Ithaka: My Own Journey from Busy-ness to Clarity of Purpose
January 11, 2013
Originally posted on the LIFT Blog
I had an experience this week that is both wonderful and embarrassing: I actually applied some basic principles of positive organizational scholarship in my own life. They worked—that’s the wonderful part. And it was embarrassing because I went through many weeks and a million excuses before I finally did what I knew was necessary, what would work, and what I am devoting my professional career to sharing. Why is it so hard to do what I know I should do?
For weeks I’ve been very busy, and I’ve allowed myself to live a reactive life. Then, this week, I finally chose to sit down and listed the issues I need to address over the next six months. After listing these issues, I then went through each and asked, “What result do I want to create here?”
For some issues, the answers were easy. For others, not so much. After about 20 minutes, however, I had addressed them all. When I had, I felt re-energized about my life. My priorities felt clearer. I felt less burdened by the need to react to things. And I saw new ways to go about tackling what was in front of me. It felt great.
And of course, I thought, “I’ve done that hundreds of times. I knew that would happen if I would just sit down and make myself do that. Why didn’t I do that sooner?”
When life gets busy, it always feels easier to just react to my situation rather than get purposeful about it—even though I know that, in the long run, it is not easier at all. It feels like it though. Rationalizing came naturally. After all, the “best” rationalizations work because they are true.
I really did need every spare minute I had. The lie underneath this, however, was that if I had taken those 20 minutes to clarify my purpose and become more proactive, I would have saved time in the long run, performed with higher quality, and created less error to clean up later. Further, once I allow myself one rationalization, each subsequent rationalization gets easier. So sometimes, I let weeks go by before doing the simple, disciplined thing I know I should have done in the first place.
When I do dumb things like this, I sometimes beat myself up over them. I focus on the embarrassment rather than on the simple joy of where I am now. This, I have found, is a rather stupid thing to do. If I’ve found joy in my purposefulness, why ruin that joy by beating myself up over a mistake that I’ve now rectified? Why not learn from it, do better next time, and feel good about the present moment? When I focus on learning and enjoying the journey, I recognize that the effort—the journey—is as important as the goal.
This idea is captured well in a poem Karl Weick included at the end of his now-classic book The Social Psychology of Organizing. It is not common for a scholar to include poetry in a scientific volume, but I have found, over the years, that this poem has come to be quite meaningful for me.
By C. P. Cavafy
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenecian trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
You’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
“Ithaka” reminds me to appreciate my life—with its successes and failures—as a journey rather than as a series of evaluations permanent judgments. I have found, however, that it applies in all kinds of organizational situations as well. I often, for example, read it to my students when I finish a course on change management.
It is often jarring to executives when I teach them about change and then tell them to “hope their road is a long one.” From our normal perspective, in which speed is pre-eminent, it is hard to believe that it would be a good thing to hope our road is long. If students listen carefully and try to understand, however, I think we all eventually begin to understand what all “these Ithakas mean.”