Posted by & filed under Open Letters.

I’ll take the cue for my first open letter to Pamela McLean from the invitation she wrote near the beginning of her blog post, “Innovation and Collaboration – Are We Together?”

Perhaps you know the saying “To travel fast travel alone. To travel far travel together.” I invite you to read this as if we are both on a journey, and our paths have crossed, and we are wondering if we are travelling in a similar direction.

I’m going to go through a couple (for now) of the quotes she pulled from Mark Ventresca’s presentation on systems builders and consider whether they apply to me, making me a systems builder like Pamela. After hearing Pamela’s thoughts on my thoughts, I might reply to a few more of Ventresca’s quotes, or let our open-letter conversation take its own direction.

Here’s the first quote from Ventresca:

People who make things happen in the world are often passionate, persistent and, most importantly, they start with what they have at hand and turn it into something more. [emphasis is Pamela’s]

I’d like to think I’m a person who makes things happen in the world. But there are two points worth considering here. One is that I’ve often found myself doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. The other is that it is difficult for me to know whether I’ve made something happen.

An example of these two points is captured in the following anecdote. Last year I ran into a friend at an event in London after being out of contact for a number of years. “Do you remember that presentation you gave in Slovenia?” he said. Actually, I didn’t. But upon much thought I was able to recall a day, standing in a classroom talking to several seated individuals, that might have been the day in question. My friend filled me in on the content of the presentation–apparently I had given a talk on “mobile testing for HIV among men who have sex with men.” I had forgotten all about it, in part because I no longer work in public health (these days I’m a creative writer), and also because the presentation never seemed that important to me. I did it as a favor to my friend, who in turn paid for my ticket to Ljubljana.
“After your presentation the government changed its policy on HIV testing for men who have sex with men,” my friend said. “All the work that NGOs have been doing in this area these last five years, it’s because of you.”
A government changed its policy because of me? I was only giving the presentation to get a free ticket to Slovenia. And I had already given up on my career in public health, in part because I felt a disconnect between myself and the people I was trying to help. Now I hear I made a difference. Needless to say the experience moved me. So the challenge I’m throwing out to the reader is “making things happen” is not always easy to see, because our attention is often on things like “free tickets” or “how will this advance my career” rather than the actual “thing” we’re trying to make happen. Meanwhile when the thing actually does “happen,” we might have long moved on–in my case having changed careers from public health researcher to creative writer.
“Passionate and persistent”–the last two years I’ve been writing a satirical novel. No one pays me for this. I am unsure when I will finish or if anyone besides myself will think the novel any good. Yet I persist: I’m writing it not only because I enjoy writing, but because there’s something I’ve seen in the world that I believe others deserve to see, and I feel a satirical novel is the best way to help them see it. I’m also “starting with what I have at hand”: my own experiences about which I’ve been writing, and an ability I have to capture ambiguous situations and render them cuttingly and humorously with words. Nobody is paying me for this effort, but I have a pleasant “day job” that doesn’t tax my brain and pays my rent and meals while leaving me sufficient time to write. I trust to the reader to judge whether I do so with passion.
Will my novel “make things happen”? It already has, just in my undertaking it. I received an email a while back from a friend who had disappeared from my life. I was pleased to hear from him, and asked him “Where have you been? What happened?” He had quit his job and moved home to his father’s house–where he had resumed work on his own novel. “Inspired by your brave example,” he said. So I haven’t even finished my novel yet, and already it’s making things happen. If once it’s actually finished more things happen–that’ll be even better. There’s also the possibility my friend will finish his novel, making another chain of things happen. Or one of us will finish and the other won’t, but we’ll each take pride in the other’s achievement, because we supported each other as friends.
Here’s the second quote from Ventresca:

The formulation and dissemination of interesting interpretations of reality form the basis for constructive, creative action.

I share Pamela’s “funny way of looking things,” as she calls it (another way of saying “interesting interpretations of reality”). I have a good eye for incongruities, spotting not just what people do, but the way two things the same person (or organization, or country) does don’t agree with each other. Other people when they spot such incongruities shout, “Social injustice!” or “All men are liars!” I snicker to myself and think, “That would make a really good story.”

Then I write such stories. Do they form the basis for constructive, creative action? Only if I finish them. But even then, much of the “action” created by being a humorist (as I call myself) is in helping other people to know which parts of their life and the world don’t need action. All men are liars–let’s laugh about it! And put our constructive energy into things like showing mercy to the poor and downtrodden.
So there’s my open letter. So far I’d say Pamela and I are traveling in the same direction, in as much as we are passionate and persistent; start with what we have at hand; have interesting interpretations of reality that form the basis for constructive, creative action (or at least knowing which things deserve action and which ones laughter); and we trust that by our actions we make things happen, even if the things that happen aren’t exactly what we expected–like my satirical novel changing a friend’s life before he’s even read it.
(This open letter was posted on behalf of Brian C Griffin)