that you can know what they are really asking for when they ask for something.
Know people well enough that you can anticipate their answers to your questions.
Know people so well that you can offer them something better than they could imagine.
Deepening our knowledge of our fellow man is not only appropriate for business, but for the well-being of all functioning human relationships in society. Today we have disillusioned ourselves into thinking we know everything, thanks to information technology and the wealth of information we can access online. Inconceivable amounts of data and information on the internet, which we access through phones we can hold in our hands, has made us lazy to learn or memorize information that we can just as easily look up. As we can reach more information with greater ease, we know less by heart. But the information that is most crucial to us as humans cannot be quantified or accessed through a touchscreen.
Who among us has experienced these thoughts at some point in life?
“No one understands me!”
“You don’t know what I’m going through!”
“Everything is hard, I’m all alone, and I will be forever!”
We may begin to articulate these thoughts as adolescents, but the honest cry of the lonely teenager echoes with us through all stages of our lives. Whether we are higher levels of social beings or merely evolved herd animals, one thing in our nature is undeniable: we are dependent upon each other in order to cooperate and navigate our world. This dependency is based on relational bonds and the ability to read verbal and non-verbal cues. When we feel that these bonds with our fellow man are broken and that others do not know us and what we need, we suffer. This suffering gives birth to reactions and behaviors that, paradoxically, further alienate us. In short, our symbiosis, collaboration, and ability to thrive as the human race is threatened when we only know each other on a shallow, surface level.
Henry Ford’s knowledge of his fellow man’s needs led him to create a company and foundation that revolutionized his society. This in turn upended the worlds of manufacturing, business, and industry around the globe. Will any of us have such a radical impact as Ford? Maybe. The odds are that someone else will. But even if no one reading this innovates to the same extent as Henry Ford, we are all in relationship with people around us.
Each relationship offers a daily opportunity for innovation and improvement.
Each of us can seek to deepen our relationships and improve our interactions with those around us, not for our own sake, but for the sake of the other. By showing our family members, friends and colleagues that they are seen, that their voices are heard, and that someone else is honoring their humanity, the world is changed in a small or great way.
When we feel invisible, our world feels very small. But the knowledge that there is someone who knows us, someone to whom we matter, that changes our universe. And what is our collective universe but the sum of each of these micro-universes that overlap and crash into each other in the most unexpected ways?
The great paradox is that no matter how well we know each other, we can never know just what kind of impact our care can have on the universe of another person, or on our very own.