Staff Notes | Mandy Ellerton | Courage

November 13, 2018

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the most overlooked characteristics necessary for problem solving: courage. When I look at this year’s group of Bush Prize winners, I’m overwhelmed by how brave they are to take on enormous problems and do it in a way that is full of vulnerability and partnership.

You have to be brave to even embark on a problem-solving journey in the first place. Trauma in schools. Suicide. Sexual violence. Racial wealth gaps. Cultural division. Systemic inequity. The problems these Bush Prize winners are addressing are huge. As you stare down the long twisting path of problem solving (a path that usually doesn’t have a guide or a map or in many cases isn’t even a path at all yet), we all have voices in our heads that pump up our heart rates and paralyze us from taking action: What if people think I’m crazy for believing we can do something better? What if we put in all this effort and we fail? Will we make things worse? Who’s going to tear me down if I fail? I can’t even keep my day-to-day work together, let alone do some big innovation project. I don’t know what to do. Don’t make me dream.

It may feel like it’s easier to accept the status quo—to keep doing things the same way and just eke by. Let’s be honest, on any given day that’s what most of us do with most big problems.

And yet, so many people overcome their fears and take those initial steps forward to take on big problems. These Bush Prize winners stand as testament.

But I’ll take you one level deeper on courage. It’s hard enough to take on a tough issue. It’s even harder to be vulnerable and do it with other people—including people you don’t always agree with. Problem solving is a human endeavor and any time humans are involved, things get more complicated, messier and more emotional. More, well, human. It might feel easier to just go it alone and try to solve the problem yourself.

But in the end, we believe that all this human, collaborative toil is what actually makes the difference, that actually shakes loose a solution to what seems like an intractable problem. These Bush Prize winners took that even harder road—opening themselves up to surprising partnerships and sharing ownership, bringing together people who don’t always agree but who are better together.

That takes guts and the region is better because of their courage.

As you think about that big problem and you wonder for the umpteenth time whether you should go for it and embark on solving it, I leave you with this poem from Erin Hanson and her collection thepoeticunderground:

There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask "What if I fall?"
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?

-Mandy