"When you're digging a ditch, don't look up."
A scout leader gave me this advice 36 years ago, when I was eleven. At the time, I was actually digging a ditch, so I understood his meaning! Hard tasks can be slow to yield. Those words, "don't look up," have stayed with me over the years as I confronted many difficult challenges. To me, the expression served as a reminder to have patience, to soldier on even when success isn't visible. Take the long view, that's what the wise man said. Checking progress against a difficult task can really discourage us. And there's that word again, courage, buried behind the "dis." In my advancing (some might even say quickly concluding!) middle age, however, I have come to distrust the patient, long view. As the famous economist John Maynard Keyes said, "In the long run, we're all dead." Extremely slow progress might deserve another name: failure. In the famous words of William Gladstone, the 19th Century British statesman, "Justice delayed is justice denied." During many years in leadership roles in the public and nonprofit sector, I have noticed that "the long view" often enters wearing compelling costumes. One mask is "faith in the process." Leaders who buy into the religion of process often spend substantial time focusing on how things get done. A process focus often leads to an investigation of best practices. In such settings, the dominant belief is that doing things the right way will lead to the desired outcomes, eventually. A commitment to best practices also implies a focus on research, founded on faith that others have successfully encountered our problems before. Process focus also tends towards the specialization and professionalization of tasks, making progress reliant on consultants, highly-educated and often expensive. In its worst manifestation, process focus can cause organizations to descend into literally months and years of examining internal rules and procedures. When this course reaches its outer limits, organizations develop many layers of people making rules and meta-rules, painstakingly pointing out all the infractions of those below them in the rule hierarchy. The creation and perpetuation of bureaucracy threatens to become a poor substitute for getting things done. In the end, painfully, slowly, expensively and with the utmost perfection, nothing is accomplished. We shovel really well, but in the end we still haven't created the ditch.The point is simply this: talk is cheap. Ideas untested by reality are cheap.
Another disguise of the long view is focus on abstract principles and values. Here the premise is that if we promote the right ideals, good results will happen, someday. A corollary belief in this setting is that if we are not "walking the walk," the cause must be that we are not "talking the talk." Unfortunately, experience teaches us that, all too often, the people who are the biggest espousers of principles and values are also the biggest flaunters. (So many spectacular examples of moralizing scoundrels have made the national news recently--no need to recount their bizarre exploits here!) Interestingly, people with high integrity often do not talk much about their values and principles, preferring to let their actions speak for themselves. Of course, there are counter examples on both sides. There are those who preach loudly, faithfully living out their doctrine, and also those who flout law, morality and ethics, but discretely, avoiding hypocrisy, at least. The point is simply this: talk is cheap. Ideas untested by reality are cheap. Unfortunately, in our modern institutions, digging a ditch often becomes a highfalutin exercise in talking about "good" ditch digging while the shovels sit idle. And the windbags doing the talking rarely get anyone closer to having a functioning ditch! After a long life of "not looking up" within organizations that are mired in process, principles, and values, but lacking meaningful achievements, people often take on the persona of Sisyphus, the mythic King cursed to roll a boulder up a hill, only to watch it come rolling back down. Perhaps you have seen this "Sisyphean" look before. Grim. Determined. Nose to the grindstone. The look that says, "We are on the Titanic and we are riding it into the cold deep, all the way to the bottom." I recently saw that look on the face of a basketball player, his team down 30 points with five minutes to go, still fighting for every rebound. It is the look of honor in defeat. Hopefully not the look in the mirror!
I served as a narcotics prosecutor for several years. I will never forget the day a senior leader in my department told me, "Dave, things will go a lot easier when you realize we are powerless to change what's going on out there. We're giving aspirin to a terminal cancer patient." Sisyphus. He was a good man who knew the system didn't work but kept on trying anyway. There are so many such people in systems across America. In their hearts they no longer believe success is possible, but they go through the motions because "looking up" and confronting system failure hurts too much. It is easier and more comforting to keep shoveling, taking the long view, with faith in our process and principles. At least I am still trying. This is what we say to ourselves as the boulder rolls back. What is the courage to "look up"? What does it mean? It starts with crediting our own observations of reality rather than believing a fable when its narrative no longer rings true in our experience. Beware. Those defending the status quo will question the credentials of those showing the courage to confront reality. They will deny the visceral experience of system failure by attacking the perception of the failure. "Who are you to say that the ditch cannot be dug? Are you a professional ditch digger? Have you been to ditch-digging University? How long have you been digging?" But what happens if the ditch digger credits his or her own common sense, puts down the shovel, looks up, and says, "If this is the solution, we've still got a problem. Isn't there a better way?" The willingness, the courage, to credit common sense experience is one of the great well springs of American progress. As Emerson wrote inSelf Reliance:
Let us bow and apologize never more. A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to please me. I will stand here for humanity, and though I would make it kind, I would make it true. Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face of custom and trade and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor moving wherever moves a man; that a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the center of things. Where he is, there is nature.
Something powerful and deeply liberating rises inside us when we have the courage to look up, when we recognize outright failure, or its close cousin, progress that is so slow it amounts to failure.In that difficult moment, we may recognize losses, wastes of time, missed opportunities.But the courage to stop doing what does not work often opens important paths to new strategies. The great leaders of our time have had the courage not only to persist, but also to stay focused on painful reality and to continue to innovate in the face of poor performance. Breakthroughs come when we persist in meeting failure with new strategies. So what should we tell a scout of the future? Don't play Sisyphus. Instead, come to work with a commitment to blast that boulder into orbit.And as you do, keep this in mind. When you're digging a ditch, look up.And if hard work doesn't produce meaningful progress, then stop.And go get some dynamite.