In Reaching For The Stars, Our Job Is To Go

Say its your job to write intelligent responses to the strangest questions possible. When I say “strange”, I’m not kidding one bit. Would you be able to respond to someone asking you if it was ethical to let a company offer one-way travel to Mars? I know I wouldn’t, even after I stopped laughing and asking what your blood-alcohol content was.

Enter New York Times writer Chuck Klosterman, one of my favorite authors on this planet. As an author for Simon and Schuster (start with Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs), Grantland, and the NYT Ethicist column, he takes the most mundane popular culture item and approach it with a weight and intelligence found nowhere else.

His Mars response carried the same gravitas, and it wasn’t because he compared it to Beck’s Grammy acceptance speech. The ethics compare to many a situation we face in fiction and reality today. Funny enough, he puts a spin that brought home a point I had been contemplating lately:

“If we can’t irrefutably quantify the risk associated with a specific activity, there’s a line of reasoning that suggests people aren’t in a viable position to consciously choose whether or not they want to participate.”

Our teams are faced with similar predicaments as those deciding if they want to leave Earth for it’s neighbor forever. It’s impossible to know what life on Mars will be like. Regardless of how much scientific information is presented, I still have images of Arnold Schwarzenegger going bug eyed on the planet surface 25 years ago. You just don’t know until you try how good or bad something’s going to go.

I ask my teams to reach into the void and pull back answers on a daily basis. Extravagent strategies, complex implementations and inadmissible defects are laid before their feet each week. How are they to cope? From teams of amazing app developers to the two-parents seeking to raise their children well, there are a few things we can do tactically to enter into the unknown every day.

We don’t prove our resolve by showing how much we can handle.

One of the most remembered phrases of my childhood is, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” I knew it was silly then, and adult life has proven it. We are often presented with an insurmountable level of struggles. Of course, the logical way to end that old wives’ tale is “by yourself”. If that was just added to the original quote, it would mean something entirely different.

People on our teams will think they can just handle a problem by themselves, and often for the right reason. They are capable, motivated, and often the only one that is available. However, the more we can point people away from themselves when problems present, the faster we can arrive at a solution. According to the Alcoholics Anonymous website, the first three steps to getting over an addiction are:

  1. I can’t do it by myself.
  2. We can do it together.
  3. Please help me.

Faith in ourselves can mountains, but the more I hear someone trying to tackle something alone the more I encourage them to widen the circle.

Positivity must be used wisely.

Even thinking about this makes my blood boil with memories. I used work with someone with an insufferable amount of positivity. Even as this person was berating someone’s performance, it was done with a smile. Just refused to show anything else. Depending on your worldview, you are either shaking your head in agreement or disapproval right now.

Studies tend to conflict on this subject. Some tend to support the idea of positive attitudes driving innovation. Jeff Sutherland is beating this drum like crazy, related to his happiness metric. Others bemoan the need to cover up real issues with facades, which point to an authenticity-driven culture. The key to finding the right balance will be what proponents of either side will point to: effort and evidence should fuel the right kind of positivity.

It’s neither a magic bullet or the boogeyman. Having the right attitude can definitely fuel some amazing ideas, but you must let it be driven from reality. Thinking everything’s going to be okay when you know it’s not can be more damaging than being a Debbie Downer. Be honest with each other, and then move forward with the knowledge that you can make good things happen.

Which brings us to effort. You can’t just think positively and sit on your hands, you have to do something about it. The blindly positive tend to be cheerleaders, which means they stand on the sidelines with pom poms and wait for you to do something about it. That just won’t work on my teams. If you’re going to be cheering us on, help us win the game!

Our job is to go.

So we’ve boarded the shuttle, strapped ourselves in and endured the long flight to Mars. Our imagination is filled with awe and wonder as we enter the red planet. Only, once we land and exit the vehicle, it doesn’t look like the brochure. Our living quarters are too small, the water has a funny taste to it, and we aren’t gigantic fans of the view of our old home.

“It looks better on Google Earth!”

Embracing the impossible involves some cutting edge stuff. I’m fortunate to have been a part of several amazing announcements, and clients employ me because I am used to reaching for the stars. It just doesn’t always work out the way we hoped. So what do we do with the disappointment? Some will be angry, demanding justice for the wrongs perpetrated. Circumstances like these are when this quote comes in handy:

“We may have come on different ships, but we are all in the same boat now.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Of course, I wouldn’t encourage just sharing this quote in a vacuum. It only becomes helpful if risk and dependencies are properly identified and communicated the entire way. Transparency, combined with healthy communication are what keep disappointment to an objective level. Internally, encourage your teams to avoid ignoring news they don’t want to hear. Lean into it.

The conclusion is simple: in reaching for the stars, our job is to go. If we can do conflict well, communicate with each other, and let effort fuel our positivity, we may arrive at our destination with much fanfare.

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