Elevation: See the big picture. Do remarkably great work. Make a dent in the universe.

This is the summary of my closing keynote at the Collegiate Information and Visitor Services Association (CIVSA) annual conference in Denver.

ELEVATION 5280: See the big picture. Do remarkably great work. Make a dent in the universe.

Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things. -Peter Drucker

See the big picture.

Seeing the big picture is crucial to understanding what the “right things” are. Step back, rise to a higher elevation, and explore the big picture so that you can do great work and make a difference in the universe.

David Eagleman, the Baylor neuroscientist, did a talk at PopTech that featured this incredible image from the Hubble space telescope:

The thousands of galaxies with their billions of stars in this image are in an “empty” speck in our night sky. Humans assumed for almost two million years that we were at the center of a very small, very young universe. This humbling, awe-inspiring image shows just how small we are and how much more there is to discover.

Without a meaningful, believable story that explains the world we actually live in, people have no idea how to think about the big picture. And without a big picture, we are very small people. -Nancy Abrams

In any endeavor, the most important question to ask is “Why?” What’s the point? What’s the purpose? Asking “why” ultimately will bring you to the big picture and to clarity about what exactly are the right things to do. “Why are we here?” is the ultimate question and a bit above my pay grade for this session. But we can ask why we, as those representing access to higher education, are gathered here. What’s our ultimate purpose? What should we be about?

The known is finite, the unknown infinite. Intellectually, we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land. -T.H. Huxley, 1887

We are at the vanguard of higher education. We are ambassadors, evangelists even, spreading the good news, the gospel of college. Our message should be about the life-transforming power of a fully realized higher education experience that is the first great adventure of our young students’ lives. We are the Yoda’s to the Luke’s and Leia’s who visit our campuses. We stand at the threshold of this undiscovered country, and it’s our job to help make them the heroes of their stories.

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. -William Butler Yeats

In 1982 I was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Georgia. And I was brilliant. At least I thought so. I had everything figured out. Four years later, as a college senior, I was lost and uncertain and humble. I didn’t know where my mojo had gone.

I sat in a religion class that final spring in college where I vividly remember Professor George Howard going off on a tangent that gave me the light-bulb-moment of my college career. He drew a little circle in the middle of the blackboard and said, “This circle represents all that you know right now. Everything outside the circle represents infinite knowledge, all there is to know in the universe.” He then drew a larger circle around the original circle. “As you grow in knowledge and understanding, your circle increases in size. However, as the circle grows, the edge of the circle is touching more of what you don’t know. So, the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”

Wham! That thought delights, comforts, and challenges me to this day. I realized in that moment that my senior malaise had set in because higher education had worked for me. I was no longer the know-it-all freshman. I was the senior who had learned much and was humbly aware of just how much I didn’t know.

That is why we are here. We are a crucial part of the noblest human endeavor – the effort to reclaim a little more land in this ocean of inexplicablity.

Do remarkably great work.

Work is about daily meaning as well as daily bread. For recognition as well as cash; for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying… We have a right to ask of work that it include meaning, recognition, astonishment, and life. -Studs Turkel

We live in a “TGIF” world. It seems that most of social media revolves around those four letters in some way, and it starts as early as Sunday night with people yearning to just get through the week and get to the weekend. But what if we did work that made us proclaim “TGIM” instead? What if work were more than a means to an end? More than a paycheck?

When you see the big picture and fully realize the importance of our work, you can’t help but approach your work with enthusiasm. To guide your work, you need to be clear about your mission, your purpose. Having an impeccably clear and compelling mission for your entire organization can revolutionize your work.

We think our company will be the best possible company if every single person working here understands the whole master plan and can use that as a yardstick to make decisions against. We think a lot of little and medium and big decisions will be made better if all our people know that. -Steve Jobs

There is a military concept called “commander’s intent”. If every member of a unit fully grasps the purpose of the mission, then chances for success increase significantly. Even in the chaos of combat, the lowest ranking private, cut off from communication but aware of the ultimate intent of the mission, can still fulfill his role in that effort.

Does everyone in your organization have a crystal clear understanding of your purpose? The mission statement carefully drafted by a committee and handed down from above is worthless if it’s not simple, compelling, and embraced and understood by everyone on your team.

The most crucial task of a leader is to articulate a vision that moves the team to action. Can you express your purpose in one clear sentence? Try limiting it to the length of a tweet – 140 characters. You can even distill it into a couple of key words, a mantra, that resonates with your team. Our team at UGA is committed to “awakening possibility” in others and sending our guests away “better and happier”. Work on this with your team. Make this a priority. And remind each other often of your purpose.

Work = Art

Approach your work like a painter approaches a canvas.

A day’s work is your chance to do art, to create a gift, to do something that matters. -Seth Godin

Tolstoy famously said, “Art is infection.” An artist has an idea or a feeling and wants to explore it and express it. Good art will then elicit that very same idea or feeling in the viewer or reader or audience member. We should approach our work that way. Artful work is not just a means to an end.

We don’t make movies to make money. We make money so we can make more movies. -Walt Disney

The work is the thing. Not the paycheck. Not the rewards or accolades. If you can find work you do for the joy of it, you’ve found reward enough for a lifetime of challenge and satisfaction.

The staff isn’t focused on selling stuff, it’s focused on building relationships and trying to make people’s lives better. -Ron Johnson, former Apple retail executive on the culture of Apple Stores

When I started working in admissions at my alma mater, I delighted in trying to convince students and parents that my school was the best, that they should choose UGA. After a couple of years of preaching that message, it started to feel hollow. What value was I giving to these students? Most would not enroll at my school regardless of my pitch. Heck, we were even going to deny admission to half of those that applied. I realized I had been missing an opportunity to share something that everyone I spoke to could benefit from, whether they enrolled at my school or not. I began speaking almost exclusively about the power of higher education to change lives and how to make the most of it anywhere they went. I only mentioned the specifics of my school as a sort of “P.S.” The paradox was that audiences thought more highly of my school because I had no sales pitch and was not treating them as “prospects”. I was giving them something of value and demonstrated that my interest in their success rose above a narrow interest in recruiting for my school.

Caution is the devil. -William Blake

Develop the habits of an artist. Be bold. Fight the voice of resistance keeping you from doing powerful, audacious work. Carve out time to sit down and make something every day. Try making the first hour of your work day a “sacred hour”. Don’t check email or Facebook or Twitter. Don’t read the news. Just spend that hour working on something important, making something that will make a difference. “Real artists ship”, said Steve Jobs. Don’t just make lists and brainstorm ideas. Make something tangible, unleash it, and then make it better. Rinse and repeat.

Adapt & Evolve

Higher education is going to change as much in the next decade as newspapers did in the prior one. -Seth Godin

Keep growing your circle of knowledge and understanding. Change is the constant. Higher education is not immune. In fact, what we think of as the college experience today may be unrecognizable to us in ten years. Skate to where the puck is heading, not where it is.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change. -Charles Darwin

Eat like a bird. Poop like an elephant. -Guy Kawasaki

Kawasaki notes that a hummingbird eats half its body weight in food every day, and an elephant poops more than 100 pounds daily. Be like a bird and consume information voraciously. Seek out new ideas. Learn from smart people. Learn from those you disagree with. Learn from those you serve. And then share generously what you are learning. Most people locked their circle of knowledge in place long ago. It’s comfortable that way. While it’s painful and disorienting to stretch your circle, it’s also the only way you’ll do anything worthwhile.

Ask yourself every day, “Was I better today than yesterday?” Your constant challenge is to be able to kick the ass of your former self. That is the only competition that matters. Keep growing and evolving. Be who you were meant to be.

Make a dent in the universe.

I just read that the Milky Way galaxy is on a collision course with our nearest neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy. We’re doomed. These two galaxies will collide about 4 billion years from now. Fortunately, our solar system will be on the back side of the collision and may have an extra 2 billion years before our sun meets its demise. (The Earth will have cooked long before then, though.)

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? -Mary Oliver

Before you go, what dent will you make in the universe? We have the potential to awaken great possibilities in others. What can be nobler or more important in the big picture? What can you do to transform yourself, your work, and those you serve? What is the story you want to tell with your work? Ask yourself, “What if…?” One year from now, what will be remarkable about who you are and what you’ve done?

Seeing that Hubble image can make you feel small and meaningless. Or, you can say, as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has put it, “Yes, we are in an inconceivably big universe, but that grand universe is also in us.” We are the stuff of stars. Making a dent in ourselves and helping awaken possibilities in others is making a dent in the universe.

Start with the big picture. Then go do awesome work.

2 thoughts on “Elevation: See the big picture. Do remarkably great work. Make a dent in the universe.

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