Killing Fear part 6: Strategy, change, and fear

[Part one is here. Two. Three. Four. Five.]

Okay, this is a big one.

Start with this TED talk. It’s really really good.

Gottlieb observes that most of us are working harder and harder, planning and planning, and things aren’t getting better. She says that when she and her partner took a look at the plans that people made, the things that they worked hard on, and which were so strongly meant and deeply felt, and saw that they weren’t getting any traction, they asked WHY.

She posits that when we ask about change in our culture, we talk about what we don’t want. We look for change in what we dislike, not in our goals. Not in what we do want. And she astutely notes that eliminating something negative does not get us to something possible and yearned for – it gets us to stasis. To 0. Instead of striving to get rid of things we dislike, we need instead to reach for what’s possible and what we yearn for, moving beyond the removal of the negative to get to a positive.

And Gottlieb also suggests that we all know how to do this. And we do!

If we talked about how to get me to my flight to Anaheim for ALA, most of us would start with what time I need to be at the airport to get on my plane, and then count backwards – getting to the airport means being there an hour early, and leaving time for the ferry, and so I should leave the house at 9 am, so the alarm needs setting for 7:30, which means I need to finish packing my suitcase the night before, etcetera and onward back to the moment in time that is your starting point. We reverse engineer the planning in our daily lives almost instinctively – it’s how most of us get places on time with intent.

Except, that’s not how most of us do our organizational strategic planning. In those cases, we study the shit out of today. As Gottlieb sees it, we root ourselves in today and plan for tiny steps forward as a reactive strategy tethered to our understanding of today. This is certainly true of most of the planning experiences in my professional career – self study, external review, build a plan. That’s our process in academia, and it tells us tons about today, and leads to lots of movement from -1 to 0 as regards our assessment of today.

But we know how to do proactive strategy. We do it in the rest of our lives, every day. We just seem to be unable – and possibly afraid – to apply it to our organizational planning. It feels too bold. It’s scary.

Scary cannot – must not – be a roadblock. Peter Bregman’s TED talk on fear is worth checking out.

Bregman says that “We learn by falling face first into the unknown, and then exploring our surroundings when we get there.” Kids do it all the time – you ever seen a 3 year old on downhill skis? They just throw themselves down the hill, and they fall, and they laugh, and they get up and do it again. But when we get to be adults, we know the falling is coming. And we’re further from the ground. And it’s scary. So we try not to fall. And as a result, we don’t learn.

If we want to learn, we have to feel the uncomfortable emotions that go along with learning – there’s no other way to do it. You can either stay comfortable, or reach your full potential. You have to choose. Bregman tells an anecdote about a woman and her grandson, and the little boy is staring at a big flight of stairs. She asks what’s wrong, and he says, “I don’t like the steps”. And she replies, “you don’t have to like the steps, you just have to climb them.” And that’s our life as humans in the world. We don’t have to like the steps… we just have to climb them. Fear is just a piece of our world, another thing we have to integrate into our daily functioning.

Bregman encourages us all to take a look at our institutions, and consider “What are the undiscussables?” Find out what those are – find out what things we’re too resistant, afraid, or hesitant to talk about. The undiscussables are the things we will gladly ignore for 10 years, and we all have them. Bregman encourages us to identify them… and then discuss them. Confront them. Because those are the things we most need to change, but they are also the things we are afraid of. (And fear prevents us from learning.)

I think this is the logical next step: as librarians, we have to explore our fears if we want to move past them, if we want to learn, if we want to grow, if we want to change, if we want to move. It’s comfortable right here, in the now, where we like how things were and how things are and we’ve spent a lot of time examining the present… but if we want to move forward, we’re going to have to acknowledge our fear, honor it, feel it, and then choose to climb the steps.

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