A 2009 State of Mind

Mark Milliron Catalytic Conversations Civitas Learning Space

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Buckle your seatbelts. 2009 is looking like a difficult year. From all reports, more homes will fall into foreclosure and retirement accounts will shrink. More businesses will close and jobs will be lost. Our schools will be called upon to raise standards higher, even as their budget allocations sink. Public universities and colleges will have the best of times and the worst of times. Enrollments will burgeon as displaced workers go back to school, in-place students stay longer to wait out the economy, and a changing job market demands more educational attainment. But the money needed to expand services will not follow. More accountability with less funding for the colleges and an affordability crisis for the students will be the standard fare. These challenges notwithstanding, opportunity beckons. A new administration is about to take over in Washington, bringing hope that brighter days are ahead. We’ve been promised that we’re finally going to tackle the perennial problems of healthcare, infrastructure, energy, and the environment—issues that often need a crisis to create the collective will to act. While the prospects for some businesses stink, some entrepreneurs smell opportunity—a once-in-a-lifetime chance to displace the “big players” that have fallen on hard times. In the world of education, the need for quality learning has never been greater. In addition, we have more exciting techniques and technologies maturing and emerging to teach and reach students than at any time in history. The promise of dynamic, engaging, lifelong learning seems within reach. So pick your poison. Desperation and desire are driving human motivators; and in 2009 we seem to have both in abundance. Motivation isn’t the problem. The problem we must face is getting our mind around this moment and readying ourselves to take on these challenges and opportunities in the best way possible. Put another way, our charge is to approach this coming time with the right state of mind to make the most of the moment. Here are seven ways I propose for the 2009 state of mind—a mindset that will position us for a more promising road ahead.

Tough Minded

These are not times for the faint of heart. We’ll need individuals and organizations ready and willing to face the brutal facts about what is happening in our world, work, and learning. Our challenges require good-intentioned, well-informed critical thinkers to help us move beyond angry screeds against the status quo to engaging explorations that include everything from the analyses of hard data to the work of soft reflections. Moreover, in the face of often-harsh realities, we must not be frightened by the new and novel. From the auto industry to the banking world to failing schools to under-performing colleges, we have plenty of examples of environments ready for a thoughtful, critical look. Beyond inspection and reflection, we need critical projection as well—hard thinking about what could happen by leveraging our best visioning and analytics. Even schools and colleges are beginning these progressive, prospective analyses. 2009 will be a time for thorough, tough-minded, thinking, planning, and execution.

Action Oriented

Facing hard truths can make us lose heart. Whether we’re talking about our bottom lines or drop-out rates, we may ask, “how did we ever let it get this bad?” But now is not the time for pensive pity; nor is it the time for analysis paralysis—locking ourselves in to endless loops of study and reflection and never getting on the move. 2009 is a time for action. From the single mother who heads back to school to the business that adopts social media marketing to the college that more broadly embraces blended learning, today’s trends favor those willing to step into the mix. Combining tough-minded analysis before beginning and as you continue will be a must—but movement is the key variable in this mix. The disheartened lead character in the Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne, said it best, “we have to get busy living, or get busy dying.” I spoke at a college convocation last year where a faculty member paraphrased this same quote when talking about a key decision point in his own career: he said, “I finally decided I had to get busy trying new things, or get busy retiring.” Let’s get busy bringing good ideas and insights to life in 2009!

Next Level

The tough-mindedness needed for exploration and action, however, should not result in the far-too-common eager embrace of all things new. Neither should it lead to settling for small steps that make the least amount of people upset. Tepid incrementalism is not a recipe for success in 2009. We need to strive to have our actions take us and our organizations to the next level. The Obama presidential campaign provided a great example of such an approach (see my contribution to this Scholastic feature). Their strategic combination of more traditional political strategies—on-ground organizing, phone banks, and volunteers—and new generation tools and techniques—online resources, social networking, and analytics—took political campaigning to the next level. It’s not surprising that this new strategy is already be modeled nationally and internationally. Sometimes going to the next level is about changing strategy and technique. Other times, it hinges on embracing the right tools and technologies. Sometimes it’s about taking the time to invest in the research and development necessary to do all of the above. It’s rarely about working harder at what we’re already doing. Expecting that to take you to the next level is the classic definition of insanity. By honoring and learning from the past as we move boldly toward the future with an improved approach, businesses, schools, colleges, universities, government agencies, and non-profits will all be better positioned to come together and move to the next level in 2009.

Broadly Connected

This is no time for Bowling Alone! We need to work on connecting with our kids, parents, extended families, friends, community members, as well as our deepest sources of inspiration and sustenance. Moreover, as Goleman demonstrates in the book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, we need to be intentional about forming and maintaining positive social connections in the process. Indeed, in difficult times, these relationships make all the difference. We can use both on-ground and online tools and techniques to connect as well. Social networks like Facebook, Bebo, LinkedIn, and Twitter can help build communities of colleagues and communities of practice like never before. Indeed, record numbers of people from all demographic categories are leveraging these tools. I come from a diverse family of nine children, and we probably know more about each other today than when we were growing up in the same house. And it’s mostly because of these social networks. Beyond social support, these broad connections help people find jobs, solve problems, and locate learning. See Sue Waters’ conversation on Personal Learning Networks (PLN) to explore how people are using PLNs to broaden perspectives, enrich understanding, and solve practical problems. If we can broadly connect to people near and far, in-person and online, we are better positioned to take on the challenges that come our way today and tomorrow. Government agencies, corporations, colleges, and schools can leverage these broad connection strategies as well. These expanded connection strategies can help them recruit more effectively, retain more successfully, and serve more meaningfully; in addition, they can increase reach, build loyalty, improve learning, and survive the most trying of times. In short, 2009 is no time to be an island—take the time to connect!

Well Balanced

Our 24 hour access to tempting communication technologies and multimedia entertainment offerings presents a challenge. In difficult times, many people want escape. They want to find some way out of the mess we seem to be in. While getting away from it all is useful at times, this escapism taken too far can lead to problem avoidance—and even people avoidance. Ed Hallowell’s Crazy Busy: Overstretch, Overbooked, and About to Snap is a sometimes painful look at this problem with kids, parents, schools, and communities. At times, we seem like a society on the brink of a collective attention deficit disorder—running by each other in airports and shopping centers talking and talking, but never to one another. As I noted in On the Road to DotCalm, as we fall prey to persistent partial attention (i.e., the divided mind) we need to slow down, stop the metaphorical car, and clean the windshield or else dangerous crashes can result. In Coffee Talk with Dad, I explore how the death of my father brought the need for this kind of balance into clear relief. Even though my sales numbers and article production might have been lower than normal that year, I’ll never regret the time I took to slow down and soak in those moments with my Dad. Organizations will need to bring this mindful perspective to bear as well. While many will be tempted to move quickly, automate at all cost, drive all traffic to the web site, or rely solely on technical solutions, we need to remember that people count, relationships matter, and balance is essential in keeping us individually and collectively on a good path.

Service Oriented

One positive side effect of our major economic downturn is that many businesses suddenly care about customers again! We matter once more. Because there aren’t 100 people just like us coming through their doors or clicking on their links, our stock has risen. The survivors and thrivers in 2009 will be the people and organizations who have either had this kind of service orientation all along and have a loyal base as a result, or those who quickly learn that service matters and get their service acts in order. In schools, colleges, and universities, embracing a service orientation means strong student services and careful attention to learning and engagement strategies. In corporations, we’ll see a renewed sense of urgency to get to know and better customize relationships and interactions. Regardless of the arena, expectations are higher than ever. Those we serve expect us to have better insight into their needs and higher standards of delivery. Working, leading, and living with each other will have a service component as well. For many, the first instinct as the maelstrom rages will be “every person for themselves!” As Kent Keith, CEO of the Greenleaf Center, argues in The Case for Servant Leadership, we take on this selfish mantra at our peril. No matter how tough things get, we’ll be much better off if we lift our narcissistic, selfish veil and look to see how we can best serve those with whom we live and for whom we work in 2009.

Courageously Humble

My favorite Eric Hoffer quote is:
“In times of drastic change, it is the learner who inherits the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”
Continuing to learn is an expression of humility. It shows that we are willing to empty our cup a bit and open ourselves to something new. It is also an expression of courage—what I’ve called rookie courage. You have to once again step into a moment, or an environment, where you’re uncertain, not in control, and vulnerable. You have to admit you are not the expert. But the results of these courageous and humble acts of learning are renewing, energizing, and almost always open new doorways. And it’s good for our health! I once had a neuroscientist tell me that given how the brain works, if you want to stave off Alzheimer’s and dementia, you should strive to “be a rookie every year.” It is in these learning moments that our brain is at its best. It is the courage and humility to learn that we are seeing today in displaced workers going back to school, smart professionals retooling for the road ahead, and learning organizations investing in R&D that will enable us to take on the challenges of the coming year—not to mention the years to come. The individuals and organizations courageous and humble enough to reach out, ask for help, and open themselves to new learning will be able to take on the turbulent times ahead in 2009; even as their learned colleagues curse the coming of the year.

Bringing Together our 2009 State of Mind

We can’t sugar coat the challenges that are in our face and on the horizon. Indeed, it could get much worse before it gets better. However, it seems to me, that if we take on the year with a tough-minded, action-oriented, next-level, broadly connected, well-balanced, service-oriented, and courageously humble state of mind, we will be best positioned to make the most of what comes our way in 2009.