On sunny afternoons this Spring, my older daughter (2 years old) has begun, in her own dialect, to ask to go play in the park across the street from our house, the house where I grew up. I’ll be honest, it is an almost impossible request to deny, no matter what the day has been like.
My daughter’s name is Charlie. She also loves to read (as a 2 year old reads).
One day in the not-too-distant future, however, she will stop and actually read for herself the plaque that sits by the bench at the corner of the park closest to our house. Perhaps before any other words, she will recognize her name. She will see Charlie Williams.
I look forward to that day in many ways, and yet have no idea how I will get through it: the connection made.
The plaque and bench are dedicated to my father, her deceased grandfather, for “protecting the spirit and diversity of East Nashville.”
I can already see the pride fill her face and the confusion to quickly follow. “But, I am Charlie Williams.” She will not understand the potency of her words, the spirit she will claim, and the responsibility she will begin to share.
It will not happen on this particular day, but the process of understanding the pain and beauty of the world will certainly begin this day.
And, someday when she is much older, she will want to know more about this plaque and this name that is hers.
Someday, we will talk about Depression.
Someday, we will talk about sexual abuse.
Someday, we will talk about suicide.
Someday, I will explain the month of April: the month my Father ended his life one day before his 62nd birthday, one day before the celebration of his birth.
Strangely, these are the conversations I feel comfortable with. I know how to have these now, and am committed to having them with whoever will listen. It will certainly be different, more difficult, this time, but it will also be special.
What I don’t know is how I will convey the life that was so much more important than the brutal moments that scarred it, or the mental illness that ultimately claimed it.
How will my Charlie understand the depth and contradiction, the beauty and the darkness, the love and the spite that were her grandfather? How will she know him as a Father through me and my siblings, an in-law through my Wife, a husband through my Mom, as a friend and respected adversary through countless others? How might she someday find herself reflected in these stories? Find her own relationship to a namesake she will never know? Will she struggle or excel in ways that he did?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. It is bigger than me. It is bigger than stories of a person, of a life. It is about connective tissue that must be generated, questioned, broken and reconfirmed over time. It is the iterative process of understanding where you come from and what that means to you. I guess she will figure it out. I guess I will figure it out.
Someday in April, Charlie will know the world in a new way, and, I can only hope, will spend her lifetime seeking to understand it.
Every year, my family watches the Music City Marathon from our front porch. It’s humbling and inspiring to watch 5000 strangers pass you by, 20 miles in with 6 more to go.
I always tell people I am not a runner, so part of me thinks these 5000 people are crazy. On the other hand, watching them makes me question my “I am not a runner” statement in the first place.
Watching these “runners” pass for hours, you realize there is no such thing as “a runner.” These are just people. These are people challenging themselves. These are people reaching for a goal.
It’s a 90-pound, 70-year-old woman, and a 270-pound, 20-year-old man.
It’s a graceful Kenyan, and a rickety man with scoliosis.
It’s the parents pushing their physically disabled children in strollers, and a fallen soldier’s Mom running in boots.
It’s a survivor “running for a cure,” and a loved one running in memory.
Some take long strides, some shuffle. Some have bodies that remain still and calm. Others seem held loosely together by thread, body parts clacking and crashing with every stride. Some ignore our cheers; some are in a zone; some cheer back.
As with most of my experiences, I wondered if there were a lesson to learn here about education, about community, about life. Surely, there is a metaphor in this profound example of human endurance. Surely, there is a reason that watching this marathon is so emotional.
Here’s what I’ve got:
Each has his own motivation. Whether we are talking about marathons, relationships, education, or careers, we are all motivated by something – and our motivation is unique to us. Even those we deem “unmotivated” are simply motivated to do nothing. Either way it is motivation. And, if we want to engage them, relate to them, or educate them, we must tap their motivation.
Each has his own style. Running, learning, or communicating, our “style” is a combination of our nature and our nurture. It is in some ways developed and managed by our motivation and our opportunities, and in other ways by things beyond our control or beneath our consciousness. So, if we want to relate to others, to love them, to learn with them, we must be open to their style. We must see style as part of who they are.
Each has his own pace. We live in a do-more, be-more society and our culture tells us that winning is the goal. Winning, however, doesn’t have to be externally defined or culturally recognized. It can be individual and internal. Self-actualization comes when I can define what winning is for me. So, if we believe in each other and that each of us has purpose and power, we must broaden the parameters of success and celebrate each at his own pace.
In a marathon of 5000 runners, there are 4999 losers, and none of them lost.
In a variety of conversations, workshops, and planning sessions over the years, whether around technology adoption, organizational culture, or school climate, I have referenced the following change model out of Harvard:
Change = Dissatisfaction x Vision x Plan
Why is this simple model so powerful? At the most basic level: what happens when you have a zero for any of these elements?
It’s simple multiplication, but profound in that so many of our traditional change efforts are built on addition strategies. If we do this, and then we buy that, then it will add up to change.
But, addition alone doesn’t generate real change.
Change is multiplicative. The elements necessary for change are interdependent and are thus magnifiers of each other.
So, why do we struggle to pull this simple multiplication together on some of our most persistent organizational, educational, and community issues?
After all, we have built countless strategic, community, and organizational plans. We have crafted mission and vision statements for our organizations, collaborations, task forces, committees, and initiatives. We’ve brought in trainers, consultants, data wonks, and various other experts from out of town. We have invested millions to develop, implement, and evaluate new models and new technologies. The list goes on and on. No real change.
Applying the Harvard Change Model to largely fruitless visioning and planning efforts, we are left only to reflect on our dissatisfaction.
Now, it may seem ludicrous with all of the time, money, and effort we have invested into change to wonder if we are really dissatisfied. All those meetings…all that discussion…all those plans…the surveys…the focus groups…the new technologies…surely, all of that is proof we are dissatisfied, right?
But is it?
In expressing our dissatisfaction (and creating our visions and plans), we too often focus on the work of others. Or, perhaps, if we do focus on the real problem, we never do the ugly part of identifying how we individually are complicit. The “problem” then is this thing that just exists, but somehow isn’t created by us through our own choices and actions. We all join the chorus saying “something’s gotta change” with an implicit “but it’s not me”.
So, if a critical mass is not truly dissatisfied with our own work (and not just the work of others) then the real dissatisfaction required to generate change doesn’t exist. There is only frustration, blame, and subsequent defensiveness (and a lot of failed visions and plans).
If all of us who claim dissatisfaction, whatever the issue and wherever we work, actually changed our own practices, I wonder if it might add up to something?
Years ago, while commiserating about limited access to higher education for low-wealth students, a colleague offered a thought: “Every system is perfectly designed to deliver the outcomes it delivers.”
If you think on that for just a moment…(go ahead, do it!)…it’s both painfully obvious and painfully…well…painful. But, for anyone working to change the outcomes that are important to them in education, politics, justice, or otherwise, this simple statement tells us where our efforts must be directed: the systems that we have, advertently or inadvertently, designed to underperform (or to perform exceptionally toward outcomes we never intended).
Under this premise, the school system that is struggling with dropouts is perfectly designed to generate those dropouts.
The justice system that incarcerates men of color at dramatically higher rates than anyone else is perfectly designed to incarcerate men of color.
The political system that generates corruption, gridlock, and weak candidates is perfectly designed to do just that.
System performance is not the sum of its individual elements. It is the interrelated (systemic) performance of its elements. Systems get misaligned because we build and invest (or disinvest) in them element by element often over long periods of time, and amidst shifting values and visions. And, the more we address individual elements in isolation the more likely we are to create systemic dissonance (the type of boiling-frog dissonance we actually grow to accept).
Within an organizational system, for example, perhaps we have rewritten our values statement, but our organizational structure is out-of-date or even arbitrary. We revisit our investments (budget, people, etc.), but align them with our organizational structure rather than our strategy (this is my new definition of bureaucracy, by the way). We clarify and document our desired outcomes, but we maintain old strategies that have lost relevance in a changing environment. We improve our product or service delivery, but never invest in our human capital pipeline to support and sustain it.
When we see systemic failure, we cannot blame the system without owning our role in it. We cannot claim that our part of the system is working, and it’s everyone else’s that’s broken. We cannot do fragmented and narrow work and believe it will add up to a healthy system. It won’t.
If we are going to create the system that is perfectly designed to deliver the outcomes we actually want, we need to design, invest, and lead systemically.