Why Give a Damn:

Of all the essential and admirable qualities in life and business, wisdom is the one that counts the most.

The author of this post, Cheryl Heller, designs change and growth for business leaders and social entrepreneurs. She is Founding Chair of MFA Design for Social Innovation at SVA. She also serves as a mentor at the Unreasonable Institute.

Wisdom is “the comprehension of what is true coupled with optimum
judgment as to action”. Huge, right? Ethics are important, for sure, but,
when accurately defined as “any action that takes responsibility for its
consequences”, you can see that you get ethics for free with wisdom.
Wisdom is earned, and paid for, I always thought, though neurobiologists
talk now of finding it hidden in our brains. But maybe we work for the
brains we have, too.

Here’s some hard-earned wisdom for the new year, which is also, as I
think about it, pretty much all you need to know.

1. Use tools, don’t be used by them.

In our professional lives it seems apparent that everyone has a need to invent their own methodology. Frameworks, processes, protocols, approaches and branded points of view abound, each holds just enough in common with each other to be familiar and just enough of a difference to lend confusion. Otto has his Theory U, IDEO has their thinking, science has its scientific process, but they all share the same core principles in the same sequence. The truth is that there are only a few universal processes in the world – for creating, for making, for measuring – and all variations of them are adaptations. Your goal should be to learn to see the universal in the applied, to evaluate their use to you in accomplishing your own objectives, and to be able to understand them deeply enough to make your own adaptations when needed. Otherwise, you fall victim to the framework of the month without ever really becoming their master.

2. Don’t stop on this side of complexity.

In the same way that you can learn to see the universal principles in methodologies, you can learn to see the patterns and organizing principles in complexity. And there is always always always something of value on the other side. Complex problems, complex instructions, complex relationships all succumb to the act of seeing. That wonderful piece of wisdom (that I can’t remember where I heard) is that you should never delegate learning. Likewise, you should never delegate the task of untangling, because that is where the vision lies. Big hairballs call for big data, but most of the time, it takes only the ability to pay deep attention to detail, then step back until some of it to becomes blurry enough to let the big system emerge.

3. Go for sufficiency, not efficiency.

I will never forget what my riding teacher used to tell me about handling a horse – to do “as little as possible, and as much as necessary”. I think that’s the definition of elegance, too. Nature has the same rule, to take or do only as much as needed to accomplish the objective, and no more. There is nothing “extra” in nature. In American culture, on the other hand, it seems we always try to overshoot the mark – with food, money and assault weapons. If we could live using “sufficient” resources, we’d live very different and perhaps happier lives.

4. Recognize that all time is not equal.

Some is meant for contemplation, and some for action. Some for listening and some for talking. Some for taking in, and some for putting out. To find and become comfortable with those rhythms is exhilarating and highly productive. To recognize the difference is key.

5. Find your inner Buddha and listen to her carefully.

Be indulgent with curiosity, clear with purpose, economical with talk, drunk with creativity, and prudent with action.

An Unreasonable Challenge:

This year, let’s work on remembering the wisdom we already possess, and try to eliminate some of the bullshit we’ve accumulated.

Cheryl Heller

Author Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA, founder of design lab CommonWise, and a pioneer in social impact design. Cheryl received the AIGA medal for her contribution to the field of design in 2014. She is the former Board Chair and founding faculty for the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows, a Senior Fellow at Babson Social Innovation Lab, and the Innovation Advisory Board for the Lumina Foundation. She created the Ideas that Matter program for Sappi, which has given over $12 million to designers working for the public good.

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