At the beginning of last year's campaign season, I attended a fundraiser. It was for a good local man, running for an important office. I put more of my own money into the little basket than I ever had before for a politician.
Then I had a chance to chat with him, along with some of his other supporters.
After a while, he said he had to make a little speech to the party faithful. And what he said astonished me.
Almost the first words out of his mouth were along the lines of "Of course we all know that government is incompetent and inefficient." He then went on to praise the can-do efficiency of the business world. Remember that this was just at the time we were learning about the lending crisis, and a host of other private sector misjudgments, over-reachings, and dubious ethics.
I couldn't help but notice that I had just paid this guy to insult me. Working for an independent library district is working for government. As it happens, I'm proud of that work. And I put the library's efficiency, competence, and integrity up against any organization's, public or private.
"Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof." - John Kenneth Galbraith
Isn't it the truth? Every single one of us has held onto strategies that have been clearly demonstrated not to work. Women trapped in situations with abusive men finally get themselves out -- only to immediately hook up with another one.
Business owners persist in plans that focus firmly on a long-gone past (think the American automobile industry) or demonstrate the most incredibly cynical and short-sighted greed (subprime lending, for instance).
Politicians -- whether it's fostering Great Society welfare dependency, or proclaiming the gospel of market deregulation up to, and right past, the point of public health or industry collapse -- just can't accept the fact that negative results disprove really bad ideas.
Every day we find out that things we just know to be true, aren't true at all. And even though our erroneous premises cause us direct damage, we pull ourselves together and bravely ... stay the course.
Maybe if we just try harder... If we just BELIEVE...
A year ago, after the 2007 election, I did something I hadn't done before. I took a vacation, all by myself, to a place where I knew no one.
Last year, it was Milwaukee. I rented a cheap hotel room close to Lake Michigan. And I spent several days walking the shore, walking the city, walking and walking and walking.
When I got back, my wife asked me, "So whom did you talk to?" Usually when I travel I return with lots of stories. And that's when I realized that I really hadn't talked to anybody, other than to check into the hotel, or to order a meal.
I returned, I think, better than when I'd left. I had found my center. Sometimes you just need absolute quiet and physical release. You need solitude.
And if that's one side of the equation, here's another: civic engagement. I know that after the recent, interminable election process, no one wants to think about this.
Back in the day, I lived for a while as a wandering poet. The pay was terrible, but the experience was rich.
At one point, I found myself at the home of a newspaper publisher. He admitted that he did not understand poetry at all, or know how to tell if it was any good. So we got to talking. How, I asked him, did he recognize good writing in journalism?
He started rattling off some characteristics. Good newspaper writing was clear, fresh, free of cliches. It had immediacy and structure. It told a story. It was poignant but not sentimental.
And when he was done, I said "the same thing is true of good poetry." Every discipline has its quirks, of course, but by comparing samples of poetry to samples of newspaper writings, we quickly found that we had more in common than he'd thought: good writing is good writing.
Much the same thing is true in the worlds of for-profit, and not-for-profit. The end is different -- newspapers and libraries, for instance, have discrete purposes. But when you take a look at how private sector and public sector organizations operate, it again doesn't take long to identify some commonalities.