Living Forward

Living Forward

For GeorgiaForward

September 29, 2017

By R. Kirby Godsey

Watch his speech from the 2017 GeorgiaForward Forum

Thank you for your invitation to join you this afternoon. As you gather here focused on creating Georgia’s best future, I like to think of you as a gathering of hope peddlers. Hope turns out to be our best human instinct for solving problems. The alternative is despair, being caught up in the grips of doing nothing. It is true that some problems seem intractable. Some obstacles seem insurmountable. Some prejudices seem too deep to overcome. Cynicism sometimes nips at our heels. We should remember this: Your gathering, I believe, above all else, is about rekindling the flames of hope. Georgia Forward is rooted in the conviction that the way things are is not the way things have to be. Yet, proclaiming Georgia Forward will not be enough. Today, I am here to remind us that, if we want to move Georgia forward, we must learn to live forward. Live toward new horizons. Live toward new ideas. Live toward changing the game. Live toward seeing what new voices and new faces can imagine.

Living forward does not mean that we should ever diminish our history. The dramatic difference which this generation has made is impressive. We have come up with:

  • –  Internet
  • –  I-Phones
  • –  Lithium batteries and solar farms
  • –  We have reconceived space travel and are even planning trips to Mars
  • –  We have put data in the cloud
  • –  We have decoded the human genome
  • –  We have come up with driverless cars

The list is long.

Looking back is a very important thing to do. History is a mooring for creating our future. It provides a clearing from which we can begin to conceive where we go from here. Our history gives us a standing place to face toward new horizons.

And to those of you here who are becoming game changers, your mission is to be probing the contours of these new horizons. You are standing on towers of achievement that enables you to see farther. You have new eyes that can see more clearly. Changing the game means taking a fresh look at where we are and the challenges we face. It means not to be weighted down by the way things have been. So, look back with respect. Look forward with new expectations.

It is remarkable how so many of us spend so much time living in the past. My message is: Look backward. Live forward. Celebrate our progress. But, our lives do not belong to yesterday. Do not become preoccupied with some road not taken. Do not become shackled by yesterday’s hurt feelings or bitter disappointments. Holding grudges. Harboring resentments. I have something to tell you: You will not live long enough to get even. Holding grudges is the ultimate waste of time.

The answer is to let it go. Let go of the hurt. Let go of the disappointments. You and I, and especially the game changers, cannot live off of yesterday’s successes and we cannot be paralyzed by yesterday’s failures. Life in the rear-view mirror is an illusion.

The way forward for Georgia Forward lies in learning to live forward. After all, we have some large problems to solve.

For example:

  1. We live in a hyper-partisan world, a world where ideology too often overturns common sense. Frankly, we will never again live in a world where the tough and knotty issues are mostly black or white. Almost every judgment we make will be some shade of gray. Rigid partisanship paralyzes. Partisanship too often institutionalizes lazy thinking. It replaces rational thought with unthinking allegiance.
  2. Another example. Our barbaric ancestry from which we are still emerging hinders our efforts to become civilized. Think about it. In the human race, we still solve problems and resolve conflicts by killing one another. Plato reminded us that “civilization is the victory of persuasion over force.” We are in a foot race. Today’s weapons have become more powerful and far more lethal. People are no longer fighting with clubs and spears. So, the question is whether we can become more civilized before we destroy the entire human race. The outcome is not clear.
  3. A third illustration. We are facing the convergence of the thinking machine and the human mind. In this century not the next, we are developing artificial intelligence that is smart enough to power itself and to improve its own software over and over again, every hour, perhaps every few seconds. These thinking machines are learners and they will quickly become smarter than humans. This convergence can be a tremendous force for good or a challenge to our human future.

We do have large problems to solve – the increasingly widening divide between the haves and the have-nots. Nuclear brinksmanship. Global warming. Rising seas. Dangerously under-funded infrastructure. Doubt in the integrity of our political systems. Growing financial challenges for state and local governments. Elementary and secondary public education in the lowest quartile of the developed world. We are losing the war against drug addiction. Drugs are blind to class and more people today are dying of overdoses each year in America than were killed in Vietnam and Iraq combined. Incarceration alone is not working.

You do not need to look backward to see these dilemmas. They are coming toward us at lightning speed. They are stubborn problems. They will not yield to mantras or slogans. They will not yield to shoddy thinking or emotion-laden rhetoric. We cannot solve these problems by reciting old proverbs and offering stale remedies. The way forward must trust reason more than rhetoric. We cannot afford to define our lives or our communities by the way things have been. We must not get stuck in yesterday. The issue is whether our communities can trust us to discern bold and creative and forward-looking solutions.

Today, I want to offer 7 realities that I believe can help us regain trust and reclaim our capacity to make a difference. I call them 7 lessons for living forward.

1. We need to remember that people are more important than ideology. Every person matters. There are no unimportant people in our communities. People are more important than ideology. Now, I love ideas. I write whole books about ideas. But ideas alone are dead. They come to life in the mind and the will of people who believe in them, people who translate ideas into getting good things done. If we want to get anything done, we have to begin to take people seriously, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the in-crowd and the out-crowd. Every person matters. The greatest evidence that somebody matters is that you listen to them. It is the most basic form of respect. Someone asked me what the most important lesson I had learned as President of Mercer. I said, “I learned that more problems are solved by listening than by talking.” Every person counts. Focusing forward means learning to listen better.

2. Be careful what you die for. I have been quoted as saying “Don’t be crucified on a 6” cross.” Some people are like Eric Hoffer’s “true believers,” always ready to die for a new cause, always ready to join a new parade, ready to make WWIII out of every disagreement. True believers proudly proclaim that they are sticking to their principles. My admonition is: Have fewer principles. Generally, the problem is not that people have too few principles. They have too many. Solving problems that plaque us requires making compromises. Know what it is for which you will go to the wire and negotiate all the rest. Most steps forward will be made through systematic and prudent compromises. We don’t have all the answers. We have to keep learning. Open minds lead to better outcomes. Georgia Forward will require listening to another point of view and then being willing to compromise.

3. The third strategy for living forward is to be there. The power of being present.

Be there when you are popular, riding the wave of loud applause. Be there when the gale force winds of public opinion are blowing against you. Be there when the tide is coming in. Be there when the tide is rushing out, threatening to erode all your gains.

Being there means realizing that you and I live and work between what I call the “not yet” and the “no longer.” There was a time when you were “not yet” in your position or “not yet” a game changer, or “not yet” in your place of responsibility. And there will be a time when you are “no longer” there. We all work and lead in a small window of influence that is bounded by the “not yet” and the “no longer.” In that fleeting frame of influence, what matters will be this:

What value did I add? What problems did I solve? What difference did I make?

Living forward requires that you be present. Georgia Forward needs your voice, your ideas, your personality, your judgment, your energy. If you are absent from the conversation, you cannot make a difference.

4. Georgia Forward is not about making yourself more powerful. It is about making the people around you more powerful. Too often we become consumed with gaining power and influence, even ready to use that power and influence for constructive purposes. It is a mistake. The secret sauce of Georgia Forward will be to make other people more powerful. In our towns and cities, we have large segments of people who feel left out. They feel powerless. They withdraw. So, our overachieving challenge is to empower people. Empowered people are an asset. Withdrawn people are a liability. The future lies in lifting people up. Set them free. The way forward is not about taking control. It is about capturing the thoughts, the energy, the creativity of people who have too often felt left out. So, my fourth word is this: Georgia Forward should never be about gaining power. It should be about giving power.

5. My fifth word is critical. It is the business of the future to be uncertain. I like to say that you and I are romancing the unknown, always running into unexpected setbacks, and unanticipated challenges. The truth is that you do not come together here with large duffle bags of certainty and crystal clear answers. You come with small satchels of hope and hunches. The most important resources we have for coping with an uncertain world will be a combination of courage and imagination. It takes courage to consider fresh ideas. It takes courage to innovate. It takes courage to question the established way of doing things. It takes courage to break down old barriers, to push back outdated boundaries. If we move Georgia forward, we have to embrace the courage factor. Alongside, courage, we need to add the power of imagination. Before we can get to a new place, we have to imagine ourselves in a new place. Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” We have to imagine a different path to progress. Imagine a different outcome. Imagine a better way. Imagination, keeps us from being trapped by answers and solutions that no longer work. The success of Georgia Forward will include embracing both courage and imagination.

6. Six is a practical observation. I have put it into an acronym. The word is PACE. You have to pace yourself.

P – means priorities. Know your priorities. You cannot fix every problem. You cannot address every issue. You cannot overcome every prejudice. It is better to help one person than to pontificate about helping everybody. I am reminded of Charlie Brown. He said, “I love humanity it’s people I hate.” It is better to feed the somebody that is hungry than to feed the hungry. It is more important to care about somebody than to care about everybody. It is better to solve some problems than to promise that you can solve every problem.

Choose your priorities.

Determine the difference you want to make.

A – means autonomy. I am a strong advocate for coming to know and believing in yourself. People pull us in so many directions, wanting us to be so many things. Amidst all the pushing and shoving we need to nurture an inner core. Build a sense of self. I promise you. People will stand in line to tell you what to believe, where to live, how to vote and what to do. If you want to be a voice for change, you must find your own vital center. I call it having a sense of autonomy. You have to believe in yourself. You have to value your ideas. You must speak from an inner core.

C – Means collaborate. Achievements will rarely be made alone. Link up. Connect. None of us knows enough to go it alone. If you want to make a difference that endures, you must be willing to collaborate. Changing the game will always require building new alliances.

E – Means energy. Making a difference is hard work. Success is rarely cheap. It means working when others have grown weary. It means working on a problem in the community when others have given up.

So, learn to PACE yourself.

  1. Know your priorities
  2. Know yourself
  3. Connect with others
  4. Be prepared to work late when others are having a beer

7. Finally, I come to the most important lesson I have to offer those of you who are invested in Georgia Forward. So far, I have offered 6 lessons for regaining trust and making a difference. They are:

  1. Everybody counts. We must learn to listen better.
  2. Most steps forward will be made through systematic and prudent compromise.
  3. Between the “not-yet” and the “no-longer,” being there is the only way to make a difference
  4. Empower others. They will solve problems for you.
  5. Engage an uncertain world with courage and imagination.
  6. Learn to PACE yourself.

For me, however, this 7th word is the most important word I will speak this afternoon. I call it the Power of One.

The greatest, the most earth-changing, gift that each of us possesses is the power of one. Each individual turns out to be a universe of one. You are one of a kind. Never before in all of history and never again will there be someone with your constellation of talents, with your prism of gifts. There has never been a person like you. No hyperbole here. Every one of you is a unique, unduplicated gift to history. You are a burst of light that has never been seen before. Unless you live out your presence, that presence will simply be dark. It will be an empty place in our history. No one can be what you can be or do what you can do. Underscore this truth. No one can see what you can see or hear what you can hear or say what you can say. No one can think what you can think or imagine what you can imagine. No one can dream what you can dream or be the voice that you can become. You have the power of one to step up and to speak out. You have the power of one to challenge old ways. You have the power to show us a new way. You have the power of one to speak truth to power. You have the power to lift somebody up who feels beaten down. You have the power of one to light a fire. You have the power to inspire.

If Georgia moves forward, we have to claim the power of one. No one has ever spoken with your voice. No one has ever acted with your courage. No one has ever seen with your eyes.

The power of one is the ultimate reality that defines for you and me what on earth we are doing here. You have light to bring that has never been seen. You have stories to tell that have never been heard. You can be that one persuasive voice against intolerance for somebody. You can encourage someone who has given up. You can foster hope within someone who feels utterly hopeless.

Unless you live out your promise, unless you embody your integrity, unless you act upon your ability to change somebody’s mind, unless you exploit your dreams, those dreams will never come true.

So, let this truth resonate within you. Tack it on your doorstep. Paste it on your mirror. Put it on a dog tag around your neck. Somehow, sear it into your soul. You have the power to be what has never been. You have the power to do what has never been done. You have the power of one.