“I want to change the world”, the child said, beaming up at their parents, or their grandparents. Or while peering into the mirror. Or while sitting on their computer. That child is you.
At some point in our lives, we’ve all find something that leads to an enthusiastic, “I want to change the world!” My generation, the 20-somethings, has been type cast as a generation that doesn’t say this. Perhaps a more specific stereotype would be that we say it, but we don’t do it. We’re the lazy generation.
While I’ll refrain from questioning generational work ethic or what appears to be life-planning illiteracy, this is not about finding and pursuing your passions. This is a post about not being an asshole.
During my presentation at the New Jersey AHPERD Convention on Monday, I began with a pop-culture reference and anecdote about the opening scene in the pilot of The Newsroom. I retold the scene to my audience, but believe it’s best understood after watching.
Ah, how beautiful that was.
Let’s take a moment to define “Liberal” and “Conservative” without political affiliation. We may loosely define “liberal” as a person or philosophy that’s adamant about rapid change, most likely perceived as progress. We may loosely define “conservative” as a person or philosophy that holds to what will serve best, and seeks to remain at, or revert to, this setting. As we’ve controlled for political biases, it’s easy to recognize or attach these archetypes to a variety of sectors running the gambit of arts and sciences.
They exist in all fields, and we need them. Whole civilizations have crumbled as a result of remaining steadfast in their ways, or advocating change so rapid it descends into chaos. This has occurred within the modern world, with economies struggling or succeeding, businesses succumbing to or surviving their economies, and individuals focused on the present or the future.
It is my belief that the vast majority of the time making a difference is about bridging the gap between the two, and finding the best of both worlds.
The students and professionals in front of me on Monday morning heard the animated version of this. If your sole focus is retaining the best possible option of what has been done before, if you strictly identify with a conservative approach, you are an asshole. If your sole focus is to create immediate change for the best possible outcome, if you are strictly identifying with a liberal approach, you are an asshole. Slide too far to any one identification, and…you guessed it.
If you want a distinct and succinct take-away message from reading this, here it is:
Don’t be an asshole.
Cynics, or realists, depending on how you look at it, may say that the notion of “making a difference” is an infantile fantasy. Perhaps they’re right, or perhaps we can work to redefine the admittedly arbitrary notion of “making a difference.” Allowing for the infinity of individual goals, I believe that the essence of making a change is inspiring others to aspire to do more. It’s empowerment. It’s about leading up, not down.
Being a leader isn’t about knowing or doing the most. It’s not about knowing or doing what’s best. It’s about encouraging those around you to strive for something more. If this concept strikes you as soft, I’m glad. Taking 101 courses for economics or sociology turn us into little Machiavellian machines that only understand computations and conquering. That’s well in good in the bubble of academia, but once you get away from what we do in theory to what we do in practice… Good luck staying relevant. It’s not about you. It’s about us.
Quite often we recognize our desire to help others, to educate, to inspire; and we piss it all away. We believe that we are teachers, that we must educate, and that knowledge is power. Knowledge is not power; knowledge is knowledge. Action? That is power. When we approach our interactions with the intent to transmit knowledge, we’re teaching down. Place yourself on that pedestal and you have the opportunity to become an expert. Empower others to learn themselves, and you have the opportunity to help them become an expert. That difference is a big one.
Not every experience is a teaching opportunity. Every experience is a learning opportunity.
Since the rise of the machines, we have had the privilege of sharing everything humanity has learned in a matter of moments. We have the ability to answer any question in seconds, yet with our vast knowledge our culture continues to make deleterious decisions. Some of which, in the gravest of predictions, will bring about our own downfall. Information will not save you. Information may very well hurt you.
Teaching and learning are two related but distinctly different things, and I believe our success will be determined by knowing the difference between the two. If we begin with the goal of teaching, we will fail. Our message will be lost in elitism and pretentiousness, unintentionally of course, and we don’t see it. The vast majority of the time we won’t make a difference because we genuinely believe that we will succeed. After all, who intentionally wants to be an asshole?
Instead of being hell-bent on teaching, let’s instead focus on encouraging learning. Encourage learning. This quickly turns the process to be controlled by those we seek help. It’s not about you having the power to teach what you believe everyone should know. It’s about empowering others to engage in that process and adapt their behaviors as they see fit. This is, in my humble opinion, the biggest problem with how we look at information exchange.
Our focus on the Provider of knowledge teaching others leaves room for contempt and jealousy that alienate those we perceive as students. That’s how education has always functioned, which explains why we so often hear disgruntled students disparage their professors or classes. When we are taught down to, we don’t engage. Focus on providing the desired information to the Seeker creates an environment where curiosity begets learning, ultimately the empowerment that creates sustainable change.
Sustainable change, which has now come to mean empowering change, is not accomplished by maintaining a strong hold on the ways of the past, or what is theoretically perfect. Empowering change is not accomplished by scrapping an entire system or strategy in favor of what’s perceived as better. Stray too far towards those conservative or liberal styles, and we fail to be relevant. Dogmatic opposition is the result. That’s why you’re not making a difference.
Writing this article began on the Long Island Railroad, and has continued to some 20,000 feet over Ohio en route to a fitness conference in Indianapolis. I’m going for information that I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else with some of the best professionals in the world. I’m expecting that we will be told “This is what you should be doing” and am prepared to spend my time immersed in subject matter that will be a very small, albeit effective, tool in my professional toolbox.
That cynicism is matched by an excitement to take in as much information as possible. That information will be digested, cannibalized, and presented in a way that makes you feel good, not bad. If that’s not the result, then I’m being an asshole, and please call me on my bullshit.