U.S. Is Go for Launch
Thomas Friedman: Americans Still Have Firepower to Lead the World
|Thomas Friedman: "If you want to be an optimist, stand on your head. The country looks better from the bottom-up than from the top-down."
If one image represented the United States and American ingenuity, it might be a rocket launching a payload of cutting-edge science into space. What impresses Thomas Friedman about that image is the searing power driving the rocket, because that
is what drives the United States.
"If I could draw a picture of America today, it would be the space shuttle takeoff, the thrust coming from below," the Pulitzer Prize–winning newspaper columnist and author said during yesterday morning's General Session. "At the top of the booster rocket is Washington, D.C. — cracked and leaking energy, with pilots fighting over the flight plan so we can't achieve escape velocity to get into orbit. If we patch up that booster rocket and get the pilots to stop fighting over the flight plan, we are going to take off."
Friedman travels the world, writing foreign-affairs columns for The New York Times
and best-selling books. His latest book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back,
co-written with Johns Hopkins University foreign-policy professor Michael Mandelbaum, is about the new world order that has developed.
It's something that fuels pessimism among many Americans who think that the American century was the last one, not the current one. Friedman does not share that pessimism. "I'm a frustrated optimist," Friedman said. "People say they get the frustration, but ask where I get the optimism. The optimism comes from being a reporter, a speaker at events like this Convening Leaders. If you want to be an optimist, stand on your head. The country looks better from the bottom-up than from the top-down.
"The reason it looks better is, thank God, this country is full of people who just didn't get the word that China is eating our breakfast or that Germany is eating our lunch. They just go out and collaborate. This country is exploding with energy from the bottom up."
It is important that America fix the problems at the top, Friedman said, because the country is the key to global stability. "If we go weak as a country, your kids will not grow up in a different America, but in a fundamentally different world ordered by China or Russia or, more importantly, a world ordered by no one at all," he said. "The decisions in the next few years will determine whether we are able to pass on that thing known as the American Dream."
In his talk, Friedman focused on the importance of the merger of globalization and IT. "The IT revolution and its merger with globalization has gone into overdrive," he said, "and taken us from a connected world to a hyperconnected world."
An example is SNN — the Sham News Network that Syrian rebels use to promote their cause. They load smartphone videos into a YouTube portal to spread messages to millions of people around the globe. "Fifteen people in the front row here have enough money in their pockets to start the Sham News Network," Friedman said.
It is that sort of drive and ingenuity that exemplifies what is needed to be successful in the world today. Friedman quoted a banker friend who summed it up by saying, "That is the future. Every one of us has to justify our unique value."
This highlights the fundamental revolution in the labor market, Friedman said, which used to have three tiers:
- Non-routine work, which involves critical thinking and problem-solving. This group includes physicians, lawyers, teachers, and scientists.
- Routine work, which involves "work that can be described by an algorithm," such as assembly-line work. "This tier is now being crushed," Friedman said. "Mom and Dad, you do not want your kids in routine work."
- Face-to-face work, which is done in a specific place. This group includes professionals from butchers to massage therapists.
People used to aspire to be in the non-routine tier, but reaching that level no longer guarantees success. "You have to be creative non-routine," Friedman said. "I'm 59, and when I graduated from college, I just had to find a job. I told my kids that they have to invent their jobs. If they find a job, to advance in it they have to invent and reinvent that job. That's the big change."
That means that education has evolved from focusing on the three Rs to the three Cs — critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. "Every decent job requires those three Cs," Friedman said. "The world does not care what you know. The world only cares what you can do with what you know."
To be successful today, he suggested that people tell their children to think:
- Like new immigrants, who tend to be paranoid optimists who think they could lose it all at any moment.
- Like old-fashioned artisans, who valued their finished work so much they carved their initials into it.
- Like starter-uppers, who always operates in beta mode, looking for a way to redefine themselves and improve.
- "PQ + CQ > IQ," which means the passion quotient plus the curiosity quotient will always trump the intelligence quotient.
- Like a waitress at Perkins, who thinks like an entrepreneur, giving you extra fruit with your pancakes to earn a bigger tip.
As he travels around the United States, Friedman said, he sees the energy among everyday people, which he takes as a positive sign that they have a passion to grow. "I hear the craziest stuff. I get business cards [from entrepreneurs]," he said. "It is very exciting. It tells me how alive this country is."