The stifling quagmire of fear
Growing up in church pews, some kids would have questions or ideas concerning religion. We were usually told to pipe down, lest we might get something wrong. The whole system seemed built on the idea that it was better to be safe and within the bounds of legalism, where everything was in neat little boxes, than to be away from the herd. People were frankly terrified every time a young mind tried to break free. There would be all sorts of hellfire stories sent around to scare everybody into compliance.
The fear of the unknown—of being possibly incorrect in some small way—the fear of not being 100 percent absolutely sure about the stability of every step in life. It was suffocating.
In 2000, when I worked with some friends to start up a film business, pushing out in new territory, we were told to pipe down. We might get something wrong, they said. They were afraid for us all. They were looking out for us. We, being young and stupid, needed to learn the fear, they said through their attitudes. The fear would tell us when something wasn’t right, like how deer perk up and freeze in terror at every sound.
And it was this fear, programmed into us at instinctual and social levels, induced by the threat of something unknown, which kept us in line. By dragging each other down, we could stay together. Anyone who tried to leave was branded as some sort of traitor, putting the safety of the herd at risk. It is this fear that kills innovation.
In the mid-2000s, when many in the military advocated blogging as a way to communicate more freely with families while deployed, we were told to pipe down. We may have been out too far. People were afraid of being wrong—that someone somewhere might get called into an office. They would have to “appear before the man” or be called out “on the carpet.” In that office was a predator, usually wearing stars or the rank of a bird of prey. They said we should learn the fear—stay safe, not rock the boat.
In 2007, when advocating for curriculum changes at the Defense Information School, I ran across the same thing. In 2008, when pushing NATO SHAPE, same thing. In 2009 at various government agency meetings or workgroups, same thing. People were paralyzed with the fear. It was this fear that kept everyone safely munching on the meadow grass.
And even now in the new job, there are people advocating caution—not to try that change thing. There was an order to things after all, they say. I still had to learn how this place had rules and quaint little boxes of how and why things are done.
There is this fear that if someone strays outside of the self-imposed thought boundaries, he/she will immediately be snatched up and devoured by an angry boss.
This is BS too, by the way. More on that in a sec.
What’s with the skittishness? What opposition, clad in armor, pointy sticks or things that shoot, has ever been subdued by someone cowering in the shadows? What obstacle has ever been conquered through fear?
When I say, “Let’s try this,” it’s not out of recklessness. It’s not out of some effort to throw others to the wolves. There are no wolves, actually. And if there are, we too are wolves if we choose to be. I mean, I don’t see how the secret of success at my job—how those around me “in the know,” can be right by running and hiding whenever there’s a snag. Does that work in other areas of business? Hell no. Does that work in relationships?
So, why do people think it works in innovation? I don’t get this fear I’m supposed to learn.
I’ve been in trouble before. I’ve had my ass chewed by every rank from E-1 to O-6 (parents of high school athletes are a journalist’s bane). I’ve been in big trouble before, and guess what, the boss didn’t shoot me. He/she didn’t disembowel me.
At worst, in cases where I was wrong, I learned from my mistake and grew. At best, in cases where I was honestly trying to improve something, I was told to watch it. But, see? The thing was my bosses in those situations knew I was trying something new. They would applaud me for attempting to be innovative, believe it or not.
Hell, in some cases when working through government policy and best practices, my bosses told me and others that they would rather us swing for the fences and miss than constantly go for the bunt. I was personally told this by my assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, the Army chief of staff, and my chief of public affairs.
And I take those episodes to heart, those times when faced with that supposed ravenous, potentially angry boss, I didn’t get devoured. I’ve never been fired for attempting process improvement. I’ve never been fired for trying to improve the organization.
But what “if,” some say? I have people here too scared to read a blog at work. “They” are watching, these people say. “They” will crack down on anyone who goes to websites, even if it’s directly tied to work. “They” will get you fired.
“I know of a person who was let go because he was on a social media site at work,” someone told me the other day.
“Really?” I asked. “No other extenuating circumstances?”
“No! That’s why we can’t use social media at work. It’s a policy.”
“I’ve looked for this policy. I don’t see it.”
“Well, it’s true.”
“Saying it’s true doesn’t make it true.”
I had an instructor back in my Army training days who told a story, straight out of a forwarded email/chain letter. It was the one about the banana/cactus that had spider eggs inside it, which exploded and shot baby spiders everywhere. It’s bogus, look it up on an urban legend site. Yet, this instructor said it happened to her grandmother. As if saying so made it true.
It was supposed to be funny, but highlights an interesting phenomenon. We enable fear. We try to spread it to others. Not about spiders (scary, though!), but about questioning things.
Don’t do it! I know someone who went outside of the meadow and they were eaten!
YES! I knew the person. It’s true! Swear to X!
Ah, since you swear, I’ll cease all thought on the subject. Since you’re sure we’re still herbivores, stuck in some meadow prison, I’ll never try to leave.
Now, I’m not trying to re-start some stupid “Be the ball, Danny!” or “I am a wolfpack” saying, but I sure as hell am tired of people trying to keep me as some frightened Bambi in the woods. Screw that. I’m also tired of people saying “no,” not because of any sort of reason, but because of The Fear! Yup. Screw that too.
I’ll make everybody a deal. If I ever get fired for diligently striving for process improvement or sincerely advocating for change to improve an organization, I’ll shut up and munch on some grass. Until then, I’ll keep howling at the moon or whatever pithy saying we can roll this post up with and get going.
Assuming…and other mistakes
The social media explosion is temporary—or at least I hope it is. As more people learn how to fish, there won’t be the need for people like me to toss halibut into the throng of open mouths—or at least I hope so.
Sometimes I do have pangs of doubt whether the current crop of policy makers and leaders will ever graduate beyond their current levels. Maybe the eventual evolution of the common body of knowledge will be due to the replacement of one generational talent pool for another. Maybe, eventually, I won’t have to explain Boolean search strategies to people, not because eventually people will understand the how-tos that people like me are putting out, but that they will be replaced by new blood or the programs themselves will evolve to make the Semantic Web a reality.
Maybe that’s always the way things work. Perhaps we all hit a certain wall when it comes to new ideas or approaches. While many can adapt and learn, maybe the majority of people reach some sort of innovation saturation? Could be. I know I hit a wall with math. Calculus. I gave up—went to philosophy and literature and never looked back. If the world was waiting for me to engineer a bridge somewhere, it was out of luck until they start putting a “build me a bridge” button on these graphic calculators.
Most of you are probably wondering what the hell I’m getting at. Fair enough.
Last week I got an email that highlights a type of email I routinely get. Now, before we continue, I am going to qualify all of this by removing any sense of elitism or a patronizing tone. If the points of this post are true, I too will fall victim to my own saturation of innovation where my mind will be unwilling or unable to further redefine its information-processing structures. So this isn’t a “old people don’t get it” post in the slightest.
Anyway, email. About a month ago I led a faculty bible study. It was on the passage of the Christian Scriptures where Jesus led his disciples to Caesarea Philippi and made the speech about “On this rock, I’ll build my church.” That whole thing. I opened up with a short side study, discussing how old the disciples probably were before moving on to the rest of things.
I talked about how I’d heard a bible teacher named Ray Van Der Laan give a pitch years ago, showing that the disciples were probably all teenagers. This was how old disciples usually were in the culture and time: teens. I meant it as a quick intro to the rest of the study, but people at the session were blown away.
“That makes sense!”
“I’ve always wondered about that.”
“I’ve never heard that before.”
“Where did you find that?”
“Where are your sources?”
“How can I read your information?”
I told them the Web. Google the teacher I’d mentioned. They went away astonished and paid little attention to the actual study….I guess I should have focused on the age thing.
About a week later, I was still getting emails, asking where to go and what Web site to look at. I had to tell them it wasn’t in one neat package, but the information was across several sites. Google was their friend. But that’s where I assumed people could find out information, and I started to think again on how some groups, no matter how many times you coach them through something, can’t figure things out.
Again, not an intelligence or age thing, but some people will never learn how to adapt to new technological environments. Some people just can’t get the concept of fishing.
This final email that set off this post arrived a few days ago.
“SSG Salmons, where did you get your information for that study last month? I’m giving a session and want to bring up the young disciple idea. Fascinating.”
I had to break it down. Google the teacher’s name “Ray Van Der Laan.” That would bring up every document he’s remotely associated with. By adding words after the name, you can further exclude irrelevant searches. Try adding the phrase “disciples were teenagers.” That should bring up the list of posts I had scanned through to refresh my sources.
A few minutes later…
“SSG Salmons, I don’t see anything.”
I typed in the search string. Then looked down the list. There they were, the articles I’d seen before. I picked out the first few, including the “teenage posse” one that had been the most helpful.
A few minutes later…
Our educational philosophy focuses on questions and answers. I think this has a tendency to lobotomize us to adaptation and innovation. We expect something to just work.
Car breaks? Someone fix it. “It won’t make a ‘vroooooooom!’ anymore!” Computer has an error? “My Yahoo! is broken!”
Classical education focuses on how to think. It’s not in the lists of facts that can be digested like a machine, but it’s about cultivating the character of a thinking person. In Rabbinic teaching, questions are answered by other questions.
“What is 6 + 4?” a teacher will ask.
“What is 5 x 2?” a student will respond. It shows that the student not only knows the answer, but can move the discussion further.
We don’t do that anymore, it’s all just quantifiable rote memorization and minimized thought. Ninety six percent? Great, “A+”. Ninety six credit hours? Great, bachelor’s degree.
So when a new paradigm like social media enters the fray and challenges us to redefine how we perceive and interact with social units, geographical and notional affiliations, or even data itself; many of us cannot figure it out. It’s me and Calculus. Ugh! My brain is teh hurts!
So, to help, guys like me who haven’t reached their innovation saturation levels, Google the term “social media training” and teach ourselves. A year later, I’m speaking at seminars, companies and governmental organizations throughout the world because I’m soooo knowledgable. If only people knew….
Granted, I know I can put on a good show, and I am genuinely flattered at the attention; but as we move forward, I do grow concerned that we’ll have to wait for many to retire or move on to get people in positions who haven’t become saturated.
And then, eventually (although “eventually” is happening faster and faster these days), I’ll hit my ceiling too. My processor won’t be able to handle the load. I’ll check out, and someone else will step in who can run two or three computers at once, type two letters simultaneously and watch seven movies concurrently with commenting on a quantum mechanics blog.
Meanwhile, I’m available to give training to you and your employees on how to effectively leverage social media trends in your workplace and on your external-facing communication initiatives to increase the effectiveness of your organization.
Delivering on promises
One of my weaknesses is that I get distracted. When operating in a team, with constructed deadlines and timetables, things are easy. A day’s mission or set of milestones are there to be tackled and accomplished. However, when a rogue agent like me, I’ve discovered the common challenge of effective time management. It’s harder to be your own boss.
It’s a skill we can always improve on—getting the most out of our day; and I see the danger that guys in my position can get into. I have a tendency to go on and on all day about how A, B and C can all change the world and help at work immensely; but without the follow through, it’s all a Ponzi scheme—shuffling one pile of enthusiasm to another, without ever accomplishing anything.
My personality doesn’t help. I’m an extrovert, so while I have that hard-charging attitude that Myers-Briggs talks about, I miss out on the detail-oriented aspects of being more introspective. As a result, I find that I have five or 10 projects in the works at any given time. Wikis for the European Command, DINFOS, the Public Affairs Department; video pages for the broadcasters, for my personal social media site; draft policy for NATO; access consulting for the Library of Congress; that novel…just for starters. If I don’t hunker down and follow through, it’s all for naught. I become just another zany distraction—all about theory with little execution.
I think the follow-through idea is the best part. I’d rather be a man of fewer initiatives but more thorough implementation. But—ha! don’t we all wish for other traits? Instead, maybe I need to write things down…or find a job where I can get some help. Maybe part of my problem is that I’m always working alone. Strange that the social media guy is always by himself. Hrmmm.
In addition to actually following through on initiatives, it’s also necessary to follow up once something is completed. In the case for social media initiatives, it’s good to touch base with people I’ve worked with previously. I’ve found that a lot of people have questions or concerns, but don’t want to be a bother or, worse, think they look like a fool.
But, far from it, when someone helps a group or organization set up something new, there’s always the need for further consultation. I’ve found calling up people I’ve worked with and asking how things were going gets a sigh of relief. At work, it’s the same. Continued training and encouragement is necessary for sustainable and consistent adoption of new initiatives. Otherwise, the flash in the pan is dazzling, but quickly dims to what was before.
Most discouraging is failure. When all of the best intentions for an organization get stymied in argument or inaction, or when an initiative just falls flat with no users or interest. That can make the social media advocate and supporters look the fool. The discouragement can bog down enthusiasm; but that’s where my journalist’s thick skin comes in. Jesus doesn’t love me any less when an initiative fails. Moreover, some of the big higher ups in my chain of command would rather me make a mistake in trying something rather than make a mistake by not trying something. So, really, where does the fear or sense of dread originate? Even in the midst of abject failure, it’s good to stick to the drive that spurred the initiative in the first place.
After all, execution that didn’t work out is far better than a promise without results. And a good attitude amongst failure will help keep a person trying to deliver on the expectations set forward by innovators and dreamers.
Hey there! I'm a former Army print journalist and DoD social media zealot. I spend my days in the public relations and marketing worlds, chatting about technology and working on fun side projects.
I write, dance and do most things.
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