The tranquilizing drug of gradualism

In his “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged a slow and steady pathway to civil rights reform.

Those in favor of an incremental approach feared that making waves–that being too confrontational–would backfire. It was seen as too risky a strategy.

MLK argued that patiently working against the wrongs endured by millions created the illusion of progress. He worried that by merely chipping away at injustice, we were lulled into a sense of advancement when very little was actually being accomplished. Gradualism was not only misguided, it was actually more risky. Ultimately, our delusions prevented us from making substantive change; the change that was so desperately needed. And still is.

These challenges are hardly unique to the struggle for social justice.

Many organizations say all the right things but do very little. Companies invest piles of money and countless hours in largely meaningless tweaks to their offerings. Simple product line extensions count for “innovation” at many brands. New executive titles are created–and organizations re-shuffled–to suggest that something important is happening. Yet that something is typically more of the same under a different guise.

All too often we become intoxicated by our words at the expense of our actions.

Continuous improvement fighting fundamental disruption or intractable systemic malaise just doesn’t cut it.

A frenzy of activity (supported by cool PowerPoint decks and/or lots of impassioned speeches) may make us feel good, but until it ships it doesn’t count.

And unless we can rise above the clutter, the noise, the rhetoric–if our work doesn’t make waves–well, we might as well not bother in the first place.

A version of this post originally appeared on my business blog at http://www.stevenpdennis.com

Without official rank or title

 

Perhaps we’ve forgotten that Martin Luther King Jr. was never elected to run the civil rights movement or appointed to the job. He didn’t have “take on the entire nation’s long history of racial injustice” in his position description as a Baptist minister. And I’m fairly certain he didn’t suddenly decide to go change the world because he was ordered to do so by his boss, a Board of Directors or some steering committee. In fact, while he was encouraged by many, he was also vilified and challenged by many more.

We can only wonder what might have happened had King decided to wait around to be officially anointed or had hesitated to act boldly in the hope that others might step up first to take the heat and scorn.

Decades after King’s work the “is-ness of today” still stands in stark contrast to “the ought-ness of tomorrow.”

And every day we remain confronted by opportunities to challenge a status quo that isn’t working across many aspects of our lives and those of our brothers and sisters.

Sometimes that challenge shows up as a minor slight, other times it’s a devastating hurt. Sometimes it’s a system that simply doesn’t serve clients all that well, other times it’s one that perpetuates systemic injustice.

Every day we get to choose whether we will assume it’s always someone else’s job to act or whether we will be an uncrowned leader. Every day we decide whether it matters whether it’s in our official job description to step up or whether it is our personal responsibility as a part of our shared humanity.

If we plan on waiting to make a difference in the world until we get promoted or it’s in our job title we are likely to be waiting a long, long time.

As President Barack Obama reminds us “the arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”

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Seeing around the corner

If very recent events tell us anything, polls, elaborate analyses and unbridled prognostication from “experts” only goes so far. Your best friend could be Nate Silver and you are still going to get a lot of stuff wrong.

It turns out nobody has a crystal ball or the perfect predictive model. We may have a pretty educated guess about what’s around the corner, but we are bound to be surprised–or even shocked–a fair amount of the time.

The truth is expectations so often suck the joy out of us.

Our fantasy of being in control undermines our happiness time and time again.

Fear of the future keeps us stuck.

Yet we shouldn’t conclude that we must gird ourselves for relentless disappointment or simply throw our hands up in despair as we are cast between the waves of the world’s events.

We only live in this present moment.

And as Shakespeare reminds us “there is nothing either good or bad, only thinking makes it so.”

Ultimately being on the path is to accept the things we cannot change, set our intention towards the things we can and, most importantly, find beauty in the unpredictability of this one precious life we’ve been given.

 

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