What to do?

Robert Fritz wrote long ago about what he calls “structural tension” (sometimes called “creative tension”). I find the concept very useful and easily illustrated. Creative tension has two parts. First, there’s the vision of the future you want. This is the picture of where you’re trying to get in life. Second, there’s current reality. The vision is a picture of the future. Current reality is, well, where you stand right now. The gap between where you are now and where you want to be creates a tension. The natural human tendency is to reduce that tension.

The easiest illustration of this requires only a rubber band and two fingers. One finger represents your vision, the other current reality. If you have a large rubber band and your fingers are close together, you won’t feel any tension. But as your fingers get farther apart, you will feel more tension. The tension will begin to feel uncomfortable. Something will have to give. One finger or the other will pull the other closer. Similarly, the larger the gap between our vision and our current reality, the greater the tension we feel.

How do we resolve this tension? There are two basic ways to reduce tension. First, we can minimize our vision. Second, we can change our current reality to bring it closer to our vision.

Let’s say I have a vision in the area of athletics. I see Usain Bolt in his competitions. I decide I want to win the gold in the next Olympic 100m race. That is my vision. Now if I’m the guy who finished second, I can easily measure my gap; I see how much I need to lower my time. As an experienced runner, I probably even have some ideas on how I can get faster.

But what if I’m not the number two finisher, but myself. I confess that I’d be in trouble if I had to beat anyone in a 100m race. The gap between my vision – winning Olympic gold – and my current reality – being fairly out of shape – is huge. My best bet is to lower my vision. Perhaps a better vision, one that would actually inspire rather than rob me of all hope, would be to think of getting to where I can run 100m. Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a start for a non-runner like me.

Ok, you probably have the general theory. Now let’s turn to Rich Karlgaard’s article in Forbes, “Recovery Drag: The Age of Cheats.” He tells of cheating in sports, politics, education and business. He hopes that we soon pass this age. You’ve probably heard of the incidents he reports – and others. I think of the push to have all students pass particular standardized tests, and the scandals that have followed. What’s going wrong?

Thinking in terms of “structural tension,” I have some ideas.

First, we have adopted not only standardized tests, but standardized visions of excellence. One size fits all. Or so we proclaim. But maybe one size doesn’t fit all. Maybe we need to admit that there are multiple ways to be excellent. Our vision is so high, so awesome, that the tension overwhelms us. The rubber band breaks. Or, sometimes – and here is where the dishonesty sometimes comes in – we see that the gap is completely beyond our ability to overcome so we start lying. We use lofty words to describe our vision, but we speak deceptively. We overestimate our current reality, engaging in what John Kotter calls “happy talk.”

I’m not advocating doing away with excellence through dumbing-down, or the equivalent of not keeping score. People have different giftings and callings. One of my children made it through high school and received her diploma, not because she mastered the basic curriculum. She was in special ed her whole school career. If we define excellence with a one size fits all approach, say, “Everyone will go to college,” then she’ll be set up for failure from the start. That particular excellence is not in her capacity. Our strategy is to admit that up front, and then identify another area of excellence, one that fits her capabilities better. One area in which she is excelling is in showing compassion. Every week she goes to visit kids at a nearby home for disabled children. She goes joyfully, seeking to cheer those kids. So is she perfect in showing the excellence of compassion? Not at all: but it’s an excellence that fits her abilities and interests.

Second, we have no tolerance for mediocrity. As a perfectionist, this is hard for me to complain about. But very few of us have the skills, time, resources, and temperament to excel at everything. In fact, in order to pursue excellence in some areas will require tolerance of mediocrity in others.

Third – and paradoxically, our one-size-fits-all approach goes along side our hyper-individualism. If we could learn to see ourselves as living in community, we could see that our individual excellences will be complemented by those of our friends and neighbors.

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2 Responses to What to do?

  1. Julia Robb says:

    Excellent. According to a psychologist I knew (not my counselor, although, admittedly I may need one) the reason we have so much craziness in our society in because the standards are so high many people can’t meet them. So they drink, they drug, they blame other people for their failures and go out and shoot as many as possible, they develop hard-to-cure delusions.
    Something you didn’t mention: What happens when we refuse to lower our standards in an area important to us, yet fail to achieve our goal.
    Personally, as a writer, I have that tension.
    It’s one I have to live with, with the Grace of God.

    • rheyduck says:

      Yes, I know about this personally also. As a (newly minted full-time) academic, I feel the pressure to keep writing awesome things for the approval of awesome people. I’m finding it challenging to imagine five courses a semester, developed in a way that will engage my motley band of students and retain creativity for writing substantial papers. Here I am, already half way to a century, and I’ve only published one book. But then I think, maybe there’s another path.

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