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August 9th, 2019
The phrase is fairly ubiquitous. Opening a can of worms is synonymous with a decision or action that results in subsequent problems that are numerous and complex.
It’s a cute phrase even if it doesn’t make too much intuitive sense in a time when we don’t run across too many canned worms.
Kettle of Fish
are similar concepts that we like to use.
But there’s something particularly modern about a can of worms. Namely, the can.
Some one invented the can. And then cans were manufactured. Then we had to decide what to put in the can. Then it was packaged, and finally people are in possession of cans that can be opened.
If we think about the idiom literally, it becomes even more poignant:
Someone had to invent the problem. . .
Pandora’s box is a mythical item, and a kettle can presumably be used for other things.
But a can of worms represents a problem that we as a species specifically sought to invent.
It begs to make us wonder recursively: what problems are we busy creating right now?
All sorts of things fall into this category. To take a literal and physical example: Lead paint and Asbestos. At the time lead was added to paint, or vehicle fuel, it seemed like a great idea. Likewise with Asbestos in all its numerous applications. But these ‘inventions’ only succeeded in creating microscopic problems that have been replicated trillions of times in terms of the molecules that surround us.
Lead in gasoline is another great example of something terrible, in this respect. Gasoline engines used to ‘knock’, and it was discovered that this ‘knocking’ would totally disappear with the addition of lead. Of course, this addition adds a substantial amount of lead to the air that we breath and it turns out there is a troubling correlation between rates of violence and the years when lead was being pumped into our breathing air via ICE’s.
Thinking ahead and trying to figure out just how our actions will effect future events is maybe the most difficult and coveted skill imaginable. This skill does not simply predict the future, it creates the future.
However, in most cases our notion of the ‘future’ is too short:
If I add lead to this fuel, cars will function better!
If I add Asbestos and Lead to this paint, the company will save money and we’ll have a better product!
Both of these aims are concerned with a short-term look at the future. But they fail to concern the ‘whole’ future.
Our success often depends on just how far into the future we are willing to imagine as we craft our next action.
What sort of can are you busy building right now?
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