Optimism Meets Reality

Normally I’m an unbridled optimist, believing that we can handle any challenge if we work together. That optimism took a serious hit this week.

Our future success demands flexibility and collaboration. Change in this day and age moves too fast for anyone – or any group – to have all the answers. The world’s complexity passed the point where simple, linear answers solve important issues a long time ago. We face unprecedented challenges that require pragmatic approaches – not fractious victories.

I wrote about this earlier in the context of the state’s budget. Neither side in the process is entirely right – nor all wrong. We face huge challenges that the vast majority agree need to be solved. These challenges require solutions where everyone wins…mostly. I wrote optimistically about finding a path where the state flourishes.

That optimism went “Splat!” last week, sitting at my desk and following my usual routine listening to Michael Smerconish on SiriusXM radio. He interviewed Amanda Ripley, a contributor to “The Atlantic,” who delivered some disturbing insights. She spoke of partisan prejudice and political tolerance throughout the country. Nothing new, right?

Next, she referenced an interactive map showing the results on a county-by-county basis, so for personal amusement I tried it. Of course, I looked at Dane County and there my illusions were shattered. Dane County fell into the 100th percentile as one of the most intolerant counties in the country. The news wasn’t any better for Wisconsin as a whole. Almost the entire state is dark green or turquoise – the two worst colors on the map. Not a very pretty picture.

Like most people, my first reaction was to dismiss the entire article. Isn’t it more comfortable that way? Reflecting a bit more, I came to the realization that the research made a valid point about us. We aren’t as tolerant as we like to believe. The map shows the damage of a decade of infighting – all fueled by our provincial nature. My personal discussions usually prove this out. They start with the contentious issue at-hand, but quickly move to labels or right-fighting. The discussion focuses on justification, rather than facts and the search for solutions.

This realization stunned me because the challenges we face demand collaborative solutions – not political wins. We can agree on many of these challenges, including these three:
• The onset of the Body Gap and the demographics that show our workforce will not grow for the next two decades;
• Technology advances that will transform the way we live and work; and
• Deteriorating infrastructure that requires significant and creative investment to restore our critical structures to acceptable levels.
These challenges require transformational approaches. Incremental change won’t provide the progress we need to succeed…and time is not on our side!

Exponential change provides new opportunities to succeed – especially for a place like Wisconsin. Many experts agree that the next major computing wave will center on insights provided by big data. This wave will not depend on the location of programmers; but will be centered around the largest caches of available data. Manufacturing creates over 90% of that data and Wisconsin’s solid and growing manufacturing base puts us in a strong position. Applied solutions will thrive – pragmatism in action – a quality I still believe resides in our DNA.

Are you ready to embrace your inner pragmatist? If so, here are some challenges for you. Catch yourself before using labels to describe an opponent. Words like idiot, socialist, or fascist are rarely accurate and never advance the dialogue. Make sure you understand the other person’s logic before engaging. Then engage to gain full understanding – not to win an argument. Finally, do the hard work necessary to find facts and be informed. Enjoy the entertainers and their opinions but rely on your own efforts to build your personal view of the future.

In any case, be courageous! It’s hard work to search for truth and just as hard to take the high ground. Be principled about your debates – demand the best from yourself and others on your side of an issue. Use precise language that describes situations clearly and factually, rather than relying on someone else’s soundbite or characterization. Live up to your higher ideals and become a bridge between factions. We desperately need more people crossing these divides.

Wisconsin faces a crucial time. No one has all the answers. The solution is not strong business or great education or social justice or capitalism – it’s all of these things…and more! We need people who connect and collaborate to build a future that benefits all of us and puts our state in a leadership role for the next generation.

Our future depends on it!

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