Wednesday, December 20, 2017

God Laughs


 

Man plans, and God laughs. ~Yiddish proverb

I'm in New York right now, visiting our daughter for a few days before taking her home to Seattle for the holidays. I was out playing tourist, hoofing it toward the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), when I passed a young businessman talking on his phone. He was urgent, as if attempting to persuade the person on the other end, "Predicting the possibility of success is almost impossible to do."

Godlike, I laughed aloud. Thankfully, he had no idea I was laughing at him, but the absurdity of his words made my response involuntary. By the looks of him, he was not a whole lot older than my own child. I wanted to take him by the shoulders and tell him that no one has ever spoken truer words, and that if I were his boss, I'd give him a raise and promotion on the spot. The person on the other end of the line had clearly asked for assurances. If I've learned anything at all in my 55 years, it's that life offers no assurances.

Most of the businesspeople I know are entrepreneurs, folks with ideas who, much like the children I teach, ask and answer their own questions, not by trying to look into a crystal ball, but by going out there and doing. Can I balance across this plank? There's only one way to find out. Can I draw a ballerina? There's only one way to find out. Will people like my idea enough to pay for it? There's only one way to find out. Oh sure, there's always a bit of planning in the spirit of a child making sure her pencil is sharp before she begins, but for the most part they chose a direction then find their way to places no one has ever been before by trial and error.

One of MoMA's current exhibits is one called "The Long Run" that includes later-in-life works from Jasper Johns, Georgia O'Keefe, Louis Bourgeois and others. I'll use their words to describe it:

Innovation in art is often characterized as a singular event -- a bolt of lightening that strikes once and forever changes what follows. The Long Run provides an alternate view: by chronicling the continued experimentation of artists long after their breakthrough moments, it suggests that invention results from sustained critical thinking, persistent observation, and countless hours in the studio. Each work in this presentation exemplifies an artist's distinct evolution. For some, this results from continually testing the boundaries of a given medium, for others it reflects the pressures of social, economic, and political circumstances. Often, it is a combination of both . . . All the artists presented are united by a ceaseless desire to make meaningful work, year after year, across decades.

This could be true about any endeavor worth undertaking, be it relationships, business, or art. What you don't see here is the word "planning," at least not of the sort that makes god laugh.

Certainly, I can see the economic value in having a team of junior executives laboring over "predicting the possibility of success" when it comes to more efficiently traversing well-worn tracks. That's how we get buzzers that startle us when our dryer load is done or programmable coffee-makers or TV's that can stream programs via the internet. Perhaps there are some who find satisfaction in expending their precious lives compiling the data that will tell them that customers want buttons rather than a dial or that advertising on this or that radio station will increase sales by .5% over the next three quarters, but these are not the dreams of humans, but rather of corporations that measure success in greasy bucks. These are not the questions to which actual humans seek answers.

In recent decades, do-gooder (and not so do-gooder) business types have bull-in-a-china-shopped their way into education, shattering the dishes while proclaiming themselves saviors out to re-shape our schools in the image of corporations, seeking to predict the possibility of success from their ivory towers through curricula packaged like mac-and-cheese, tests that create meaningless data, and analysis that pretends to predict the possibility of success without ever really understanding what success means beyond a greasy buck.

Corporate vulture Mitt Romney famously said, "Corporations are people, my friend," and this is the vision of one of those corporate people, an entity with a very, very narrow measurement of success: profit. Actual humans, like the ones I teach, cannot be measured, except by themselves. Period. If we are to transform our schools, we must seek to do so in the mold of the entrepreneur or the artist, to become places where sustained critical thinking, persistent observation, and countless hours of experimentation through doing stands at the center.

I can perhaps plan my morning, perhaps, in a way that leads to me getting out the door on time, but even that is often a challenge. What folly to suggest that any human, let alone a child, can plan for anything beyond that. Corporate people can't do that even with their narrow measures and easily definable goals. Because my own child is a young adult, just now setting out in the world, I have the opportunity to speak with many others in the same boat, many like the young businessman I encountered the other day. My gray-beard advice to them is always the same: just chose a direction and go. Never let goals blind you to the beauty of your journey. Don't plan, but do practice dreaming. Practice dreaming vigorously, magnificently, bravely, because ultimately the secret to the only success that matters, to making your dreams come true, is to dream a lot of dreams.

If you do that god will still laugh, but now he will be laughing with you, not at you.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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