Next week I’m facilitating a visioning day for folk from various Quaker sustainability projects . In dialogue with my contact, Sunniva, at Quaker Peace and Social Witness we decided to frame the day as a ‘visioning’ rather than a strategy day. For me this was about giving the group explicit permission to think creatively, to welcome intuition and emotion, and tap into their shared values.
However I’m hearing the language of strategy coming back at me from the participants as I ask them what they hope to get from the day. In response, I went as far as to sketch out an alternative, strategy focused agenda for the day. It seemed sensible to check out this disconnect. Sunniva sent me Donella Meadows‘ paper Envisioning for a Sustainable World to support her decision to vision rather than strategise. If I’m honest I groaned a little at seeing the academic format of the paper, but soon found myself absorbed and then inspired. I’ll leave it to Donella to say the rest:
I have been honing my capacity to envision. I rarely start a garden, a book, a conference, or an organization, without formally envisioning how I want it to come out – what I really want, not what I am willing to settle for. I go to a quiet place, shut down my rational mind, and develop a vision. I present the vision to others, who correct and refine it help it to evolve. I write out vision statements. When I lose my way, I go back to those statements. Sometimes I still feel silly doing all this. I was raised in a skeptical culture, after all, and worse, I was trained as a scientist, with all “silly irrationality” drummed out of me. But I keep practicing vision, because my life works better when I do. Here are some things I have learned about the way vision works:
– Envisioning is not a left-brain activity, it doesn’t come from the part of me that does rational analysis. It comes from whatever part of me informs my values, my conscience, my sense of morality. Call it heart, call it soul, whatever is the source of vision, it is not rational mind.
– I have to keep filtering out any remnants of past disappointments, any tinge of negativism, any analysis of “reality.” I have to work actively to focus on what I want, not what I expect.
– I have stopped challenging myself, or anyone else who puts forth a vision, with the responsibility of laying out a plan for how to get there. A vision should be judged by its clarity of values, not by the clarity of its implementation path.
– In my experience that path is NEVER clear at first. It only reveals itself, step by step, as I walk along it. It often surprises me, because my computer and mental models are inadequate to the complexities and possibilities of the world. Holding to the vision and being flexible about the path is the only way to find the path.
– Vision is not rational, BUT rational mind can and must inform vision. I can envision climbing a tall tree and flying off from its top, and I might very much want to do that, but that vision is not consistent with the laws of the universe; it is not responsible. I can envision the end of hunger, but careful modeling tells me that it can’t be accomplished tomorrow; it will take time. I use every rational tool at my disposal not to weaken the basic values behind my vision, but to shape it into a responsible vision that acknowledges, but doesn’t get crushed by, the physical constraints of the world….
– One essential tool for making vision responsible is sharing it with others and incorporating their visions. Only shared vision can be responsible. Hitler was indeed a visionary, but his vision was not shared by the Jews or the Gypsies or most of the peoples of Europe. It was an immoral, insane vision.
– Staying in touch with vision prevents me from being seduced by cheap substitutes. If what I really want is self-esteem, I will not pretend to achieve it by buying a fancy car. If I want human happiness, I will not settle for GNP. I want serenity, but I will not take drugs. I want permanent prosperity, not unsustainable growth.
– Vision has an astonishing power to open the mind to possibilities I would never see in a mood of cynicism. Vision widens my choices, shows me creative new directions. It helps me see good-news stories, pockets of reality that could be seeds of a wider vision. I see what I should support; I get ideas for action.
– People who carry responsible vision become, in some sense I can’t explain, charismatic. They communicate differently from cynical people. Even if the vision isn’t overtly expressed, it’s there and it’s noticeable. Inversely, many progressive, dedicated, “realistic” people unconsciously communicate their underlying hopelessness. Being around them is a “downer;” being around visionaries is a constant inspiration.
– I have rarely achieved the full expression of any of my visions, but I have learned not to be discouraged by that. I get much further with a vision than without it, and I know I’m going the right direction. I can take comfort in my progress, even while I continue to bear the tension of knowing I’m not there yet.
I am a practical person. I think of myself as relentlessly realistic. I want to create change in the world, not visions in my head. I am constantly amazed, but increasingly convinced, that envisioning is a tool for producing results. Olympic athletes use it to make the difference between the superior performance their trained bodies can achieve and the outstanding performance their inspired vision can achieve. Corporate executives take formal classes in vision. All great leaders have been visionaries. Even the scientific, systems-analyst side of me has to admit that we can hardly achieve a desirable, sustainable world, if we can’t even picture what it will be like….
….Of course having a vision isn’t enough. Of course it’s only the first step toward any goal. The grandest vision will get nowhere without proper information and models and implementation (and resources, labor, capital, time, and money). There are great difficulties in all these steps of social change and much work to do. I’m by no means indicating that we all become nothing but visionaries. I think what I’m advocating is simply that we make the world safe for vision.
That means, at the least, that we take a mutual vow not to go around squashing vision — our own, or anyone else’s, and especially not that of young people. Of course having a vision isn’t enough. Of course it’s only the first step toward any goal. The grandest vision will get nowhere without proper information and models and implementation (and resources, labor, capital, time, and money). There are great difficulties in all these steps of social change and much work to do. I’m by no means indicating that we all become nothing but visionaries. I think what I’m advocating is simply that we make the world safe for vision. That means, at the least, that we take a mutual vow not to go around squashing vision — our own, or anyone else’s, and especially not that of young people.