Friday, August 7, 2009

Reinvention required

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.
--Alvin Toffler

I love Toffler’s quote. In a mere 24 words (and 131 characters, so it’s tweetable), he’s defined the crux of the issue facing us as Americans, one decade into the 21st century. Our ability, or subsequent inability to come to terms with learning, unlearning, and relearning is the fulcrum point that determines our success, or lack of success as individuals, organizations, companies, or governments.

As a nation, America is awash in awareness. We know we’re too fat, performing poorly in the classroom, polluting our environment (and getting warmer all the time), and spending too much time on Facebook, Twitter and other computer applications, while neglecting the still essential face time required in personal interaction. We recognize all the faults in others (co-workers, bosses, significant others), but rarely ever scrutinize our own visage in the mirror.

Our awareness keeps us frozen in a perpetual state of crisis because we have the capacity, but lack the ability to take the all-important step towards action. Action is the spark that ignites activity. Otherwise, we remain forever frozen, buffeted by stress and agitation. I know this story very well, because it used to be my own.

I was a card-carrying member of the awareness fraternity. I could spot problems wherever I went. I also knew the solution to most of these. What kept me stuck was the inability, or better, the lack of willingness to take action. Some of that may have been driven by fear.

It’s not that I didn’t have examples of taking action in my life. In many ways, the volunteer work I did as Little League coach, then president of our local league demonstrated a pattern of completion. On the employment side of things, awareness without action was my track record, however.

About seven years ago, I reinvented myself out of necessity. I had hit a wall in my work and personal life and realized I no longer wanted to keep doing the same things over and over again, expecting that somehow, it would be different this time.

In 2004, I stopped talking about writing a book, and I acted on my idea. When Towns Had Teams became a reality, and I won a national award for my efforts. Taking that step and receiving validation was powerful. A year before that, I set a goal of launching a freelance writing career, and went from nothing in print, to having my name bylined in local and regional publications on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve discovered the ongoing empowerment that comes from setting goals, and meeting them. I went from faking it, to making it. That story is what I use to help motivate others to take action in their own lives.

Action is what separates the talkers from the walkers. Spending hours on internet discussion boards, tilting at the windmills (a Don Quixote reference) of taxes, faulty public schools, and whether President Obama is truly an American citizen makes you a talker. You have awareness of a perceived problem. Good for you. The corner where you reside is always crowded, most often with people that agree with you.

Doers, on the other hand, are action people. They’re part of a lonely band that gets up early, long before the sun is up. They’re the ones that write books instead of talking about how, in five years, they’re finally going to get started on their own book. They usually tell you this when the subject of one of your own books is being discussed. Doers don’t whine in the break room that they need to lose weight, while shoveling in another donut. They determine what they need to do—increase exercise, decrease caloric intake—they just “do it,” as Henry Rollins would scream.

Awareness is useless unless it leads to something tangible. It might mean positive change, or on the other hand, action might lead to a negative initial result, if action involves a manager disciplining a wayward report, or a leader demanding more from his/her troops.

The world if filled with great ideas that have never been acted on. It takes little sacrifice and effort to identify the problem. Moving across the chasm to the solution side is what’s needed.

Action people may start out with the awareness crowd, and in fact, awareness is required before action begins. The difference is that those taking action have little desire, or the time, to spend socializing once awareness is reached. They’ve left the party and are off by themselves rolling the ball uphill.

In my current position, I’ve been watching the awareness crowd for the past three years. Most of them are good people. Their intentions are noble; their hearts are often in the right place. Unfortunately, they become paralyzed by their ideas, unable to decide what first step to take. Locked in their room of awareness, they never leave its comfortable confines. They are perpetually cognizant, but rusted in place, like the Tin Man, in the Wizard of Oz.

Toffler was giving us a charge. Learning, unlearning, and relearning require action. Awareness without action leaves us illiterate, and unsuccessful as citizens of the 21st century.

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