In the summer of 2011 I took an extended vacation from my job in Boston. I flew to Denver, Colorado, bought a touring bike, and proceeded to ride back East. I did it for all the predictable reasons, to take a break from routine, to get inside my head, to see America. I visited family and friends and odd-ball tourist attractions along the way, but mostly I spent time by myself, pedaling unknown roads, letting my mind spin.
I cycled against the backdrop of the Great National Debt Ceiling Debate. Even though I steered clear of newspapers and watched no TV, I could not avoid the rancor that permeated the country like a cancer. The tenacious hold of narrow interests, the partisan bickering of Congress and the false triumph of the eleventh hour resolution were petty antics against the unparalleled beauty, incredible resources and extraordinary people I encountered along my ride.
We are a nation of great promise in a period of peril. Our problems are no greater than challenges we have vanquished in the past, yet we are rudderless in determining how to address them. Even as we have grown mighty in economic and military strength, diversity and sheer numbers, our national consensus has loosened, our resolve is fractured, and we are wallowing in a miasma of finger pointing. Our problems are an inevitable result of a multi-faceted and mature society. We are stymied by the sheer number of voices who claim a place at our table and we have no logical process to sort them out.
Americans like bold, individual action; we are wary of negotiation and inpatient with the diplomacy required to build consensus. Our insatiable news cycles and endless campaigns shout out for action. Yet we do not move forward because every issue is framed by antagonistic points of view; each articulated so starkly they admit no common ground.
But I know different. I know that we Americans share miles and miles of common ground; I traversed a good portion of it at ten miles per hour, a very prudent speed. Travelling slow requires patience and a long view because when the only power available to move forward is what my own fifty-six year old legs can produce, the view is not going to change all that fast. Trending stories flash across the Internet, fill the ether with their urgency, and get eclipsed by faster breaking news before the next town even appears on the horizon. At ten miles an hour, the incessant buzz of our culture never gets the chance to infect my consciousness, provocative sound bites ring hollow and the issues facing our country appear more fundamental. At my leisurely pace I realized that The Great National Debt Ceiling Debate was not about money or credit so much as it was about Washington’s divisiveness; it was not about divisiveness so much as our unwillingness to appreciate other points of view; it was not about a realistic search for solutions so much as an exercise in staking extreme positions, and ultimately the debate resolved little except to highlight our lack of trust and respect for each other.
When I am not riding a bicycle, I am an architect. I design hospitals for a living. Like most architects I got into the profession because I love to draw and it is thrilling to see my vision rise in steel and stone. But these days I spend more time facilitating meetings with constituents than I do drawing solutions. Hospitals are complex facilities with divergent stakeholders. The core of my job is to help my clients reach agreement on what to build, which I do through a process of defining each client’s core purpose, their guiding principles.
Truly great guiding principles are like great art, they are deceptively simple yet they resonate with our soul. They convey what is fundamental about an institution, but also what makes it unique. Guiding principles seek to maximize benefits to the many while minimizing harm to the few; they inform our future behavior and lead to solutions where everyone winds up better than they were. Once we clarify guiding principles, drawing is the easy part.
As I pedaled beneath the brilliant summer sun and the storm clouds of the Great National Debt Ceiling Debate, I realized that parallels exist between designing a hospital and running a country. I also realized that the concepts of guiding principles we use so effectively in our work were absent from the debate. Instead of seeking common ground, our elected officials exalted their differences. Reason could not prevail because the most unreasonable claims garnered the most media attention and the debate became a game, a circus of State. Acknowledging all that we share in common is not a weakness, it is our strength. If we do not acknowledge how we agree, we cannot craft solutions that maximize everyone’s interest.
Everywhere my legs pumped me I witnessed the dichotomy between our country and our leaders. How we can get the governed and the government better aligned? Time and again I returned to the notion that we must reclaim our common ground, we must return to our nation’s guiding principles; only then can we address the challenges of our day. State by state I cycled through breathtaking landscape, met wonderful people, and ate scrumptious food, while simultaneously confronting core issues facing America. Each state offered up opportunities for effective and lasting resolve.