Its December 2021, an inauspicious year if ever there was, save one personal milestone. I have gotten further along in achieving last year’s new year’s resolution than ever before. What was my resolution? “I am not in charge.”’
At first glance I may not appear to be the kind of person who seeks to be in charge. In my professional life I eschewed most any title or formal role. I was never principal in a firm; hardly ever stamped a project as architect-of-record. Yet I carved out a mediating role that often made me center of attention.
“You are the best facilitator I ever met,” An administrator at Boston Medical Center told me when I announced my retirement, only a few months into a five-year major facility renewal. “But I can see why you’re moving on. That’s not the kind of thing one carves on a gravestone.” At age 58 I realized that I simply didn’t have the enthusiasm I needed—and Boston Medical Center deserved—to thread the nimble negotiations of who got fresh space and which services expanded. I’d steered clinicians, administrators, and patients toward consensus before on several large projects. I knew the success of any project hinges as much on perception as on construction, and I had a knack for making everyone feel heard; feel they came out ahead. The more I got folks vested in our design, the more they were more inclined to proclaim the result a success. Their success.
It was great fun, and I was good at it. Never titularly in charge. Always the go-to person to move forward. Having a general knowledge of all aspects of health care suited my curiosity, which is broad rather than deep, while juggling the politics, egos, and financial incentives of the American healthcare system catered to my puzzle-solving nature. I loved corralling all the players and horse trading them into agreement.
In the eight years since I retired, the satisfaction of being in charge, however conferred, is a difficult thing to yield. It comes naturally to me. No doubt, in part, a role that many educated white males simply assume.
Perhaps it was the 2020 pandemic, which shook everyone’s sense of control. Perhaps it was George Floyd’s murder, which stripped whatever sheen remained of American lip service to equality. Perhaps it was just the fatigue of our pointlessly divisive era. Whatever the reason, last December I decided to try and let go. Forfeit my kneejerk impulse to take charge.
It would be a lie to say that I succeeded every day in every way. But in total, I held my tongue more in 2021 than any other year of my life. I listened more, and I believe, listened better. I took more deep breaths as a matter of soothing. I apologized frequently, and meant it sincerely.
The world is not a better place for me stepping back, but it’s no worse either. Even my own little corner appears pretty unaffected by me acing a new year’s resolution. But the direction feels right to me. Retirement means stepping back rather than stepping in. Letting others seek you out rather than putting yourself out there. Exploring the broadest possible perspectives, and leaving the details to the next generation.
I’m pretty disappointed with the world that we, the Greatest Generation Once Removed, are bequeathing our children and grandchildren. Our hubris and greed have done to more to hasten the demise of humanity than any previous cohort. We salve our conscience by protesting that we did nothing more than build directly upon the foundations we inherited. Just like every generation before us. But such comfort is false. We knew the warnings: what we’re doing to our society; to our planet; and we scarcely changed course.
There is still a lot a person can do, when he’s no longer in charge. I can still learn and question and make connections. I can laugh and sing and cry, ride my bike and enjoy the train, eat healthy and exercise daily. Offer my voice, opinions, and knowledge to the next in line. Knowing full well they may be rejected: I am not in charge.
Notching down a few ladder rungs is not a reason to abandon or hide. Rather, it’s an opportunity to work differently, to live differently. To support what’s right moving forward without leading the charge.
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Images from the cover of I AM NOT IN CHARGE by Ness Cannon