I read this thought-provoking piece by Carol Black on wildness last week and three weeks of swirling blog-thought finally coalesced into a single concept: we’re thinking small without also thinking big.
This idea is not at odds with the idea of simplifying I wrote about recently; rather, the two complement each other perfectly.
We need to problem-solve from a big-picture and small-picture view simultaneously if we are going to make any progress (on anything).
My successor at a recent former job contacted me last month to pick my brain. I had some extra time so I met with her. I figured she had come up against the same institutional challenges I had for four years: trying to convince people that a dead person from another country was important enough for them to give money to; trying to convince 60-year-old internal stakeholders, most without kids, that other generations may be just as qualified as them; trying to gain operational independence from a national franchise mired in bureaucracy and power games; and, trying to create inclusiveness in a community built on hierarchy and rank.
Au contraire. Instead she asked me how to bring in new business this summer. She asked me how to answer emails inquiring about internal record-keeping. She asked me about bringing flyers around the neighborhood.
After ten minutes of answering her questions I came clean: “You know,” I admitted, “it’s extremely difficult to bring new business in to this organization because you face deep institutional challenges core to your current identity. So while your efforts to recruit volunteers, flyer the neighborhood, and call members are valiant, you’ll just keep rolling the same ball up the same hill until, as a group, these obstacles are addressed.”
I reminded her that the organization is 40 years old and has been recruiting volunteers, flyering the neighborhood, and calling members for all 40 years. “It’s the same struggle,” I concluded, “that the person in your position in 1975 was facing, and very little progress has been made. It’s a common non-profit plight, one of poor business model development and weak value proposition.”
Be careful picking my brain. I might actually tell you what I think.
Needless to say, I don’t think I was very helpful to her. She wanted a magic bullet, and I couldn’t give her one. It’s hard to hear that what you’re doing might not be enough, especially when what IS enough is a beast of a turnaround job and you aren’t sure you’re that turnaround guy or gal.
The truth is, you can roll a ball up a hill for quite a while. Sisyphus did for an eternity.
Organizations can stay alive (though I like to think of it more as purgatory, neither thriving or dying) for quite a while tempting in passionate youth ready to change the world and spitting out exhausted middle-agers ready for a cubicle at Bank of America.
What we need is the big view and the small view, together.
The big view provides direction; the small view, execution. Execution without direction leads to purgatory, and direction without execution leads to…well…bloggers talking about changing the world between 6 and 8am before going off to work to roll a ball up a hill.
Carol Black talks about our societal lack of communion with wildness and nature, and this might be why so many of us have difficulty seeing the big picture.
In fact, I bet if we scientifically studied the correlation we’d find an equation like: more wild time in nature = more access to bigger-picture perspective.
Nature represents constant life and death, constant seasonal change, and constant connection between flora and fauna. These elements — connection, change, death — supersede the small-picture elements we experience daily as civilized humans — money, cars, school — whether we acknowledge it or not.
Also, and more exactingly to the point, things in nature are big. Like, seriously big. Continental oceans, tectonic plates, and infinite skies dwarf in a minute our best man-made attempts at height (skyscrapers), width (bridges), and depth (wells).
If you’re ever anxious about something, go stare at a the sky. I promise it will help.
The big-picture can help us detach from the small-picture enough to be more effective in executing the vision. We need both.
In my circles right now it’s common to hear someone let out an over-dramatic sigh of pessimism, shake their gloomy head, and proclaim with bandwagon pride, “I just don’t know what I’m going to do if Trump is elected.” This, to me, is a small-picture view.
Four years and a few supreme court justices won’t make or break anything (not to mention the fact that there are enough reasonable people in power who would prevent Trump from screwing anything up too badly). The fact that he has made it this far in itself discredits the reputation of the American President, and if he is elected you better believe there will be people in other countries on the floor in stitches.
Nothing is very serious when there’s a laughing epidemic.
Plus, things always change. People die unexpectedly. People live unexpectedly. Nature does its thing. You never know — maybe the election of Trump would fast-track our collective lightbulbs to ON, and I’m a fan of that.
The bigger-picture questions for me are: What would truly representative government look like? Can we really judge one another? How can we stop relying on money so much?
For now, instead of thinking about Trump I’d rather think about what balls I’m rolling up a hill (big-picture) and how I might be able to flatten that hill (small-picture). For one, I want to spend less money so that I’m less dependent on earning it. For another, I want to practice accepting others rather than judging them, to explore an alternative societal management strategy to law and punishment.
These should keep me busy for a while. These, and getting my wildness on.