What People Can Learn From Carbon

I’ve been thinking a lot about carbon lately. Well, okay, not a lot. I haven’t been thinking about it as much as, say, my kids or my account balances. But I’ve thought about it specifically on several occasions and, relative to other elements, that’s quite a bit.

Carbon is one of those things that is seems persistently adjacent to news and issues. Carbon footprints, carbon dioxide levels, carbon-based life on other planets, etc… And, I suppose, it’s pretty easy to get a bit carbon-jaded (see what I did there) because of the negative context in which that word is so often used.

But carbon is actually pretty incredible. Carbon itself is pretty simple. Plain. But its ability to combine and change based upon its situation is remarkable. It combines to become a gas. It combines to become a person. It combines to become fuel, food, mountains and diamonds.

Steven Johnson is one of my favorite authors. In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, he explains the amazing attributes of carbon in the context of the search for life on other planets:

Why are we so confident about carbon’s essential role in creating living things? The answer has to do with the core properties of the carbon atom itself. Carbon has four valence electrons residing in the outermost shell of the atom, which, for complicated reasons, makes it uniquely talented at forming connections with other atoms, particularly with hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulfur— and, crucially, with other carbon atoms. These six atoms make up 99 percent of the dry weight of all living organisms on earth. Those four valence bonds give carbon a strong propensity for forming elaborate chains and rings of polymers: everything from the genetic information stored in nucleic acids, to the building blocks of proteins, to the energy storage of carbohydrates and fats. (Modern technology has exploited the generative potential of the carbon atom via the artificial polymers we call plastics.) Carbon atoms measure only 0.03 percent of the overall composition of the earth’s crust, and yet they make up nearly 20 percent of our body mass. That abundance highlights the unique property of the carbon atom: its combinatorial power. Carbon is a connector.

Carbon is a connector. It’s this last line that got me thinking about people. We have a tendency to romanticize the notions of self-made men and lone wolves. We think of heroes and role models as singular. We hold up the individual as the outlier, the livers of impossible dreams as freaks.

But could that be?

I don’t believe in the idea of a person being self-made. Successful? Sure. Yeah, hard to deny. Famous? Right on. But self-made? Not a chance. I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of successful people – successful by common standards of wealth and fame and successful by individual standards. I count myself among the latter. No, not rich or famous. No, not an inventor or a laureate. But I took a gamble with my love and pursued work I loved instead of money and am able to provide for my wife and three kids. We go on vacation. We have a yard and a dog. So I count myself successful – with room to grow.

The thing I have learned and the thing I have observed over the years is that success is never about the force of will, but about the ability to remain true and constant while melding, adapting and adjusting – just like carbon. It never stops being carbon. It combines and connects to become not only carbon but the basis of all life and plastic and diamonds.

So is there such a thing as a self-made? I don’t think so. Success, to me, seems like the result of a person’s ability to meld and adapt, synthesize and connect.

Just like carbon.


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