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Ground Rules Deep Dive #2: Confront Internal Contradictions

By Milenko Matanovic

Together we are capable of extraordinary achievements. Over the years, Pomegranate Center has encouraged people to uphold a code of conduct that leads to creativity and collaboration. These ground rules are important in creating a positive atmosphere that focuses on how things can be improved, away from complaints. In this series of short pieces, I will look at different ground rules, why they are important, and share stories from the field.

At this moment, our culture is full of disconnect between the big idea and the day-to-day decisions. We bump against an invisible line that most of us are unwilling to cross because it challenges us to change our routines. True change requires more than ideas and wishes. It asks of us to put some skin in the game.

Some years ago I was involved with a community to identify priorities and goals for the future. People, frustrated by traffic jams, expressed the need to have bus service connect different neighborhoods. Everyone loved, loved the idea. However, when it came to adopting it into the City’s planning goals, people didn’t like having a bus stop next to their home. The possibility of having strangers hanging nearby and the bus noise was too much change. So the government was forced to nix the proposal. The great idea died unceremoniously.  

It is a perfect metaphor illustrating a broken algorithm: “I love to change if it doesn’t impact me.” In other words, we want something for nothing. We love the IDEA of change but hate the ACTION required. This algorithm needs to change.

Years ago, leaders of an environmental group visited me to gain my support for obstructing a proposed bypass because it will negatively affect the environment. I said that I gladly support their cause under one condition: we together make the bypass less necessary. For example, I suggested that we solicit pledges from all members and neighbors to commit, in advance, to use public transit and bicycles and thus decrease the number of cars on the congested road.

This approach was too much: why would they need to sacrifice while others wouldn’t? I said that every cause needs leaders who stand behind a solution and don’t just complain—and here was the group’s chance to do just that. The group decided that opposing the bypass, rather than proposing something better, was the way to go.

I’ve seen hundreds of such small inconsistencies that we accept in ourselves because resolving them takes work: the problem is so large, and my contribution so tiny, so why bother?

I think we need to start appreciating the small things. The problems we face are enormous, sure, but they grew over time, accumulating millions of small actions and decisions that have become our accepted norm. We all created them, and it will take all to solve them.

Small things add up. They link us to the issues needing solving. So we should channel our irritations about traffic jams into trying to walk to transit stops, bicycle, or car-pool. Such small acts will help us step outside the problem’s box and see it from a new perspective. Even when driving, part of us now understands those who walk, bicycle ,or take buses. Our identity expands and with it our understanding. We develop compassion toward those, who like ourselves, contribute to the problem they wish to solve.

The new algorithm, then, is to be willing to personalize the impersonal and find even the smallest solution to diminish the problem’s power. Of course we will need policies and laws to expedite the journey. But those will rest on the foundation of understanding. And that job belongs to us all.