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Embracing Madness and Complexity


Back from a few days of travel with my family and an opportunity for a little rest, relaxation, and reflection. Now it’s back to digging out from last week and thinking about the year to come.

I’ve always resisted making formal New Year’s resolutions. It feels artificial and confining to me—too much like those who lurch from one diet to another or buy a gym membership and never quite make it. Those kind of resolutions usually don’t last very long because they’re not truly connected to our real beliefs. On the other hand, I’m a strong believer in setting personal and organizational goals and striving to the best of my ability to reach them—not just at the beginning of the year.

Sometimes setting goals can leave us with a false sense of control. Or become all consuming. I got to thinking about setting goals a week or so ago, when David Brooks of the New York Times had a column about President Obama’s governing style. One of the things that caught my attention was the fact that Brooks thinks Obama has learned how to “embrace the complexity.”

Mark Whitaker from NBC offers a slightly different perspective in a piece in today’s Washington Post,Lessons from Obama’s First Year.” He makes this interesting observation: “Given all the rejection and dislocation in his youth, is it any wonder Obama became so invested in imposing order on his adult life? … In President Obama’s case, the highly organized defenses he developed as a result of his dysfunctional childhood many have left him ill-prepared to confront the more unruly forces of cynicism, egotism and self interest that hold sway in Washington, on Wall Street and on the world stage.” Governing, Whitaker asserts, isn’t about creating order. Instead, “it’s about learning to love the madness of governing before you can master it.”

In another article in today’s Post, Robert Samuelson reflects on his 40 years in journalism and how much it has changed during his career. Today, he says, “journalism is a jumble. … ‘The marketplace of ideas’ often resembles a demolition derby—victory goes to the most aggressive.”

He has the same thought about our society: “Democracy is a messy, often shortsighted, unreasoned and selfish process. People have interests, beliefs and prejudices that, once firmly entrenched, are not easily dislodged—and certainly not by logic or evidence.” Further, “good information does not inexorably lead to good government.” Samuelson quotes Henry Rosovsky on this point: “Never underestimate the difficulty of changing false beliefs by facts.” Although “people do change their minds,” Samuelson contends that “experience has more influence than argument.”

So go ahead—set some goals. Trying hard is important and good for the character. We can all do better. I know I sure can. But don’t forget to love the madness of our world and embrace the complexity.

Bob.jpgThe preceding is a guest post Bob Ottenhoff,  Chief Executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. With an entrepreneurial spirit, strong technology focus, and a quest to make an impact in the world, Bob has the ability to take an organization and lead it into strong performance, sustainability, and industry leadership.

Topics: Just Because Goals