Monday, August 13, 2007

Enough rolling rocks

In Greek mythology a guy named Sisyphus was condemned to roll a great big rock up a hill, over and over. Every time he made some progress rolling that rock up the hill, the rock would roll back to the bottom, and Sisyphus would start pushing the rock all over again. He was forced to. That was his punishment.

I have met Sisyphus. In fact, I see him often. I see Sisyphus among would-be activists who seek social change. And I see Sisyphus among the many folks who seek to prevent any social change at any social cost.

I have met Sisyphus. In fact, I have been Sisyphus.

I have spent more than enough of my time rolling great big rocks up great big hills, only to watch them roll down again. I know the frustration, and I know the pain of crushed fingers and crushed toes and crushed ego when those rocks escape and roll downhill.

Often I would ask myself, after a lot of cursing, but before starting over again, "Why am I doing this?"

Usually that was just a different way to say, "Darn, this sucks."

Eventually, however, after many tiring trips partway up a hill, after crushed fingers, crushed toes, and crushed ego, someone else asked me similar questions, but in a different way, a way that led to an insight.

"Why are you doing THIS? Why are you not doing something else? What is it about this rock that makes you think it's worth so much frustration? What will happen if you actually get this thing up to the top? Will you be happy then? What's your real goal here?"

Answering those questions helped me to realize that I was really trying to accomplish something else. Answering those questions helped me to see that rolling the rock up the hill was not my real goal, that getting the rock to the top of the hill wouldn't make me happy. All I really wanted was a little decorative landscaping on the other side of the hill. The rock seemed like a good idea at first, before I discovered how difficult it was to move. Somehow I just got caught up in the challenge of rolling the rock, even though it wasted my time and wasted my effort and made me tired and angry.

Sisyphus was forced to keep rolling his rock. Sisyphus was being punished by others. He wasn't allowed to stop.

But I could stop. I did stop. When I remembered that all I really wanted was decorative landscaping, it became obvious that the rock was a great big distraction. And then it became easier to let the rock go and to concentrate my effort on what I really wanted.

I encounter many otherwise nice people who become angry, tired, and surly, because they're frustrated by the rocks they're trying to roll uphill. If I suggest to any of those folks that they might consider stopping, they look at me as if I'm crazy. They look at me as if I've just arrived from another planet. "You're not from around here, are you?!" they snap. "Rolling rocks up hills is what we do here."

Habit. Culture. Cultural habits. Habitual culture. "This is what we do! How can we possibly stop?!"

But really, how often do we need another rock on a hilltop? How often do we recall why we started trying to move heavy objects in the first place? Do we even know what we're really trying to accomplish?

It worries me to see so much effort wasted on painful, unnecessary tasks. It saddens me to see so many nice people turn bitter, cynical, and unhelpful in the process. It saddens me to see people burn out this way.

As a culture, as a nation, as a company, as individuals, have we asked ourselves what we really want to accomplish? Why do we believe that rolling heavy rocks uphill will work?

It's surprising, no, it's amazing, how often asking ourselves those questions leads to different methods, different solutions, and even new and different goals.

Sometimes, of course, what we really want is still difficult to achieve, more difficult than decorative landscaping. But isn't it a better use of our time to concentrate on our real goals, difficult as they may be, than to waste our time and effort on distractions, than to persist in habits that accomplish nothing except to make us unhappy?

Suppose we stop rolling rocks out of habit. Suppose we try to figure out what rolling those rocks was supposed to accomplish. Suppose we find another way to accomplish that goal.


Related pieces:

"You're not from around here, are you?! Rolling rocks up hills is what we do here."

Escaping a deceptive trap

Why are we doing THIS?


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