Lift in Threatening Situations: Lessons for Thomas Friedman from a WWII Veteran

By Emily Plews

A good friend of mine recently emailed me his retelling of a story he heard elsewhere.  Here is what he wrote:

…The father was a decorated WWII Air Force veteran whose bomber went down. Everyone on the plane lived, however. The son asked his father “what were the men on the plane doing as it fell?” and the father responded, “bellyaching and crying.” The son said he could understand doing that, but then asked “What were you doing?” To which the father replied, “FIXING THE PROBLEM. Crying never fixed a goddamn thing.”

(Pardon the language.)

I read this story the first time, snickered a little, and hastily filed it somewhere in my brain with all of the other snicker-worthy quips from feisty curmudgeons. Somehow my brain revisited and realized that the father/veteran in this story was far more than snicker-worthy.  Behind the abrasive tone, there is content worth considering, deeply in fact.  What could I learn from him the veteran as an advocate for sustainability and student of positive organizational scholarship?

Given that this is all I know of the story, please forgive (and hopefully enjoy) the assumptions, creative license, and inference I make about the context.

Opportunity

Imagine you are on a plane with your closest, trusted friends.   All of the sudden the plane goes haywire and you know your life and the life of all others around you is at stake.  Your competent friends are paralyzed by fear, at a loss for possible solutions, and resigned to what seems inevitable.  Is it possible, under these conditions, to see opportunity?

The answer to this question about one man, on one plane, in these circumstances is particularly relevant right now to humanity.   I’ll explain through an analogy.  If earth is the plane and humanity the passengers, then the myriad of social and environmental problems we face- wars, resource scarcity, poverty, etc- represent the complicated problems that could/ are triggering an untimely descent.  A host of people, myself included, are engaging with these problems in our personal and professional lives to make things better.

Two questions surface in light of the veteran’s story:

  1. Are we bellyaching or fixing the problem?
  2. How does one see past the barriers to fix the problem?

Bellyaching

Sometimes the loudest voices for addressing social problems fall into the trap of bellyaching.

For example, in a New York Times op-ed by Thomas Friedman, he reacts to the death of a carbon reducing energy bill by saying, “We’re going to be sorry.” The most exemplar line in the article is this, “But the truth is, the public, confused and stressed by the last two years, never got mobilized to press for this legislation. We will regret it.” It seems Mr. Friedman is convinced that this bill was a silver bullet solution and that “confusion” and “stress” of a population were the barriers to implementing that solution.

I must say, I was, paradoxically, both confused and stressed by the article.  Friedman is right about that not being a very durably productive state for folks to be in when there is work to do.   Was he saying humanity is up a creek?  Was I meant to feel awful and powerless?  Friedman must have felt how the “bellyachers” on the plane felt at the time.  Defeated.  They likely tried all of the things they knew had worked in the past to solve “similar” problems, at least in training, yet the problem persisted.

Fixing

Sometimes, however,  the loudest voices might help us fix the problem.

A few days later, Friedman got past the need to bellyache, and got back into fixing mode. He wrote an article entitled “Quiet heroism of masses more powerful than Superman.” The article is about a documentary sharing stories of folks who are changing educational systems and their own educational experience, one family at a time. The documentary director’s “… point is that the only way to fix our schools is not with a Superman or a super-theory. No, it’s with supermen and superwomen pushing super-hard to assemble what we know works: better-trained teachers working with the best methods under the best principals supported by more involved parents.” At one point Friedman even says, “you have to look at America from the bottom up, not from the top (Washington) down. And what you’ll see from down there is that there is a movement stirring in this country around education.” In light of their stories Friedman says, “it challenges all the adults who run our schools — teachers, union leaders, principals, parents, school boards, charter-founders, politicians — with one question: Are you putting kids and their education first?”

I don’t hold a single one of the titles on the list Friedman challenged but found myself thinking.  “Gosh.  Am I putting kids and education first?  I believe in that, what would it look like if I tried to help?” Note the difference in how I reacted to this story.  How did you react?

Seeing Opportunity

The education innovators, and Thomas Friedman, in this story have something in common with the WWII veteran.

When faced with life-threatening problem humans tend to rely heavily on retrospect to navigate. [1] Yet life often throws curveballs, i.e. planes misfire, bills fail, full educational systems dwindle, and what worked before to field similar curveballs might not work at all or work wholly.

But that is not how humans always react.  Ryan and Robert Quinn articulate a psychological state, called “lift,” in which people are purpose driven yet open to learning how to live to that purpose. In such a state one will better make sense of curveball situations, i.e. see past barriers and failures to make a positive influence.  Karl Weick’s work in sensemaking during tragedy articulates a helpful idea of what to mindfully do in the state of “Lift.” [1] Combining their ideas, this sentence comes to mind:  Be open to “dropping your tools,” wherein openness suggests a state of being and dropping your tools suggests a resignation of past experience of solving a problem as the only way to solve it in the future. (See this previous entry as well.)

“We have to be able to “change the inner condition from which we operate.”  If we pay attention to how we pay attention, we change it.  If we change how we observe, we change how we interact, and we become generative.  We contribute quality because it is a function of how we attend to the world.”

In the first story, the veteran had to change his attentive state from a frenetic, on-the-brink-of-despair state, like his colleagues, to a state conducive to seeing the problem and possible solutions anew.  From here, he could generate new ideas that would eventually save lives. In the education story, I imagine that the parents and teachers in the stories had to “see” the education problems in a certain way to enact a journey of change, one worthy of documenting and sharing.

To apply this thinking to the analogy involving social and environmental problems… there are problems to solve, innovation needs to happen, all in the face of threats that are real.  Instead of being stressed, confused, and disengaged- and bellyaching about inaction, we can invite those who align with his mission to open our minds, drop our tools, and see what we can accomplish and how we go about accomplishing it anew.

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References

[1] Weick, K. (1996). Drop Your Tools: An Allegory for Organizational Studies. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41(1).