It's a simple enough question, isn't it? What do you want when it comes to your work in public life? I feel rather stupid asking this question because its answer often seems so damn obvious. All that's required is a basic, straightforward response. And yet, truth be told, I find so many of us struggle with what we want, and even more with whether we are really getting to where we want to be. Something is in our way, but what? Most people I know seeking to bring about change in public life are working mighty hard, for relatively modest pay, and over long hours. Let's face it: there are easier ways to make a living. But you and I and many others do not consider this work simply to be a "career." It is a calling; we have an urge within us to do good, to right wrongs, to repair breaches, to give voice to the weakest among us.
But today I am not writing about the reasons that get us out of bed every morning, but rather what stands in the way of our fulfillment. In talking with people, I often find that at the heart of this matter is some combination of three different barriers that I describe below, and which I ask you to consider for yourself.
Option #1: I find that many of us are running so fast simply to get through our daily task list, that we may not be pointed in the right direction to create change. We focus too much on the success of our own organization, the implementation of a rigid strategic plan, or meeting metrics someone else has set to evaluate our effectiveness. It's all more than enough to lose sight of why you got into this work in the first place. It's not that our hearts aren't in the right place; instead, it is that we are not properly oriented to the very communities we seek to improve. We don't truly understand and work with people's concerns; we do not deeply know how to create the conditions for change; we are not in synch with the kind of change people seek.
Of course, each of us believes that we are oriented outward toward our communities. But the reality is that many of us operate apart from the very communities we wish to improve and strengthen. While we may talk about "community" from time to time, we are focused like a laser on our own programs and goals. This isn't easy to admit, but for many of us, it is true.
Option #2: I find that many of us turn to a collection of processes and approaches we have been told will offer us insights and answers to the most vexing challenges. Indeed, this second option is rooted in the adoption of strategic planning, branding, best practices, competitive analyses, evidence-based decision-making, customer service, and other techniques that promise us a good outcome. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these or other similar approaches. The problem arises when we become lost in them - naming and renaming strategies, moving organizational boxes around, cranking through more and more data, and yet never seeing the essence of the public challenges we face and their effects on people's lives; or seeing communities as living, organic systems to be engaged not controlled; or facing up to the fact that the real dilemma may be the absence of public will, not the adoption of more jargon.
I know these techniques can be useful; I use them myself. But I also hear people tell me that instead of their group or organization having real conversations, or engaging deeply (and even honestly) in their work, they go through more exercises. My concern is that we can get lost, even hide behind, these methods, and lose our sense of mission and what matters most.
Option #3: I find that many of us are blocked by conditions beyond us: negative and divisive politics, economic changes, the physical development of communities, other people's lack of will and discipline. It is true that these and other maladies exist in our communities and organizations. And they can be powerful forces. Go to many communities and you will see how these forces have disrupted people's lives and undermined their futures.
I do not debate the validity of these points. But what I do ask is this: must we remain victims of these maladies; must we accept them as they are; must we lie down before them and give in? If the answer is no, then what are we doing?
There may be other barriers and other factors but take a good hard look at what sits beneath each of them. What makes it difficult to move beyond them? Perhaps at the core is that we that we can become stymied by fear - the fear to engage with those who may be different from ourselves; the fear of being critiqued by others; the fear of coming up short or being proven wrong; the fear of being unsuccessful and losing hope or faith; the fear of rejection.
In my experience, people typically do not mention "fear" right off the bat; it often takes a bit of a conversation for such feelings to be uncovered, or at least articulated. But fear is insidious. It has a way of grabbing hold of us and distorting our best dreams, of slowing us down, of knocking us off course.
So, what about it: what do you want, really?