I was watching an interview with Malcolm Gladwell this morning, in which the morning show host asked him whether he thought that ‘defunding the police’ was the right path to reforming law enforcement in this country. Mr. Gladwell responded that he was asking the wrong question. He went on to explain that you have to first decide what you want, before knowing whether it will cost more or less. “The right question is ‘How do we fix it?’ And then once we’ve answered that question, let’s deal with the question of money.” Hearing him talk was akin to being in a foreign land and finally hearing someone speak your language.
This post is not about the current political upheavals in my country – although I agree with Mr. Gladwell that the right question for all of them really is “What do you want?” When that question is asked, all too rarely from what I’ve seen, the answers are vague (An end to racism!), too high level (Defund the police!), or challenging (You need to learn for yourself!). But this post is not about those very worthy causes. It is about what I, and a few friends, have noticed in our culture over all – which is the lack of being able to answer the question, “What do you want?”
Of course, most of us can answer that question on a personal level. I want a big house. I want to get married. I want a good job. I could go on with the things people say that they want. Often people, within their means, have a plan for how they want to achieve those things. If I want a good job, I might have a plan that starts with finishing high school, going to college, looking for an entry level position in my chosen field, etc. Or, it might be entering a trade school, or the family business. Even if you cannot define a ‘good job’, odds are that you have set a path of obvious steps that you will need to take.
Unfortunately, in this rapidly changing world driven by technology, there seems to be a pattern of reaction setting in – rather than the previously admired path of setting a goal and determining the steps needed to achieve it. Too often a student goes off to college because it’s a step in a long pattern of socially accepted behaviors, without knowing where they are trying to go on the other side. Having grown up around higher education, and spending most of my career there, I have seen the problems that result from that approach.
A friend and I have similar approaches to our road trips. We like to pick a general direction, maybe with a specific end point, analyze our possible paths to get there – then just hit the road. Drive on a given day until you feel like stopping. Take an occasional side road, knowing how you get back to the main road. If you know the end destination, and the general path to get there, you can be flexible with what occurs in between. The journey may look different from your plan – the end destination may even be slightly different – but you’ve made it to the beach, or the snow, or whatever target you were after.
He and I use this metaphor all the time when talking about our jobs. Over the past decade, or so, we’ve watched as everything around us becomes reactionary. Leaders tell us to start working on a project. When questions are asked about the project, the answers are vague and clearly indicate there is no specific destination – no vision for what we are trying to accomplish. A vague gap was simply identified, and we are like a horse given conflicting signals – desperately trying everything we can, hoping that something we do will finally stop the barrage of kicks, pokes, and jabs we’re feeling.
Any journey needs to begin with an idea of where you want to end up. That may be as specific as a certain hotel in Seattle; or as vague as ‘the beach’. Without the destination, you cannot even know what direction to start in. We may be on the verge of all having driverless cars – but even those will need you to pick a destination. Without some vision, you will drive around aimlessly – and that quickly gets expensive. There are some who can live their lives that way, but society certainly cannot function or thrive on aimlessness.
I am the last person to tout making goals. I’ve never believed much in the “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” questions in interviews. Life takes many turns – predictability is not in the cards for most of us. On an individual it can certainly work fine to ‘go with the flow’ and not make too many plans. But when you start to talk collective action, it pays to have a vision, and to make sure everyone shares the same vision – at least they all agree that they want ‘the beach’ and not ‘the snow’. I struggle with that at work, where vision has been in short supply in recent years. Everyone is rowing very hard, yet it feels like we’re going in a circle – or worse, going nowhere at all.
I see a similar thing in the ‘defund the police’ movement. Many people say what it means – yet they all have a different vision. Some say it does not mean getting rid of the police – but some say that it does. The easy work is always the catch phrase or the problem statement. The harder work is to come up with a vision that resonates. A destination that is clear enough so the steps needed to get there can begin to be defined. The hard work is also in being flexible enough that if you find that a detour is required, you can take it without losing direction to your end goals. But also flexible enough to say that if you end up in Pacific Grove instead of Monterey, the views are just as beautiful and you still get plenty of beach!