Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Dangerous Gift: The Gift of Knowing

I am flying to Sydney Australia on United 839.  United has been one of the most important utilities in my lifetime carrying my life in relative comfort to all corners of the globe.  The flight crew was particularly helpful on this flight.  On my way back from the bathroom, I went to place my ring encrusted with the insignia of tribes in Papua New Guinea on my finger and it slipped down into the complex workings of the seat.  Fifteen minutes later, I knew more about seat 4D than I ever thought I’d know.  I also knew that M&M’s, ear plugs, and all manner of mystery lurks beneath the seats!  I don’t know when the last service crew vacuumed under the seat but I know that it’s a bit cleaner now.  I also know that I found my ring. 

We were 7 hours into the flight when this little episode happened and, fully awake, I decided to watch Concussion. This is the story of the CTE brain injury involving the NFL’s retired players’ disproportionately high incidence of significant neurological damage resulting in suicide, profound disability, and destruction of quality of life.  Near the film’s climax, Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian pathologist who was responsible for the work leading to the CTE inquiry makes an interesting statement. 

“I have a dangerous gift, the gift of knowing.”

I cared about this film for a bunch of reasons.  One of my colleagues in graduate school went on to work on brain injury and had much of his work supported by the NFL and by helmet manufacturers.  I count as many of my dearest friends current and former players, some of whom suffer from the effects of CTE.  As I’ve worked with them over the years, I’ve come to love them for the fierce elegance they bring to life and I count that experience one of life’s most cherished gifts.  I love the idea that, with greater awareness, there may be interventions that can preserve the game and preserve their lives.  I know that the NFL’s denial of evidence is driven, not by bad individual commissioners, league executives, lawyers and owners.  I know that the entertainment and gaming billions of dollars create an illusion of something that cannot survive the truth.  And tragically, many great men (yes, mostly men) cower in the face of the truth.  When billions are at stake, telling the truth is quite unpopular.

There’s a reasonably good chance that I may be suspending my writing of Inverted Alchemy for some time.  The reason is simple.  By carrying torches into crevices far darker than the NFL’s brain injury cover-up, I’ve learned the value of Dangerous Gifts.  By having unusual abilities to sense into things that are subtle traumas in the lives of others, I’ve been able to help many.  But this has come at a dear price.  It has cost me love, friendship, external validations of “success”, opportunity, credibility, and unspeakable inhumanities.  And while “being human” is routinely used as an excuse for weakness or failings, I’m at least one voice that takes the opposing view.  Dr. Omalu was fully human.  And like the intrepid fellowship of those who chose to stick to their “gift of knowing”, he paid dearly. I salute him and I salute the entire production effort behind telling his story.

But as I watched the film, it dawned on me that I wanted to write a very different blog post.  Not one that reminds us about our willful neglect of each other and our harm of our own well-being.  Not one that highlights ever more egregious examples of corruption and destruction.  No, I wanted to immediately write a thank you letter to a few people who you may not know but you should.  They are people that have decided to make this week an amazing week.  And, by the way, before I go any further, let me state that I’ll leave many great people out of this list.  That’s fine.  I’ll get to you later.  This is written for people I don’t usually mention. 

Before getting on this flight, I had a wonderful opportunity to appear on CNBC.  M·CAM was asked nearly a year ago to consider providing a metric for the “innovation economy” that would update or replace the industrial models set forth over 120 years ago with the advent of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  This impulse to help measure the innovation fitness of publicly traded companies was substantiated by the great work of Hayden Luse, Pam Cole, Stuart Holman, Bob Kendall and the General and Limited Partners of the Purple Bridge funds.  But before that, the first impulse arose in conversations with Joe O’Shea while he worked at GE Licensing & Trading in the early 2000s.  During our work on the index with CNBC, a phenomenal man and colleague, David Spiegel asked us if we’d help measure the innovation fitness of private companies applying for the honor of being on CNBC’s Disruptor 50 list.  Led by Dex Wheeler – one of M·CAM’s greatest unsung heroes – we came up with a scoring mechanism that contributed to this year’s rankings.  And because of David, Nikhil Deogun, Gina Francolla, and Steve Lewis, I was invited to sit on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and help unveil the metrics of the Innovation Economy.  I’ve spent 21 years preparing for those 4 minutes.  And I’m deeply grateful that this moment happened.

Just one day earlier, David Pratt, Colleen Martin, Pam and I went up to the United States Patent and Trademark Office.  Those of you familiar with any of my work know that I have been the world’s most outspoken critic of the patent system and the abuses thereof.  Years ago, Jay Erstling suggested that we develop systems that could allow the world to understand the quality of patents that were being issued around the world.  On a rainy afternoon in Geneva, WIPO Director Francis Gurry let fears far more ominous than the NFL’s CTE issue overrule what ethics would dictate.  Francis knew that if the world could see the abuses of the patent system - the millions of lives that are lost to patent restrictions around health care, communication, agriculture, energy, water and so much more - trillions of dollars of corporate corruption would be at risk of being exposed.  So he buried it.  But on Monday, the Under Secretary of Commerce and Commissioner of the USPTO invited me to present our work once again.  And not just in one perfunctory gathering.  We met with judges, executives, economists, and technologists to discuss how reform could come to the world of innovation.  Had it not been for the advocacy of the U.K.’s Tony Clayton, the U.S.’s Alan Marco, and the hospitality of Janet Gongola, this would not have been possible.  These individuals went to the mat for a voice that has been silenced for years.  I’m deeply grateful that this moment happened.

And I’m on this trip to meet with a number of individuals in Australia to discuss how to align the future economy of Australia with the transforming economic landscape of the world’s market.  Through the persistence of colleagues like Richard David Hames, Laurent Labourmene, Christine McDougall and Adam Jacoby, a new conversation is emerging that may hold promise for new models of public policy, academic activity and scholarship, and economic engagement.  I was sent on my way with the blessing of Colleen who has valiantly and lovingly endured three decades of living with the Dangerous Gift.  And I’ll be engaging this conversation with Kim Phillips who is standing taller each day as partner and colleague. 

There’s no question that the old adage “Ignorance is Bliss” has a siren seduction to it.  Sure, if you didn’t know, you could simply muddle your way through life.  But the “Gift of Knowing” comes with benefits far more precious than any elixir of ignorance.  The Gift of Knowing comes with the amazing act of humanity that says, “I’ll stand with you.”  And of all people, I’ve been most blessed by those few, beautiful, amazing, wonderful, souls who have borne, even if for only a moment, the most Dangerous Gift.  Napier Collyns, without your request, this blog would not have been written.  Hundreds of posts later, I want to thank you, above all, for asking me to start Inverted Alchemy in 2008!  It has been a true gift!  Godspeed, fair winds, and following seas!



  1. "When billions are at stake, telling the truth is quite unpopular." At this applies to politicians, pharmaceutical companies, universities, etc., etc., and a pretty good reason as to why the economy is on the brink of disaster.

  2. David, just to let you know, I subscribe to your feed, and am still reading. Knowing is built slowly.

    1. David, I saw your comment when I returned to post my newest essay. Thank you for this kind encouragement.

  3. i just finished "concussion" and immediately began googling “I have a dangerous gift, the gift of knowing”, which brought me to your site. and what a great find this is.


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave