Instant change is no change

I’m hungry; thinking about getting a snack in fifteen minutes.  Considering my waistline, there’s a lot that’s unhealthy about that and it reflects much of the way our world operates today.  My hankering for food even though I don’t need it reflects my need for immediate gratification.  As a country, we tend to want what we want and want it now.  This short-term thinking is reinforced by the media that lives by the 24-hour news cycle.

But when news comes to us so quickly we extrapolate that the solutions to our problems will come just as quickly.  They don’t.  The short news cycle reinforces a myopic view of what’s happening and implies that all will be well if we just act now!

Imagine if we looked at solving problems over the course of a generation, or perhaps even longer.  One thing is that our options for solutions would grow exponentially.  But what may be more important is that long-term change is the only realistic path we have because our system is so corrupted and we as a people ….. well, many of us are not too bright.  Until we accept these realities and the burdens that they place on our growth, we’ll spin our wheels, and the spinning will be the news.

First we have to examine ourselves, or to quote the great philosopher Michael Jackson, we need to look at “the man in the mirror.”   While there are remarkable people amongst us, far too many people lack civic knowledge, and more important, the ability to logically process the information they have.  If they had more information and could process it better, they’d agree with Mark Twain’s famous words; “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know.  It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”  [Is Mark Twain American enough for Sarah Palin to consider these words?]

Before trying to put a positive spin on change occurring over generations rather than news cycles, we need to factor in another adage, “You get what you measure.”  The wisdom of this assertion raises are two problems: (1) We may not be measuring the correct things and (2) we spend an enormous amount of time believing in statistics about things that simply can’t be measured accurately.

In the book “Super Freakonomics,” economists Stephen Levin and Stephen Dubner depict the importance of “out of the box” analytical thinking examining phenomena such as why 38 people watched Kitty Genovese be murdered in New York and what caused the 1960s crimes explosion.  The surprises that they spring on us reflect the skepticism with which we need to view conventional data.

What does this have to do with advancing our society by thinking in terms of generational rather than election-cycle change?  It’s because our view of change is microscopic (one day to the next; one year to the next) and our strategies are based on short-term reward, be it for the politician winning the next election, the CEO posting increased earnings, the television network executive reporting higher ratings.

Here are a few areas in which measurement is biased towards the short-term and which prohibit our ability to view meaningful change when it happens.


Short-term success Advances that occur over generations
Grades (which often are an arbitrary intersection of what the teacher wants and what students know) What we learn; integrating important information into our body of knowledge
Graduating Being a life-long learner
Getting high SATs or ACT scores. Applying creative and critical thinking to real-life problems.
Accepting conventional wisdom Maintaining curiosity even as the wonder of childhood fades into our rear view mirrors.
Succumbing to technology and becoming more robotic and insensitive. Using technological advances to promote humanitarian policies.


Short-term success Advances that occur over generations
Stock market performance Making business sensitive to societal needs
Glorifying the richest among us Providing economic opportunity for all
Productivity without concern for what we’re producing Producing goods and services that enhance our society.

To look at generational change means that we must get away from conventional forms of measurement.  In fact, in some ways we may have to do the unthinkable – actually observe without measuring.  How can we measure if someone will become a life-long learner when they’re young?  How can we assess whether a business is sensitive to societal needs if we don’t use subjective criteria?

Our first step is to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers and to be suspicious of those (primarily politicians) who purport to know everything.  Additionally we have to resist the arguments of “simplifiers” such as the tea baggers who bring to the table twin detrimental attitudes of (a) if it’s good for me, I don’t care what happens to others, and (b) if we dumb things  down, we can all be “common people” and rule with the one and only correct kind of “common sense.”

We need to find ways to assess whether we’re taking steps that will result in long-term positive change without relying on short-term data.  We need to recognize that as humans, our world is ambiguous and does not lend itself to simple answers.  We need to be patient with others who are thinking outside the box to advance the goals of fairness and justice.  None of this is easy, but if we don’t try, it will be more of the “same old same old” and that machine will eventually break down.