• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Reminding Myself to be Naive

When you need to consider issues with a fresh perspective.

 

September 26, 2017
 
 

Sometimes I have to remember to forget.

Experience has its undeniable virtues. It allows you to anticipate things that might not otherwise be obvious. It can alert you to landmines. It helps you sift through the irrelevant to get to the stuff that matters. It can save a lot of time.

But if you’re not careful, it can also get in the way. I fell into that trap recently.

Without going into too much detail, for obvious reasons, I’ll just say that over the years, I’ve learned that certain sorts of objections are usually pretexts for other things. They’re used ritualistically, rather than for their own content. “It’s not what she said, it’s how she said it,” usually actually means “it’s what she said.”  I’ve heard people say, of layoffs, that they should have been carried out with more care, as if the primary objection had to do with etiquette.  And does anyone actually believe that the fuss about Hillary Clinton’s emails had anything to do with emails? At this point, it’s hard to keep a straight face and make that argument.

But occasionally -- not often, but more than never -- the pretexts aren’t actually pretexts. And being too quick to remember how they’re typically used can get in the way of seeing how they’re being used now.

Management, teaching, and parenting all involve choices to forget.  In each case, the point is to help the employee, student, or child improve over time. That can mean letting some grievances go when they aren’t productive anymore. Sometimes, growth requires a period of awkward struggle.  Pretending not to notice the awkwardness, or being quick to look away from it, can be helpful. It allows for the possibility of doing better.  

(The universe showed me real mercy by waiting until I was out of the teen years before inventing youtube. Some moments are best left deep down the memory hole.)

In the moment, it can feel a bit disingenuous, but it’s really a version of playing the long game. 

I remember being struck the first time I heard the concept of “suspension of disbelief.”  If you’re unwilling to suspend disbelief, the world must look awfully grim. When presented with, say, a proposal for a new program, it’s easy to poke holes. It’s easy to refer knowingly to other programs that never got rolling, that got rolling but fell short, or that had unintended consequences. Every single one of those objections can be true, but they don’t mean the new one will necessarily meet the same fate.  

My greatest fear with long-term employees isn’t that they fail at something. It’s that they stop trying. It’s that they lose the ability to suspend disbelief, to generate that naivete that allows breathing room for real progress.

I made this mistake myself recently. Based on very real experience, I was too quick to discount something that I should have taken at face value. I forgot to forget, and looked with jaded eyes instead of fresh ones. That was my mistake. Happily for me, an observer of goodwill pointed it out to me before too much harm was done. Lesson learned.

Wise and worldly readers, how do you remember to forget?

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