© 2008, The Institute for Applied Common Sense
Let's talk about innovation. Much has been made of President Bush’s historic, low approval ratings, which have been in the 25 – 30 % range for quite some time.
However, there was a recent poll far more troubling from my perspective, that being the poll reflecting that 81% of the American public feels that the country is headed in the wrong direction.
I would suspect, truth be told, that the figure is actually closer to 98%. I would also submit that the President’s low ratings are a reflection of what we currently feel about ourselves as a Nation. After all, we allowed him to be placed in that position of authority – on two occasions.
I seriously doubt that anyone really relishes where the United States finds itself today, unless you are outside of the United States and have interests antithetical thereto.
We will probably have a record turnout for the presidential election this November. Virtually everyone is afraid of something about our current state. I, too, recognize the importance of projecting a positive, confident, upbeat image to the world; but the world sees through this.
Certain groups in our Nation are concerned about what we have become. Some are concerned about where we might go should a particular candidate win. Others are concerned about the power and influence of the church or religion.
Many feel vulnerable to another terrorist attack. And of course, there is the economy. Simply put, these are not the most comfortable of times.
However, the real question is whether we, as a nation, have the confidence and intestinal fortitude to get beyond this. Some others might describe it as the political and social will of the nation.
Last year, in my role as a motivational speaker, I had the opportunity to engage various groups of college students. Often times during the presentations, someone would make reference to the concept that “you can be anything that you want to be if you put your mind to it.”
Being a pragmatist, I would obliquely suggest that the concept is not literally or entirely true, but that rather one can be anything that one wants to be, within reason, and taking into consideration the time, the place, the resources, and on and on.
I would offer as an example, the fact that a five foot, obese, 45 year old, could probably not become a professional basketball player. I stressed the importance of a pragmatic assessment of one’s skills and resources, the market or arena into which one wants to enter, or the goal that one wants to achieve.
And then I thought about it. Something had changed in me, or something had changed about the realm of possibilities.
Part of it, I’m sure, is advancing age and realism. However, I was still concerned that my spirit had been affected, and I always prided myself on having an indomitable spirit.
I further recalled that during most of my life, I personally felt that I really could be anything that I wanted to be. Then I thought about the possibility that my age group or generation might be less optimistic about the future, but that the youth of the Nation were still very upbeat and had a positive outlook.
Well, the 81% figure quickly disabused me of that notion.
If you’ve been reading my “stuff” over any period of time now, you’ve probably noticed that I rarely respond to singular events, since I rarely consider them, in and of themselves, to be of much significance.
I have a tendency to examine multiple, disparate events, consider patterns, and examine events in history to gain some long term perspective. This is no different.
In his significant work, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (http://books.google.com/books?id=LvkVTPcYwEwC&q=Paul+Kennedy&dq=Paul+Kennedy&ei=GIk1SMvrOpzkyASXpOzLDw&pgis=1 ), Yale professor Paul Kennedy discusses and analyzes patterns that exist during the ascent to power, and those associated with the power’s subsequent decline.
Originally published in 1987, and after receiving rave reviews at the time, I am simply amazed that so little reference is made to it in the current discussion of where we are as a Nation. Anyone examining the book will immediately note that Kennedy did his homework, in that it is replete with economic data, which actually makes it somewhat difficult to digest.
Be that as it may, he concludes that there are three main factors that appear to repeatedly contribute to the decline of a world power. Two of them are of relevance to the United States at this point in time.
Kennedy submits that one factor is that the power is overextended militarily throughout the world, which leads to a depletion of its coffers, and a drain on its economy and energy.
The second involves technology. As a general proposition, the country which possesses the highest level of technology, which also translates to the most sophisticated and effective weapons, stays in power. It generally has spent a considerable period of time, and a significant component of its resources, on research and development associated with that technology.
When such a power exports its technology and that technology is easily and quickly duplicated by others without the attendant investment in its development, other emerging economic powers can then adopt it and overtake the inventing country. Not only is the technology exported in such a transition, but the scientific knowledge base is also adversely affected, along with the technology workforce.
All of the preceding having been said, this piece is not about doom and gloom. It’s about the potential of the United States if and when it applies itself.
It is about what can be done by the citizens of this great country, when we are focused, and we have effective political and social will. The question to be asked, as with many things in life, is whether we are sufficiently motivated.
Earlier this week, David Miliband, the young and dynamic Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary of Great Britain, appeared on the Charlie Rose Show. (http://www.charlierose.com/guests/david-miliband) Charlie repeatedly asked Miliband about the current role of the United States and whether it still wielded power in the eyes of other countries. Miliband repeatedly responded that the United States is “The Power.”
He also said that for anything meaningful to be accomplished in the world, the United States has to exert some influence, and that we can do anything that we are sufficiently motivated to do.
Jeffrey Sachs is generally recognized as one of the most influential thinkers of our time. He is the Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. (http://www.earthinstitute.columbia.edu/sections/view/9). He recently published a new book, Common Wealth (http://books.google.com/books?id=t6HDAAAACAAJ&dq=%22Jeffrey+sachs%22&ei=HAU2SLzXDYu4yQTxm8zLDw).
During a recent presentation, Sachs argued that we the people of the world are biologically hard-wired and poorly led to always think in terms of us versus them.
He advocates a paradigm shift consisting of intellectual collaboration. Simply put, we are capable of thinking our way out of the problems which we are surely about to face, be they global warming or food scarcities. According to Sachs, if we propose a potential solution to a problem, there will always be negative ramifications associated with that solution.
However, we as humans have to capability to address those problems and try to minimize the impact through thinking. We can not be paralyzed by failing to utilize our problem solving capabilities and continuing to conduct business as usual.
There is another scientific development that I would submit for your consideration. In an article entitled, “Can You Become a Creature of New Habits,” appearing in the May 4, 2008 edition of the New York Times, Janet Rae-Dupree quotes Dawna Markova, as follows: “The first thing needed for innovation is a fascination with wonder.” Markova is the author of The Open Mind: Exploring the Six Patterns of Natural Intelligence, and an executive change consultant for Professional Thinking Partners.
Markova argues that we are taught today in our society to decide, as opposed to think. She adds, however, that, “…to decide is to kill off all possibilities but one. A good innovational thinker is always exploring the many other possibilities.” According to Markova, most of us do not pay much attention to the manner in which our brain works when we deal with complications.
During the late 1960s, researchers discovered that humans have an innate capacity to deal with challenges in four general ways: relationally (or collaboratively), procedurally, analytically, and innovatively. Interestingly, at puberty, the brain stops relying on roughly half of its capabilities, and begins to rely on only those modes of thought that have been deemed most effective during the first decade or so of life.
Markova is concerned that the current emphasis on standardized testing highlights analysis and procedure. This means that few of us use our innovative and collaborative modes of thought. According to M. J. Ryan, author of the 2006 book, “This Year I Will...” and Ms. Markova’s business partner, “This breaks the major rule in the American belief system — that anyone can do anything.” (http://books.google.com/books?id=9BTUAAAACAAJ&dq=%22This+Year+I+Will%22&ei=7As2SKrpFJW2ygTJr4TMDw ). “That’s a lie that we have perpetuated, and it fosters mediocrity. Knowing what you’re good at and doing even more of it creates excellence.”
There is one final thing that I should note from my personal archives. During my junior year in high school in 1967, I was fortunate enough to have an English teacher who required us to read Jonathan Kozol’s then recently published Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools (http://books.google.com/books?id=QCc8AAAAIAAJ&q=%22Death+at+an+early+age%22&dq=%22Death+at+an+early+age%22&ei=MqCwSLL-Lo3IywThv9CFBw&pgis=1).
Kozol, an elementary school teacher, chronicled how the low expectations on the part of teachers translated into low performance by the students. For some reason, the message of that book stuck with me for forty years.
A couple of years ago, I was “tricked” by a buddy, whose name will go unmentioned, into substitute teaching in an environment in which I simply thought that the students had suffered a delay in their education. I proceeded to teach them in the same manner in which I would expect someone to teach me. A number of them had surprising success.
When I say surprising, they were surprised, not me. I did not have any other expectations. One teacher even remarked about my ability to reach a particular student. This surprised me, because I did not do anything particularly special or different.
During a break-out session at a subsequent state-wide community college conference, I learned for the first time that I had been dealing with developmental education students, many of whom had purported learning disabilities. Everyone in the room laughed at my lack of sophistication, and failure to recognize the nature of the student population with which I had been dealing.
I then asked the break-out session leader whether I had been doing my students a disservice by assuming that they were capable of performing at a higher level. She was actually stumped for a second. Her response was essentially, perhaps in some instances, and perhaps not in others.
Earlier today on the History Channel, I heard the story of how the
Roman Empire was divided in half, with the hope that it would be easier to manage. Unfortunately, the western European half was in significant decline, as the Dark Ages approached. On the other hand, the eastern half, with its capital in Constantinople, continued to flourish. Before becoming the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I, married Theodora (http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761564894/Theodora.html) in 523 A.D. When he became Emperor in 527 A.D., Justinian made her a joint ruler.
In 532 A.D., the Nika riot broke out in Constantinople. Although the games being held on that day were between two rival towns, both joined forces against Justinian I, and stormed the palace, out of frustration with his rule. Legend has it that Justinian was running like a defeated man, and was literally on the dock about to step onto a departing vessel into a state of exile. He entreated Theodora to flee with him. She declined. She, who incidentally had incredible sexual proclivities, purportedly said that purple, the royal color, looked just as good on her in her capacity as empress, as it would serving as funeral attire. She convinced Justinian to remain and to fight it out. He complied, and launched a ferocious battle against the rioters, and regained control (albeit briefly). (I love this story!)
The bottom line is that we, the citizens of this once and current great nation, possess the capabilities to continue to be a great nation. Our confidence is shaken right now. However, but we haven’t been knocked out. There’s a standing eight count rule in this bout. We just need to maintain our wits about us.
We can not underestimate the power of focus, the power of hope, and all that we can do when we put our minds to it. I have not yet committed to a presidential candidate. I’m not sure that there is a whole lot of difference between them. Any one of them will do just fine. However, I understand the appeal of Barack Obama, who is purportedly light on substance and specifics. He has apparently inspired some intangible quality in millions of Americans. Isn’t that what Caroline Kennedy said? His followers aren’t quite sure where he will take them or the Nation; however, they suspect that it is better than what they have witnessed recently, whatever that is.
How many of you still wonder about the possibilities?
Let’s start thinking about our future, and the rightful place of America on the planet, before it is too late.
© 2008, The Institute for Applied Common Sense