Category Archives: Purpose

Upending the Status Quo

MLK Birmingham Jail.jpegPhoto credit: L. Cunningham, US Air Force

As someone whose mission is bringing about positive change in communities around transportation and mobility, I think a lot about the status quo. In mobility, the status quo is the exorbitant funding for roads compared to public transit. It’s the loss of vulnerable lives walking and riding bikes for the convenience of speeding autos. And it’s the systematic prioritization of white neighborhoods at the expense of communities of color. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically shifted our communities in a very short time. The challenges are immense and already well-documented. Though North Carolina has been spared some of the worst of the pandemic so far, we recognize and honor those challenges. They are real and they hurt. 

And yet, we have to acknowledge this pandemic has inspired some positive outcomes. Some of the positive changes are public: 

Traffic went poof.

Water is clear.

Air is cleaner than ever.

Car crashes are down significantly.

And some of the changes are more personal in nature: 

Families are rediscovering game nights

Outdoor exercise is flourishing

Happy hours are being reinvented on Zoom.

When we have this experience to look back on, these positive changes will recalibrate some of those “the way things always have been” conversations. It is already putting into stark relief some of the things that we accepted as inherent to the status quo just may not be.  

For instance, many working parents and disability advocates are finding out that work from home limitations were not technical in nature, but a lack of imagination at best and discrimination at worst. Some cities are finding that sidewalks that aren’t wide enough for proper social distancing require more aggressive measures by taking away roadspace. And Spain is planning a Universal Basic Income to ensure that everyone can pay their bills, even when the pandemic runs its course.

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Still, while some aspects of the status quo are changing, more troubling parts of the status quo–especially around issues of equity–still remain.  

  • Areas of the country, especially communities of color, already dealing with a lack of healthcare investment are now some of the hardest hit by COVID-19. 
  • Frontline, lower-wage workers like transit operators, grocery store clerks, and food preparers and deliverers are struggling under the weight of lost wages, a lack of personal protective equipment, and higher rates of exposure
  • Kids who traditionally relied on their school for internet access and food are now navigating an impressive—but still community-driven—effort to cover these critical resources. 

As we collectively struggle with this pandemic which can infect all of us equally, but will affect us all differently, I’ve found Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” instructive as he dealt with the similarly virulent scourge of racism:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. 

When we pull one string to close schools, we loosen our social safety net a tad. And when we don’t pay living wages or appropriately honor those nameless workers who we all depend on now, we all pay the price. And when we chronically underinvest in the communities that need it the most, the status quo digs in a little deeper. 

So, even during these challenging times, let’s celebrate those areas where we’re already upending the status quo and let’s commit to ensuring that everyone benefits from the needed changes still to come.

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Above the clouds

It was one of those days where you’re not sure whether you should be flying or not. It was midday, but the sky was dark, the rain is falling, and the wind was howling. You just have to trust that your pilot has been through this before and can handle it.

We push back from the gate and start our taxi. As we hurtle down the runway, our speed forces the rain on the window to move from vertical to horizontal. We start heading up into the teeth of the storm.And then we break through the clouds and it’s sunny and clear. None of the gray clouds or rain are present. It’s as if we are in a different world.  

This should be self-evident. This is simple science. I’m sure I learned about this in sixth-grade science. But, if you can’t tell, I wasn’t always paying attention when I was in school. 

But it isn’t self-evident. When you are in the midst of the storm, it feels like it is that way everywhere. And that’s true whether we’re talking about weather or we’re talking about the storms in our mind.    

The trick is remembering that the storms aren’t everywhere. It’s always clear above the clouds. 

So how do you stay above the clouds?

Photo credit

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How Will You Measure Your Life?

Articles about finding purpose in your life are a dime a dozen.  And most of them are too disjointed from reality to be valuable.“How Will You Measure Your Life?” is different (registration required).

The Harvard Business Review published Clayton Christensen’s adaptation of a speech that he gave to the Harvard Business School MBA Class of 2010.  The class asked Christensen to give them advice on applying Christensen’s research and insight not to their business careers, but instead to their personal lives.As a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen has long been recognized as one of the foremost thinkers in disruptive innovation.  But his essay, the 2010 McKinsey Award winner for best Harvard Business Reviewarticle, displayed a thoughtful and honest analysis of a less academic topic.

Three areas in particular resonated with me.

Life’s Purpose
While a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Christensen spent an hour each night pondering what his life’s purpose should be.  Never having been to Oxford, I can only imagine Christensen in a dim room, lit by a single lamp, huddled over his books and notebooks spread before him on the desk. The result of this investment was clear to Christensen:

It’s the single most useful thing I’ve ever learned. I promise my students that if they take the time to figure out their life purpose, they’ll look back on it as the most important thing they discovered at HBS. If they don’t figure it out, they will just sail off without a rudder and get buffeted in the very rough seas of life. Clarity about their purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four Ps, and the five forces.

In the same way that a business can’t be successful without a strategy, neither can a person without a purpose.  And without a strategy or a purpose, it’s too easy to make decisions that aren’t consistent with your long-term goals.

Marginal cost of bad decisions
The challenge is that these long-term goals are always under attack by short-term decisions.  Christensen relates that thinking only of the marginal cost of a particular bad decision, which is admittedly low, ignores the long-term effects of multiple bad decisions.  Jeffrey Skilling, Christensen’s classmate at HBS, likely didn’t set out to defraud Enron employees and shareholders of billions of dollars.  But he ended up there by making many small decisions that conflicted with his moral code or purpose.  In fact, once that line is crossed, it’s hard to stop.  There will always be extenuating circumstances.

Incentives
When you lack a clear purpose, incentives can also impact you negatively. Christensen warns that high achievers will always choose their career when they want to achieve something unless they have a clear strategy for choosing something else. The reason is simple: you get immediate feedback.  Christensen relates his experience as a parent where it took decades to see how well he parented his children.  As a parent myself, I am faced with this challenge daily. If I refuse to read Knuffle Bunny Too for the 37th straight evening and instead opt to answer a work email, will it impact my daughter down the road?  To some degree, undoubtedly.  And not for the positive.

Christensen’s essay forces the reader to think about important topics that, for many of us, get thought about much too infrequently.  Check it out and let me know what you think.

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