My future was wide open!
These are the words I quoted from a Tom Petty song in last week’s blog to capture my feeling of my youth. the future and all the possibilities that were waiting for me just ahead.
A person who read the article asked me about facing the variety of “forks in the road” and what do you do with that. What happens to the “road, or roads, not chosen.”. It reminded me that some options, submerge, only to reappear at a later time, another harvest, while some simply fade awayl
Her question prompted me to think again about that divergent road. It brought to heart and mind the American poet, Robert Frost.
Robert Frost captured it poetically for me in The Road Not Taken, talking of two roads diverging, and the inherent choice. Frost talks of decision, of deciding to take “the one less traveled by” which according to him, made all the difference. The decision you make will bring about a difference. This was an early discovery of truth for me, and I vowed to carry it on down the road.
Earlier in life, I had been captured as a boy by Frost on a cold January day, reading his poetry at the inauguration of President Kennedy. Frost’s white shock of hair contrasted the copper crop on top of our new President’s crown. His poem there, The Gift Outright, spoke of the hope, courage and daring that characterized the time in which I grew up, a verve that seems so far away now. I later dove more deeply into Frost, thanks to my English teacher and our high school’s motto, “promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep” which I oddly took seriously.
Thinking back on Frost, it prompts me to remember a moment in my career when my therapist called my existential hand. It was early in the morning. I had a 7 AM appointment with the best psychiatrist in Atlanta, at least that’s what I thought, and was the word on the street.
He looked at me through his old Irish eyes, probably a bit hungover from a long night and some Irish whiskey. His morning joust at my soul, “Someday David, you have to stop being a promising young man, and you have to deliver.”
I had been blessed with a variety of talents that made it hard to choose just one. I had collected a passel of people who wanted me to take up their projects and follow them. My collection of daddy figures had a lot to do with my crazy family background but nevertheless, he pointed out a real issue for me. I wanted to do it all. I’ve called it the “Jethro Bodine” complex, who told his Uncle Jed, with earnest sincerity, that he wanted to either be a brain surgeon or a soda jerk. Keeping options open is the name of the tune.
A Texas friend, Mike Murray, helped me to conceptualize it one day. He told me to think about the word, “cide”. It means literally, to kill.
Homicide. Suicide. Herbicide. Pesticide. The “cide” implies something is about to die.
And then there is de-cide. Decide means that an idea, an option is going to have to die. You are killing off options. A serial killer of ideas. A multiple murderer of options. How’s that for creativity, sports fans?
That was real for me. It felt heinous. Perverse, even. Certainly, it was a concept that was limiting to my “wide open”.
Making relational/love decisions meant deciding to dive into one person, while leaving other possibilities behind. Marriage was a profound moment to de-cide.
Choosing a profession meant deciding to do “this”, and not “that”, or “these”. The promising young man wanted to do it all. My therapist was literally calling the question.
I absolutely love brainstorming sessions, where any idea or possibility can gain life, can breathe with possibility. Like Dr. Frankenstein, I love to bring life to inanimate ideas and concepts.
But there comes a time in a creative process when the plug has to be pulled on some ideas, allowing them to die, while the focus turns to one. Euthanasia or the death penalty, it had to be done.
My colleague and teacher, Robert Miles, developed a creative process at the Harvard Business School which was imported down South to Emory, intended to breathe spirit into beleaguered organizations. It begins with the space wide open, looking for possibilities. But then, comes a time. a time to decide.
For Bob’s methodology, it forces a choice of three options, or growth initiatives. As a practitioner of this method, the hardest work I do is leading organizations and leaders to choose just three. Like me, they want to do it all. They rightly see that there are other things that need to get done in order for the organization to thrive. But Bob’s genius is in the deciding. What three are MOST important? The process of deciding is serious business. You can lose your livelihood, or your life.
I don’t know how many times I have worked with executive teams, or with a person, trying to hone in on three things on which to focus. One day stands out. I had spent a full day with an executive team of a large metropolitan hospital, reviewing their mission, noting the gaps in their performance that begged for correction, and then beginning the planning for the future.
The morning was easy. We reviewed the past of the organization, clarified the vision, mission, and core values. We identified the specific opportunities and dangers that lay ahead, trying to be honest in assessment and in anticipation.
Then we moved into “open space” as we dreamed and imagined what the possibilities are for the future. That’s when creative juices flow, energy surges, and imagination fires. This is when “the popcorn pops”. By now, you have discerned that it is my favorite time. But in the afternoon, we were called to transition from the world of possibility to the realm of the real.
We had worked all afternoon on choosing the top three initiatives to focus on in the next year. They call it strategic planning which means deciding what you are going to do, but more importantly, what you are NOT going to do. What three things could we center our energy on to make a difference for our future? This action narrows the focus, aligns the limited energy and time to take care of the critical needs of the organization. It’s one of the most important things that leaders do, and it’s one of the most exciting things I get to do as a consultant.
We finally had our three. I was feeling good, accomplishing the goal for the day.. I was beginning to pack my briefcase to depart for a six o’clock flight back to Atlanta. The whiteboard behind me on the end of the conference room showed the fruit of our labor for the day, a proud product of creativity and strategic decision-making. Three initiatives that would guide this organization for the next year; three initiatives that would be passed on to the middle management team; three initiatives that would be cascaded down through the organization, not unlike the chocolate from the top of the fountain at a God-forsaken buffet that I know that is anything but Golden. Corral, definitely.
As I was zipping up the bag, the CEO of the hospital interrupted: Can we add just one more thing to the list?
Now, I love hearing Dylan sing, One More Coffee Before I Go. But I hate hearing this question of adding another option after we have invested the afternoon focusing the group. This question grabs me deep down in my soul and shakes me. It betrays the fact that this leader didn’t get it. And if he doesn’t get it, I know, in my organizational heart, that his team, and his hospital will not get it. This moment laid bare both that I had not finished my work of leading this leader and team, and reminded me of how resistant we are to the work of focus.
I put down my briefcase, took off my corporate-issued blazer, sat down and got ready for my come-to-Jesus sermon on change, and to miss my flight. Oh, the sins of resistance to change. They will lead you straight lickety-split to Hell. Here we go, boys and girls.
Deciding is hard work, fraught with wondering if there is a way to avoid the bloody mess of decision. It’s true for humans in our life decisions. It’s true for businesses and organizations. And it’s true for countries and cultures. We have to decide. Aware of options, exercising our freedom, we decide.
I am thrown back to the Poet who reminds us of the consequences of choice. There, on a snowy evening or in the summer sand, options are before us. What do we choose to do? What do we choose not to do? What ideas get life, and which do we slay?
Decisions face us constantly.. Where to eat? What to buy? What to watch? As Lyle Lovett framed it perfectly: after much thought and deliberation, make mine a CHEESE burger.
But every so often, a deciding moment comes along in which we viscerally sense the importance and significance of our decision. And indeed, it will make all the difference. The glory and burden of deciding.
What decisions are you facing? What decisions are you avoiding? Those moment that are defining may need careful review before the killing of options commence. How do you decide? I spend a good bit of time helping people think through those moments and to make thoughtful, mindful decisions. Give those moment the time and energy they need so that your de-ciding will be wise. It will make all the difference in the world.