Visionaries can broaden thinking, or be domineering: Column
By Rich Elfers
Recently, I took a group of senior citizens to tour the Amazon Spheres in downtown Seattle. It was impressive to see not only the botanical garden inside the Spheres, but also to gaze upon the major changes to that part of the city. Whole city blocks were razed to make way for Amazon’s headquarters.
Amazon’s headquarters are just south of Lake Union and consist of (or will soon) 40 new skyscrapers. Forty thousand employees now staff the Seattle Amazon. (There are 300,000 Amazon workers worldwide.) Based on watching who walked by the Spheres while we were there, most are in their twenties or early thirties. Many are Asians.
The Amazon Spheres are gigantic botanical gardens on four levels that are used during the week as a place for employees to come and relax and eat meals. The psychology behind the gardens is that nature refreshes people and makes them more productive. The lesson I came away with is that Jeff Bezos and his staff are visionaries. Just seeing their physical plant broadened my thinking to the possibilities that we humans are capable of.
There are managers, and then there are leaders. Managers direct their employees day by day. Visionaries go to a high hill and then yell to their managers that they are building in the wrong place. Jeff Bezos is such a person.
It’s not that I approve of everything Bezos is doing.
I walked into the Amazon Go store near the Spheres to buy lunch. I was told I had to install an app on my phone in order to buy anything. There were no cash registers. No physical money changed hands. I walked out not purchasing anything. This practice, though technologically advanced, struck me as a metaphor for the entire Amazon empire – controlling and domineering.
When I lived in Britain as a college student in the late 1960s, I knew a Brit who had visited the United States. She was struck by the size and scope of our nation. Compared to Great Britain, Americans were big thinkers and builders. There were massive cities and freeways. Enormous earth-moving equipment had reshaped the rivers and mountains of the continent, subjecting them to human domination. Rather than adapting to the continent, Americans adapted the continent to suit their needs. Americans just thought in more grandiose ways.
Ironically, the British Empire that she had grown up in once spanned the globe. The British were also big thinkers, just in a different way. But by the end of World War II, that empire was crumbling around them. The British government had ruled the Indian subcontinent, governed countries in the Middle East, and controlled what is today Malaysia and Singapore. The empire included Canada and much of Africa and Asia. These colonies had largely gained their independence by the 1960s. Today, the British are struggling to exit from the European Union, making a hash of the whole process. It’s possible the United Kingdom will break up into its several parts because of Brexit.
When I visit some of America’s universities, I see visionaries’ handiwork. It takes big thinking to organize such institutions of higher learning, making them into some of the best in the world. The leaders of these major temples of education broaden my world view. Yet some of the rich have tried to buy their children’s way into elite universities and have been caught. It strikes me that insecurity and desire for status plague us all.
I realize that living in a small town such as Enumclaw causes me to think about small things.
Then I consider that perhaps what’s really important is not billionaire business empires, or super powers like the United States, or the British Empire in its heyday, or even great institutions of learning.
What really matters most is what kind of a spouse, parent and grandparent I have been. What kind of employee? How have I treated the people with whom I come in contact? Have I treated them with respect and humility, or have I tried to dominate and control them?
Visionaries such as the ones I noted are important because they have the power to change the world. But sometimes life consists of the seemingly small things that are really far more vital. As I learned in my college Spanish class, “Poco a poco, se va lejos.” (“Little by little one goes far.”) Keeping that vision in the forefront is at least as important as building monuments to one’s greatness.
Rich Elfers is a columnist with the Courier-Herald in Enumclaw, a former Enumclaw City Council member and a Green River College professor. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.