Career Wisdom From The Ancient Silk Road
There is a lot of talk nowadays of globalization and its implications for politics, for economics, for cultures. With these implications come the inevitable consequences for one’s career, such as the need to be in touch with globally communicative technologies, or the financial interdependency of large corporations. Not all career-related changes are direct symptoms of this phenomenon, however. An increased geographical reach of individual and corporate influence has created a totally different market for products, services and entrepreneurship. We have heard and read the polemic and praise aimed at evaluating such apparently novel creativity. But this is not a new phenomenon. Such cross-continental human interaction has been going on for millennia under different forms. An understanding of the Ancient Silk Road as one of these forms may help us get our bearings on the value of globalization as a society and as individuals.
The Ancient Silk Road – More than a Road
The Ancient Silk Road was, geographically speaking, a series of interconnected trade routes across Mediterranean Europe, the Middle East, North-East Africa and Asia. Deriving its name from the lucrative trade of silk, which was at the time found only in China, the Silk Road was central to the trade and flourishing of many goods, ideas, cultures and religions. Merchants moved back and forth between trade posts on these routes, gaining wealth for their work as travellers and for their knowledge of goods in demand. The desire for these goods and for such gain in wealth created a vast number of careers. Most obviously, large-scale trading developed as a profitable career choice. More indirectly, careers to do with producing or facilitating the goods being traded took over more basic agricultural roles. People learnt how to spin silk, or tailor linen, or mine precious stone. Usually localized goods contributed to the development of distant societies, to the development of collective and individual desires and ways of life. So The Silk Road is not a road. It is a symbol of what can happen when people of radically different background have certain common goals. It is the symbol of prototypical globalization. When considering it as such, we can retrospectively learn about ourselves, as we have been doing throughout this series.
I think that the most important moral to draw out from this history has to do with collaboration and self-interest. If we think about who the real winners of the Silk Road were, it was not just the merchants who became wealthy. It was the whole Eurasian and African continents. Specialization in trade-made careers created efficiency, which created greater wealth in general. This paved the road, so to speak, for cultural and religious nourishment, bringing people the potential for different ways of life, for different types of happiness. Self-interest spurred on collaboration between people, and it was the latter that provided and continues to provide richness in human life. From this we learn that denouncing self-interest is counterproductive. We also learn that individuals acting in self-interest produce the best things when this self-interest takes into account the abilities of others.
Where is this Road now?
You’re on a representation of the ancient Silk Road right now. The internet is the largest conglomeration of anything ever, to the extent that less scrupulous parts of it have even been given the name “Silk Road” (this is not what I am addressing in this article). The influence of the original Silk Road is vastly smaller in scale than that of Google or Amazon. But both the ancient Silk Road and the Internet represent the same drive for human collaboration and growth through interchange. So whenever you come into contact with it, especially in a career-related circumstance, bear in mind its history and what it stands for. Remember that it is self-interested collaboration that provides the foundation for products and services. The market for any idea, product or personality is virtually boundless, so think carefully about where you fit and where you want to fit. Does what you want to do contribute to a greater phenomenon like the silk trade did? What role are you playing in the global context? Do these questions speak to you? No matter what answer you give to any of these, globalization is a phenomenon that is unstoppable; and if the past has anything to say about this, we should embrace it.