• 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

Snapping Into Focus

Sudden bursts of clarity.

December 8, 2022

You know that feeling when something feels just slightly off for a long time, but you can’t put your finger on it? And then someone says one line and it all snaps into focus?

I love those moments. Shockingly enough, I had one in a meeting.

I serve on the board of a local museum. We were going over the financials of the museum, which are less bad than they used to be, but still not great. Lengthy discussion ensued, during which people floated various ideas for ways to make the balance sheet better. One member mentioned that a recent exhibit for children had driven much more attendance than usual, helping both with admissions revenue and memberships. In response, the director said:

“We’re basically a children’s museum. We lose money on the art.”

That’s it. That’s exactly it. As soon as she said it, I knew she was right. Suddenly everything fell into place. She captured it in one line.

That, by itself, could anchor a strategic plan. It’s a direction that could form a common denominator for all sorts of operational decisions. It’s the bolt of clarity that was missing.

She said it almost offhandedly. I don’t know if she even planned to say it at all. But clearly it had been simmering for a while.

I don’t know if the museum will actually move in that direction, though I’d vote in favor. It immediately reminded me of my time at CCM. We had a strong theater program with a lineup of “serious” plays, musicals and children’s plays. The “serious” plays—Sophocles, Shakespeare—would play to houses of a couple dozen people. The musicals would play to nearly full houses. But the children’s plays, and especially children’s musicals, were breakout hits. If we had put tickets to Beauty and the Beast on StubHub, they would have gone for serious money. Parents of young children were desperate for something appropriate for the kids, and when word got out of something good, they’d show up in droves.

Those sudden blasts of clarity can be bracing. For me, at least, they have the effect of bringing order to chaos. Suddenly a vague intuition and a bunch of disconnected observations click into place.

The most satisfying of those are the spontaneous ones that aren’t directed at anyone in particular. Having one aimed right at you can feel accusatory, or at least disorienting.

I’ll leave it to people who know psychology better than I do to explain how those bolts happen, but it would be lovely if they happened more often. We’ve all endured “strategic planning” sessions that included everything but a strategy. They’re almost physically painful. My personal theory of strategic planning—which is not universally shared—is that you should be able to summarize the plan in a sentence. If you can’t, it’s probably not strategic. But sometimes nobody has quite the right line yet.

Wise and worldly readers, have you had any of those bolts of clarity recently? And does anyone have useful tips for generating them? As always, I can be reached at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com, on Twitter at @deandad or on Mastodon at @[email protected].

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