Who really cares about the consequences? At the age of 10 David Hahn was given The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. By the time he was 14 he had made nitroglycerin and caused an explosion at home that put him in hospital. Half a year later he was building a neutron gun, convinced that “one of these days we’re gonna run out of oil.”
Through his Eagle Scout badge in Atomic Energy, he had learned where to find small amounts of radioactive material, and by adopting a fake identity had managed to acquire quantities of smoke detectors and lithium batteries that would yield the radioactive elements he needed. By the age of 17 he was trying to build a nuclear reactor to generate electricity.
So much so normal for a very bright kid. However, there was something not quite right in his mindset. He was certainly a maverick, but there was more to him than that. In working on his nuclear reactor, he ignored safety (his own as well as that of his neighbourhood), mixing his collection of radium and americium with beryllium and aluminium, wrapping it all in tinfoil and surrounding it with foil-wrapped cubes of uranium powder and thorium. It was incredibly radioactive.
By chance the police discovered it in the boot of David’s car and called in the Radiological authorities who found the shed contained 1,000 times the normal level of background radiation. Workers in moon suits dismantled the shed and buried the remains in 39 sealed barrels. That’s an indication of the scale of risk he had created.
David developed his science experiments because he could, without a thought for whether he should.
Reading about him, I was reminded of my prediction 18 years ago when I addressed the specialist engineers in Oslo, as I related in a previous article in The Maverick Paradox Magazine. Briefly, I said that they would develop their software to the level which would enable them to trace and track a person anywhere (Big Brother and all that). And that would be when they would encounter resistance, with people saying they were doing it (i.e. science) because they could, without considering whether they should. As you know, several nations have developed and are currently applying such software to identify and trace Covid-19 carriers.
As one commentator has written, now that those governments have gained that Big Brother power to control our movements, will they be willing to give it up?
Returning to David Hahn and others like him, there are generally two reasons why people might do things without considering the consequences or impact on others: either they do not care or they just don’t think of it. The former are sociopaths, defined as having an antisocial personality disorder. They do not feel guilty when they break the rules or offend others, and can be manipulative.
The others, those who just did not think of the consequences, will usually apologise and make amends. They do not intend to offend and explain that their focus was simply on their task or course of action, like David Hahn exploring the science of atomic energy, or the Oslo engineers pushing the envelope of their software application.
There is a very fine line between those two groups of people, and they are sometimes considered to be the same. Because their behaviours are so similar.
Consider the following traits and see if you can tell which group they belong to:
- Disregards social norms or laws
- Behaves without considering the consequences
- Doesn’t consider own safety or that of others
- Doesn’t pay bills on time
- Poor time-keeper
- Will break appointments without warning
- Ill at ease at social events
- Holds strong, unwavering opinions
- Has a sense of superiority over others
Clearly not all will apply to any single individual, but any might indicate a tendency towards one or other of the two groups in question. But what separates the two types of people? What is the difference between a sociopath and someone with poor social skills? Sociopaths are considered dangerous and in need of correction, while the others are tolerated as “a bit odd”. Why? Both are liable to act in ways that are disturbing.
Moving to a different level, let’s think about leaders – the CEO, the Prime Minister, the film star, the film Director, the innovator, the entrepreneur, even the parish priest. By definition they are not followers of fashion or the norms. They make or break rules, they do things differently and insist on others doing it their way. Not all leaders, but those that reach the greatest heights and stand out as examples to follow.
Do they break new ground by being cuddly and lovable? Or is there a touch of the antisocial in their personalities. Look again at the list above and decide how many of them apply to any leader you admire, in politics, business or anywhere else.
Consider Steve Jobs. He created Apple which has just become the world’s first two trillion dollar company. That’s successful in anyone’s language. What about the man himself? How would he have performed in the current formalised assessment process? In the first place he would have refused to undergo such an assessment. He was rebellious, hostile to authority and impatient with those he considered his intellectual inferiors.
Walter Isaacson’s biography, The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs, tells us he was extremely bright, a visionary, passionate and charismatic … but deeply flawed and not pleasant to have around. Jobs did not set a good example to follow, even for a maverick. So how would you balance the positive effects of his genius with the negative effect of his unpleasant personality? And is it a calculation that applies to other mavericks?
Ultimately the test is whether or not a person adds to your quality of life. We have all known or worked alongside clever people whose manner and behaviour have been intolerable. Do we have to accept it? Or them? Perhaps the bigger question is, do they contribute to the wellbeing of the community? And do they care about the effects of what they do and say?