So it’s a sham…
More often than not–certainly in the last 18 months–this is the response my wife hears from me. Talking about her work or mine, our sons’ daycare, the decisions a local business or government makes, or countless other instances of daily life. You and I are no different. We are unique in our own ways but also exactly the same. We both want the best for our spouses, children, family, and friends. We both seek a better version of ourselves each day and wake up grateful (hopefully) that God gave us at least one more sunrise. We both, deep down, want to trust in the honesty and forthrightness of other humans and the systems they build.
What happens shortly thereafter, once we’ve stepped out beyond the safe confines of home, is that we confront what reality IS compared to the vision of what SHOULD or COULD BE. “It Is What It Is” remains among the most frustrating phrases in the military lexicon. It became so ubiquitous among my peers in 2010, our instructors made patches for our flight suits. They were “morale” patches only, so of course they weren’t “official” or “authorized.” The irony oozes from this story–for not only had the Air Force prohibited the expression of morale-boosting messages and artwork for years, but it also forced airmen to find morale-boosting qualities in the dumbest, most discouraging phrases and images possible. Like “It Is What It Is,” a phrase that reminds us all there’s nothing we can do about the reality in which we find ourselves. By implication, it also means Yes, of course this sucks. And it could be better. But we’ll never make it better. So forget about giving a shit.
To some extent, it is true that our reality is immovable. What we can control is our reaction, our response. This is a vital message for those who want to place the burden for their lives on everyone else but themselves. We are responsible for the life we live and the life we wish to live. It is also true that the systems around us have failed at times or more slowly over time. They failed because humans designed them from the start and (quickly in some cases) lost sight of the system’s original vision. If it had a vision at all. We face systems like this all of the time and never think twice. I’m not talking about a political system or government, though that might be a fair conclusion to reach.
I’m talking about the people we appoint to positions of responsibility. Or the school systems we’ve established ostensibly to promote engaged citizenship and diverse perspectives. Even for-profit and non-profit organizations that purport to accomplish one thing, yet as a result of the system they created then failed to maintain, stand in opposition to the original target. We are all connected and much of the information we absorb and apply is interconnected. Yet we discourage each other from integrating those inputs in ways that would benefit more people and help us solve this era’s most intractable problems. Benjamin Franklin was a polymath and is revered. You know the story–a young journalist who made a name through study of natural science, then at some point served as the United States’ first Ambassador to France. Find me someone today who has written for and published a city newspaper, conducted and published research in atmospheric sciences, and was appointed a senior Foreign Service Officer. Perhaps they’re out there. But I doubt it. And that worries me.
That’s why The Last Question is coming back. Close to its original form but with tweaks. Primary among them, I’m publishing the show I’ve always wanted to publish. I know I said that before, or at least may have, but I still held myself back. And I’m sure you could hear it. I’ve heard from a number of you who appreciated the show and/or liked a particular episode. Recently, as I met friends for drinks and dinner, one of them had barely sat down before telling me she was “behind” in listening but really liked the episode one episode in particular. The conversation felt authentic to her, “real,” and of course was relatable since my guest, my friend, and I are all military (and Air Force) veterans. To my friend out there, whose name I’ll protect for privacy reasons, thank you. Believe it or not, that feedback means the world and helps me see that I may yet have some value to offer others. And it suggests that perhaps I was fulfilling some component to my purpose by publishing the show, however small the audience or subscriber list was. I know these things take time. Perhaps I didn’t work on it long enough. But really, I wasn’t working on the project I wanted to work on. I wasn’t building what I wanted to build.
The Last Question, Season 2, releases in January 2022. Among the changes you should hear:
- I’m recording several episodes prior to next year’s release, to better assure content that is presented and available consistently.
- I’m doubling-down on conversations, focusing on talking with leaders of all stripes, and engaging your heart and mind in the broadest way imaginable.
- Speaking of “leaders,” the show will still talk a lot about leadership. John Maxwell, like him or not, is right when he says that “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” EVERYTHING.
- But leadership can be defined in so many ways, just tossing out more opinions on how to “manage” a team or communicate or present yourself won’t do much good. There’s a near-infinite supply of information available yet we continue to fail miserably at talking with and taking care of each other.
- Humans leading humans is a critical endeavor and one that justifies constant study and discussion. But I’m learning there’s a distinction between developing leaders on the individual level and building systems that operate effectively in support of their original vision. Universities that produce high-caliber, critical thinkers as graduates. Municipal governments that personify people’s power in every day decision-making. Public and private sector supervisors who place their teammates ahead of personal ambition. It’s about doing what we’ve set out to do. What we said we would do. Making good on promises and coming clean when we don’t.
- Pay attention to that last sentence. I’m not talking about perfection. Perfection is a false god we invent and chase when we don’t know how to lead and don’t know anything about the people who trust us. Perfection implies procedure–that if only we check off the right ‘boxes’ on a roadmap or checklist, we’ll achieve some last success. Nothing could be further from the truth.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive toward perfection. We should always strive to build better and be better. We should always strive to serve in ways that positively impact more people. We will miss the mark plenty of times. We will fail a lot and fall flat on our faces. I’ve failed at work and home more times than I care to count and every one of those times hurts. You never get ‘better’ at failure but you can get used to it. And I mean that as an uplifting message. In some ways, despite my many misgivings about the Air Force’s weapons officer community, I have to credit the instructor course with conditioning me to failure. “Getting used to it” enables you to get past fears of it, albeit in a limited context. I still fear failure now, but in new pursuits and endeavors that are wholly foreign to me. When it came to the job and institution I knew–nuclear operations and the Air Force–I was confident as a leader. While I work to get back to that level of performance again, I want to understand why more people can’t build up their resilience that way…without the constant mental and emotional abuse from a staff of holier-than-thou teachers. (And yes, I was one of those teachers for almost two years. I’m just as guilty as the others.)
Systems are everything and exist everywhere you live, work, and play. If we don’t get a handle on how they work and how we can (and must) make them work better, all is lost. I really believe that. What else must we do but make the world and its systems better for the next generation who find them? Join me for Season 2 early next year and on this website for more in the near future. Feel free to subscribe to hear from me more, and never hesitate to email me with a question, comment, feedback, or new idea. After all, we’re all in this together.
If you’ve been with me along this journey from the start, you know it’s been an up-and-down ride. Thanks for reading all the way through and for allowing me the chance to indulge my own curiosities. Hopefully, in due course, I’ll help you indulge some of your own too.