The defiant image of “Tank Man” is one of the most enduring photographs ever taken.1
In the aftermath of the Cold War, right as communism began to fall in Central and Eastern Europe, protests and revolutions for democracy were taking place all around the world.
Perhaps the most famous during this period were those being led by students in Beijing, China. In the first half of 1989, there were times when up to a million people would gather in Tiananmen Square to object the direction being taken by their country.
Towards the middle of that year, however, things had started to heat up. The government was losing its patience. On June 4, they decided to suppress the action using military force.
To this day, nobody knows the full story of what went down the next morning, but almost everybody alive at the time has at least some memory of it being a day of significance.
On June 5, as a row of military tanks were parading the streets to keep the protests from continuing, an unknown man in a white shirt stepped out in front of them. As they stopped, he stayed put. As they tried to move past him, he moved with them.
Different accounts tell different stories, but the most common one states that he was soon pulled back into the crowd and hasn’t been seen since. All that is left is the photograph.2
Today, that man risking his life for his beliefs is an iconic symbol of rebellion and courage.
The Substitution of Physical Risk
There was a time in history when finding purpose was as easy as eating and sleeping.
For tens of thousands of years, in fact, there was no purpose other than survival. We lived in a dangerous environment, and the only way to endure this harshness was to work for it.
While it’s hard to make any definitive comments on past civilizations, especially those older than thousands of years, it isn’t a stretch to assume that the average person in a hunter and gatherer tribe was less likely to face an existential crisis than the average person today.
We evolved for a world that is far different from the one we live in. That’s no secret. But in order to reduce the friction between our biology and our new environment, we have to make adjustments to that environment. We have to recreate some of the past conditions.
Fortunately, we no longer have to risk our lives to feel a sense of purpose, but the fact that risking something is what often provides purpose is not something we can just overlook.
More than ever, people feel that what they do on a daily basis has little worth, that it isn’t meaningful and that their time could be better used if it was more clear where to invest it.
Well, what most people lack is a substitution for physical risk. When “Tank Man” blocked those tanks, yes, he put his life on the line, but he did it primarily for an underlying idea.
The only sustainable way to feel grounded in the fact that you’re doing what you should be is not only to stand for something, but more importantly, to put your skin into it – to be willing to be harmed for it. That means being reputationally, intellectually, or otherwise liable.
A miscalculated risk can be damaging, but never taking any risk at all is to never really live.
Evolution Begins At the Fringe
When we think about how good ideas arise in culture, we intuitively imagine a false kind of uniformity in their dissemination. We assume that once one exists, it will make its way through.
More often than not, however, what happens is that a good idea is brought up and then it spends years and, sometimes, decades in the fringes of society because, by definition, if the idea is good enough to improve our culture, it likely also conflicts with the status quo.
The world is hostile to anything that is different from the existing reality, and it’s very good at keeping such things where only a few passionate people are willing to work on them.
That’s why advancing new and important things is risky. It entails a process where a person has to go through the pain of pushback, ridicule, and existing agents with personal agendas.
In fact, there are many notable instances in human history where someone had thought of something valuable at an earlier time, but whatever the thing was wasn’t discovered or implemented until far later, when somebody else dared to follow through on it.
Not only is risk-taking something that can add purpose to our lives, but it’s also one of the most noble things you can do if you truly have something you think is worth standing up for.
The reason that the “Tank Man” photograph touches so many people is that it represents all those moments where someone defiantly said that enough is enough. And if it weren’t for the courage of people like that, the world would be an infinitely lesser version of what it is today.
Reality isn’t just created by itself. It’s always moved through the force of a person or a group.
All You Need to Know
1989 was an important year in world history. The Cold War came to an end, democracy spread like an infection, and “Tank Man” said more with his actions than he did with words.
Regardless of whether the cause of that man bravely protesting against his government is your own, it does symbolize something incredibly important about the human condition.
There is a reason that acts of courage touch us, just like there is a reason that humans – whether individually or as a society – can’t live without having exposure to some kind of risk.
Throughout most of our existence, struggling for survival gave us purpose. There was no room for an existential crisis because we had no choice but to do what was needed. Today, the world is different, but we are not. While we don’t need the danger, we do need liability.
By putting our reputations, our words, our time, and our assets on the line, we can recreate the conditions under which we were made to thrive. We can use risk as a form of purpose.
In the process, we can also create further meaning in the world. By standing up for what is new and important, we can influence the cultural direction to match our dominant values.
We all quietly assume that our evolution as a society is rooted in some natural phenomena, but the reality is that how far we move is directly proportional to how far we’re willing to push.
The world we know today wouldn’t exist without risk-taking. Neither will a prosperous future.
Join the newsletter
Subscribe to get our latest content by email.
I send out at least one new essay every week. Join 40,000+ readers for exclusive access: