It is preventing us from achieving greatness.
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When I catch up with old friends through social media, particularly those from my youth, I am often asked something like, "Well Tim, how has your ride been?" In other words, have I had a good life? More importantly, knowing of my business background, they want to know what I have learned along the way, particularly in my field of endeavor, Information Technology.
Without hesitation, I admonish them that Americans tend to think "smaller" than we did years ago which, of course, requires some explanation. Keep in mind, as a Baby Boomer I lived through the space race, the cold war, and mainframe computers where the intent was to develop massive Management Information Systems (MIS), processing everything from soup to nuts. This is in sharp contrast to today's world involving smart phones, the Internet, and writing an "app" representing a single program. The idea of writing something small seems to be preferable to working on major systems. In a way, it is like owning a dog, smaller ones do not require as much maintenance as larger ones.
The massive systems of yesteryear are still around, but developing new ones is avoided, primarily because they have forgotten how to build them and, as such, can no longer be effectively developed on-time, within budget, or according to specifications. The government alone is inundated with a plethora of system snafus. In contrast, the idea of writing an "app" is much more appealing to our sense of developing something "quick and dirty." Consequently, our defense systems, health care systems, agriculture systems, and commercial systems are crumbling much like our physical infrastructure.
Examples are everywhere. Whereas 60-70 years ago we talked about landing astronauts on the moon, building a nationwide highway system, building bridges, dams, and skyscrapers; today thinking "small" has resulted in decaying buildings and highways, and turned over leadership in the space program to others.
Maybe the reason we think small is because most people are looking for an easy way out. I tend to believe there are a lot of people who prefer operating on autopilot as opposed to daring to think greatly. Instead, they rely on talking heads to shape their opinions and attitudes. I realize we rely on the help and society of others in our journey through life, but perhaps too much. It takes men and women of character to think big, and those that do are often scorned and ridiculed because they have the audacity to challenge the status quo.
Our initiative and ambition has also changed. The Greatest Generation were the tough guys who won a world war. In the process, they learned to assume risk and were more inclined to make gutsy decisions than their successors. They also possessed a strong work ethic resulting from the Great Depression where they learned the value of a dollar. Their energy and ambition has never been matched by the Baby Boomers or ensuing generations.
Adding to this is our troubling habit of reinventing the wheel year after year. As an example, in the Information Technology business, there is no sense of history, as I presume is true in other industries. Today's programmers have little understanding of the earlier concepts of such things as writing in machine code, assembly, and how the procedural languages emerged; nor are they aware of various data base models, such as hierarchical or network. Consequently, there is an inclination to delete and rewrite programs as opposed to re-using information resources thereby saving time, money, and allowing system integration. As we all know, without a sense of history there is a tendency to repeat mistakes from an earlier time.
In the process of thinking smaller, we tend to make life more complicated through excessive use of rules and regulations. Take airline flying as an example, which used to be considered an enjoyable experience. Long before elaborate security systems were established, passengers could just walk to the gate, present their ticket, and walk on to the plane. In-flight, it was common to have a full meal as opposed to peanuts or pretzels. One of the best I remember was on an old Republic Airlines flight from Chicago to Milwaukee where I was served a fabulous corned beef hash and egg breakfast. Not bad for a thirty minute flight.
Today, we have to be sensitive to allergies to snacks, going through security is like the Bataan Death March, a drink now costs upwards to $10, smoking is prohibited, the overhead compartments are packed with luggage, you're squeezed into seats like a can or sardines, and entering or exiting the airport is like crossing over at Check Point Charley. Today, I would much rather drive my car than suffer through the indignation of air transportation.
Airlines are not alone, and government red tape is becoming stifling, causing companies to become frustrated, and think smaller in terms of determining their objectives. What is the point of trying to tackle major projects if government is going to be more of an impediment than a facilitator? We also see this in how we manage people. Instead of delegating responsibility and empowering people, companies prefer to micromanage every little action of its workers. Very dehumanizing.
Our society is heterogeneous, meaning we are a mixture of people with different perspectives, different beliefs, and different values. We have people residing in this country from every nation on the planet, all of which shapes our morality, our sense of right and wrong. The Gallup organization has been monitoring morality for several years and notes our changing values. Nearly 75% of the people believe our morality is getting worse, not better. I tend to believe this is caused by our inclination to resist cooperation and focus on our individualistic needs, a narcissistic attitude where we think of ourselves first, and others second.
Without a sense of morality and a diminishing set of social skills, people tend to avoid teamwork and assuming responsibility, thereby denigrating our productivity and ability to get things done. Hence, we are back to thinking small again. Teamwork and cooperation can be taught through leadership and the establishment of national objectives. To illustrate, the country typically pulls together in times of war or catastrophe. As another example, in his 1962 speech at Rice University, President Kennedy called upon the nation to win the space race by landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade, which we did. This resulted in a renewed sense of pride, cooperation, and a positive spirit of accomplishment, simply by establishing a national objective.
Even in today's polarized political climate, we can realize a similar spirit and national pride, but it requires one important ingredient: an ability to think big once again. The only problem though is, it is easier to think small than to think big.
Keep the Faith!
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Tim Bryce is a freelance writer and mangement consultant in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.
For Tim’s columns, see: timbryce.com
Copyright © 2017 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.
Also read Tim’s columns in the THE HUFFINGTON POST