Come, Let Us Practice Together
The first time I got punched in the face I froze. My vision dimmed, my ears rang, and I couldn’t have moved to save my life. After I heard that Donald Trump had won the election, I had the same out of body experience. I couldn’t tell up from down, front from back. Whether to move forward, stand still, or hide. Trump winning has felt like a sucker punch, followed by body blows – Republicans now control the House, the Senate and will soon appoint one, if not more Supreme Court justices. For all the fear and rage on both sides of the political spectrum, this was a vote to kick over our national table. Everything is up in the air now.
When I was punched in the face, luckily I was in a dojo training in martial arts, and I had a safe place to learn how dangerous it is to shut down when under attack. When I fold because of fear and overwhelm, my options to protect myself or be proactive disappear. Through years of training, of practice sparring sessions, and endless katas (preset series of kicks and punches), I learned how to stay present and strategic under threat. In tae kwon do, I trained my mind, body and heart to respond to kicks and punches instantaneously, automatically, without pausing to think. Survival, and eventually the joys of defense and offense ultimately became muscle memory through repeated practice. I came to appreciate how critically important it is to repeatedly practice steps and maneuvers, to keep acting when I was scared and threatened. I trained so that both my defensive and offensive actions were automatic, so that I wouldn’t have to think, but act when under attack.
Now, looking back on that training and as I recover from my reeling grief, I’ve started asking myself what practices do we know that we can lean on so we can act in this moment of political body blows and threats? For five years now, CoreAlign has been training leaders in two sets of practices that seem eminently suited for this moment – practices in innovation and speaking race to power. The shock of the elections results pushes us to learn from this moment and use these practices to do things differently, to build a movement differently, to organize to win an election differently.
A key practice in innovation is to accurately define the problem we are facing. This means that once I’ve worked through the feelings, I need to understand what happened. What did we, individually and collectively, do well in this election, and where did we fail? We won the majority of the popular vote, but we didn’t win the election. We turned out some voters, but not enough. Our rhetoric appealed to some people and alienated and enraged others. While I know that an election isn’t a movement, this election is a data point about the failure of the movement we thought we were building.
At the start of a design thinking process, we remind our fellows to fall in love with the problem, not the solution. What derails many projects is that we are often solving for the wrong problem, so now let’s take the time to find the right problem. To do that we need to accurately identify our end users – the people whose hearts and minds we are trying to engage. We can practice empathy with them to understand the issues from their perspectives. Who are the white women who voted for Trump, and why? Who are the white men who voted for Trump, and what motivated them to do that? We can’t rely on our assumptions, especially since those assumptions are what contributed to our massive failure to predict this outcome. I commit to not presuming or assuming that it is anything we already know and will ask them, engage them, be kind and generous with them to understand their why, not double down on why I think they voted the way they did. The same with the 46.9% of Americans who didn’t vote – let’s ask them “why” at least nine times before we think we understand. Let’s talk with them, not at them or to them, and listen.
When we understand the problem from their point of view, only then can we start ideating solutions and experimenting. Instead of going all in on one possible solution, I hope that we can test many divergent possibilities for how to more effectively build a national consensus and get people to vote on that. As Thomas Edison said, “I haven’t failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Well, we’ve definitely found at least one way this won’t work. What are the many other ways that we should try out and either build on or eliminate?
And finally, this moment, more than any seems to call on our practice of speaking race to power. Clearly the system isn’t working for many of us, both politically and socially in America. Rather than accusing, shaming and blaming each other, how might we call each other into deeper relationship and community, and could our practice make that 1-2 point difference in the swing states the next time around?
Let’s use our practices of empathy, curiosity, generosity, calling-in, risk-taking and generative design to help us understand the problems and get to different solutions in this time of crisis. The opportunity is there, the table has been flipped and everything is up in the air. Let us use our practices to respond and act, rather than shut down and freeze.
One of the transformative lessons I learned in my years of martial arts training is that a punch to the face or a kick to the ribs is not fatal. Not only could I survive those body blows, but I could rely on my training to keep me bouncing back – keep protecting, defending and pushing for what I wanted. Without the endless sparring sessions or kata practices, I wouldn’t survive, but with them I could thrive and find joy and accomplishment in the fight.
To quote Margaret Roberts, “Find your center, return to it each time you remember to, and move from it. This is the next chapter, and there is no opting out. Bravery is not the absence of fear, it is action in the face of fear.”
Come, let us practice together.