A Failure of Imagination

In Uncategorized on July 13, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Maybe you’ve noticed I am not writing as many posts as I used to.  And I must say this might be my last one on this blog.  I apologize for its length.

I started writing this blog as a reminder of my own promise as I ventured into my fiftieth year.  I have found that promise and it is alive and well.  What I have not yet found is the outlet for that promise.  What I mean by that is a way to use it to make a difference in the world.  Maybe I am not meant to.  I am not giving up, but what I know is I really don’t know what else to say.

What I learned a long time ago was the best way to learn, the best way to make a difference, was to listen.  Listen to people, listen to current affairs, listen mostly to Nature.

Since I left my job in February, I have listened and worked at the same time.  I have spent 18 hours a day learning and listening.  I’ve tried to offer my “take” on what I am hearing.  I have not found my medium yet.  Words, at least the words I know, fail me.

I’ve always been very good at seeing “the field,” seeing the big picture.  I predicted all of the calamities in a general fashion that we face now almost a decade ago.  I’ve tried telling people what I was seeing and people did not want to listen because I am not good enough with words to make my case.

Each week I have 5-10 conversations that last over 2 hours with people who ask me what I think, who ask me for “advice.”  All I can offer is how I see their situation after listening to them.  I ask hard questions and make them think and I make them feel.  Robert McKee defines aesthetics as the ability to think and feel at the same time.  I like to think I bring aesthetics into people’s lives in these conversations and that engages them.

I entitled this post a failure of imagination for a reason.  My imagination has failed in communicating “the field” as I see it.  Maybe I am just wrong about things, but I don’t think so based on the evidence over the last twenty years.  But I am simply not good enough with words yet.

But here’s the thing.  In the last month I have seen several posts by people who study and preach innovation and creativity and everything they say indicates to me that we have a worldwide failure of imagination going on.  Why?  Because of fear.  Too many of our politicians, too many of the people we look to for leadership, are scared.

In many of my interviews, I heard a simple line– you must keep the desire greater than the fear in the moments that matter most.  Thomas Paine wrote that the purpose for society is to create what we want.  I would add that in a free society, in a democracy, society must also create what we need.  He added that government’s role is to protect us from our impulses.

I think too many of us are scared.  Too many of us have lost our desire or at least decreased it to the point that it now gives into our fears and consequently into our worst impulses.

The stalemate in our politics, the malaise in our society, I believe is the result of confusing our impulses with our wants.  And once we have something we want, then somehow we justify them into needs…and we become unwilling to consider that there is a difference between our standard of living (the things we have) and the quality of our lives (how life feels, how healthy our lives are).

I can tell you from my work with people I have heard horrific stories of abuse, of neglect, of evil, and of complacency.  Secrets.  Things people don’t tell, in their own words, even the people closest to them.  I have seen people do dishonest things and rationalize them as business.  I have heard well meaning people say they need all the luxury items they have in their lives because of their kids.  I have people tell me they can’t listen to people or focus on a problem because of their ADD nature (few of them having been officially diagnosed).

But here’s what I know.  When I sit and listen to someone for hours, when I hear them recount the promise inside of them, they tell me that a 3 hour conversation felt like 20 minutes.  They thank me for listening.  And as I said I do this several times a week.

I also know the studies that show we are distracted by our technology and that leads to a shortened, even challenged, attention span.

I also know that when I have a meaningful conversation with someone, when I listen to them, there is no deficit of attention, rather full engagement.

I know that people want and need meaning.  If they are distracted it is by the fear we all live with.  If they are not innovative or creative, it is because it is seen as not productive and therefore, they will not risk it.

We have a failure of imagination from the people we need it from the most– all of us.  That includes me.  I simply do not know what to say.  So I listen.

My promise in my fiftieth year, one of the hardest financially of my life, is completely intact.  I know it not by what I say, but by what I hear.  When I talk too much, I know it is because I, too, am afraid.  When I talk too much it is because I don’t agree with or like what I hear.  When I talk too much, it simply means I have no idea what to say.  According to Harry Frankfurt, who wrote On Bullshit, that is the definition of bullshit, when people feel compelled to talk about things they know little about.  I do not know enough about how to move forward or I don’t know how to articulate it in any other way–the intersection of my failure of imagination and my bullshit.

I was prompted to write this because I listened to Andrew Ross Sorkin on Morning Joe say something I hear people say over and over.  We have to deep well drill because we need the oil.  In other words, we cannot give up something until we have a replacement for it.  I hear this from people all the time.  I can’t leave my job I hate until I find a new job.  I can’t leave my relationship until I find someone else…and they never leave and nothing changes… and we will keep finding new places to drill.  Let’s just hope we demand cleanup strategies that work before permitting the drilling.  As The Daily Show graphically illustrated, every President since Carter has said that what we’re doing isn’t working when it comes to energy.

But this makes my case.  It’s bullshit.  Bullshit from people who are admitting they don’t know what they’re talking about.  They are admitting their own failure of imagination, imagining a life without the things we know aren’t working.  So if you can’t imagine that, then stay out of the conversation.  If you are admitting life isn’t working well enough, then get to work on the life we  want and need…then make the case that it will take time, but that we can change direction, and offer a solution.  Otherwise you are simply feeding fear.  And I know I am guilty of this as well so I am not simply pointing fingers.  I am looking in the mirror.

Thank God our founders didn’t this think way.  I don’t believe it is an accident we wrote the Declaration of Independence before we wrote our Constitution.  We had to be free to think freely.

So I will leave you with this.  Everything you do, every dollar you spend, every unit of personal energy, every ounce of love or fear you put into the world is an investment in something.  What are you investing in?  Why?

We have to imagine our economy moving forward not as consumers, but as investors.  In other words, to get something we need, something we want, it is not good enough to “spend” our energy or money or love.  We must invest.  And investment means risk.

I watched the National Governor’s Association Annual Meeting on C-Span the other day (I have watched every minute of all the hearings since February on BP, Energy, Financial Reform, Climate Policy, etc.) and Erskin Bowles said it very plainly.

“We face the most predictable financial crisis in our history.”  The question remains whether it is preventable.

He also added:

“We cannot grow our way out it and we cannot tax our way out of it.”

In other words, we cannot spend our way out of it.  We cannot “keep doing what we’re doing” our way out of it.  We can’t just go shopping.

So what does that leave?  Investing in our imagination.  We can invest in our freedom.

Maybe I am wrong.  Maybe our imaginations are alive and well creating and feeding the fear.  Let’s invest in it more wisely.

What we need is to write our own Declaration of Independence, not from the State, but from the society we have created, built too much on consumption and spending.  Then and only then can we write our own Constitution, that of which we “constitute” the society we need and want.


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