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Who Turned the Wheel of Human Progress Most?

It’s the non-conformists, rebels, and mavericks

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“The most dangerous phrase in our language is, ‘we have always done it this way’” (Grace Hopper )

We would live in the Stone Age if all of humanity blindly obeyed society’s social and cultural norms. Most of us try to conform to society’s mores to avoid being criticized, ridiculed, and ostracized.

We owe all historical and civilizational progress not to mindless and passive conformists but to rebels and dissenters who dared to think differently and questioned the prevailing beliefs, values, and practices.

Curious and rebellious minds have always pioneered scientific discoveries and inventions. The most famous anecdote in scientific history is about Isaac Newton observing a falling apple and wondering why it did not fall upwards or sidewards. After introspecting on the fallen apple, he founded the universal law of gravitation.

Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor working in Vienna General Hospital, is known as the father of hand hygiene. In 1846, while working a hospital in Vienna, he noticed that doctors who performed autopsies went straight to the maternity ward to deliver children without washing their hands. This led to a large mortality rate in the ward. He advised doctors to wash their hands in a chlorine solution before proceeding to the maternity ward. They protested, saying that “this was how things were always done”. But Dr. Semmelweis persisted with his proposal. Once the doctors started washing their hands before entering the maternal ward the death rate of women plunged. Unfortunately, medical orthodoxy prevailed over one man’s wisdom and it took several years before the practice of hand- washing gained acceptance among medical professionals.

On 7 June 1893, M.K Gandhi, later known as “The Mahatma” or “Great Soul” was thrown out of a whites-only carriage on a train in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, for not obeying laws that segregated each carriage according to race. This incident sowed the seeds of the civil disobedience movement which Gandhi later adopted to fight against British rule in India.

The civil rights movement in the U.S. owes a lot a brave, rebellious black woman named Rosa Parks. On December 01, 1955, while riding a bus in Montgomery, she was asked to give up her seat to a white man. She refused. She was arrested and thrown into jail. This incident was a tipping point in the civil rights movement.

Adam Grant, an American psychologist, and best-selling author calls non-conformists as ‘originals’. In his book, “Originals; How non-conformists change the world”, he says that rebels question the default mode of thinking and behaviour and explore whether a better option exists. “We are driven to question defaults when we experience vuja de, the opposite of deja vu. Deja vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels like as if we have seen it before. Vuja de is the reverse- we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.”

Friedrich Nietzsche was a rebel philosopher who shocked the world with his revolutionary ideas. According to Nietzsche, “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning oneself.”

In his acclaimed “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” he introduced the concept of the “Übermensch,” meaning “above man,” one who has parted ways with mainstream society.

Societies and nations stagnate when they cannot encourage critical and unconventional thinking among people. Families, communities, schools, and organizations should encourage and reward dissenters and mavericks who question the status quo. As Adlai Stevenson said, “All progress has resulted from people who took unpopular positions.”

Let us salute the non-conformists who dared to think differently and helped to move the wheel of human progress by unleashing transformative changes.

Thanks for reading.


Who Turned the Wheel of Human Progress Most? was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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