The Book From The Career

“I have been blessed with relentless curiosity and a rambunctious spirit. I have always resisted being “caged in” by conventional wisdom. Those attributes have served me well, shaping many insights that are cornerstones in my life and work. Complex problems populate the landscape in which I work. I have come to understand that the ostensible problem is not the real problem. The challenge is not mines, or fish, gas wells, or dams; the problem is the organizational cultures and structures around them. The problem grows larger and more interconnected when we pull back the curtains to reveal organizations sliced into silos and knowledge diced up into disciplines. Inside communities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the complexity is different but no less, for here we find factions, families, coalitions. And government? Far too small a word for too big a thing that walks and talks like a cumbersome giant, thinks in terms of policies and programs, but is ill-equipped to solve problems and develop enduring relationships. Often when I work in teaching settings, especially with professionals whose training has imprinted the ways they think, interact and work, I describe the challenges we collectively confront as trying to “put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

Connecting the dots between the present and the past to understand the story of one’s life is deeply human. Examining history enables you to see the future more clearly. I think of this in other ways in terms of my work. The jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes had a powerful message: “I give not a fig for someone who sees simplicity before understanding complexity, but I would give my life for someone who sees simplicity beyond complexity.”

At this point in life, I am searching for the simplicity of which Holmes speaks, and am increasingly persuaded that the key to unlocking it is to search into the human condition and affairs in the past that were shaped in more basic times. It means appreciating that what you think you have told people and what they hear may be two very different things. Simplicity emerges with the ways and the words to cross that divide. Like the Huldufolk, the little people who have tickled the Icelanders’ imagination for centuries, simplicity is an elusive trickster hiding behind rocks and in crevices, in forests and beside rivers, and popping up when least expected, and only fleetingly. As I wrote this book it became clear that I needed to focus my search on what was already inside me, a gift from the lake, its rivers and its people.”