Stephen Hawking recently gave an interview in which he said that “There is no heaven or afterlife … that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” He was then asked, in the absence of heaven, how people could best spend their lives. His answer was simple: “We should seek the greatest value of our action”.
In one phrase, Hawking overcomes not just centuries of superstition, but centuries of social expectation, convention and prejudice. He tells us to care less about what others think, and more about what we can achieve. And he tells us to focus on the long-term: not the greatest fame or greatest fashion but the greatest value for our lives. But if his mantra is simple, it’s also challenging. How are we to judge value? How long term should we be thinking? And who are we hoping to benefit?
These are difficult questions. But they’re the right ones: they’re the questions that every project — every person — should be asking, and they are, perhaps, a key to a more fulfilling life. We make a thousand conscious or unconscious judgements every day: how much will this cost? How much can I charge? How fun will this be? And for whom? Hawking’s philosophy cuts through this: how can I create the greatest value from the actions that I take?
It’s an acknowledgement, too, of the journey: we are always seeking, never there. I will never write the perfect movie. You may never run the perfect business, or invent the perfect green device. There’s a generosity of spirit, an implicit acknowledgement that we all — often usefully — screw up. But as creative, curious, imaginative people, let’s all seek the greatest value of our actions. And then we’ll have no cause to fear the dark.