The Pursuit of Less

HBR has an essay by Greg McKeown on [The Disciplined Pursuit of Less]( Such a disciplined pursuit stands in stark contrast with the way most organizations, and individuals, proceed: more is more. The study to which he refers, _How the Mighty Fall_ by Jim Collins, focuses on organizations, but McKeown is interested in the applicability of its principles to individuals. It is, in some ways, a repetition but also perhaps a refinement, of the current mantra of *pursue your passion*, but there are some directions provided in this case to help individuals maintain focus.

McKeown begins with the idea that you should increase the strictness of your criteria from something simply being an opportunity to three questions:

– What am I passionate about?
– What taps my talent?
– What meets a significant need in the world?

His immediate analogy is the difference, in cleaning out one’s closet, between asking the question “will I potentially wear this again?” and “do I love this?” the two questions will result in significantly different amounts of clothes in boxes going to Goodwill. The goal, McKeown notes, is not to find “a plethora of good things to do” but to find “our absolute highest point of contribution.”

McKeown’s example of someone who has successfully answered this (set of) question(s) is [Enric Sala](, who left his academic job and eventually became an explorer-in-residence with National Geographic.

That particular example, the notion of being an explorer-in-residence, could not have rung my bell harder. It was only a few months ago that I turned to my wife, who after all these years still is willing to listen to my dewy-eyed daydreams, and mused that my dream job in Louisiana would be to be an ethnographer for the LSU Agcenter network. To my mind, nothing would be more interesting than being able to spend my time moving about the countryside, checking in with farmers of various stripes, following them as they do their amazing work, and documenting it in various ways that elicits not only their intelligence but also the simultaneous robustness and fragility of modern agriculture. (Certainly being a NG explorer-in-residence and able to do much the same on a global landscape would be an opportunity of many, many lifetimes.)

With such clarity of what I really want in front of me, I have to admit that it was the universe’s very good sense to replace a dean for whom I happily pursued a wide variety of projects for a single course release with a dean whose only thought is to the bottom line. While I am carrying a full teaching load again, I am suddenly no longer chasing an incredibly wide array of institutional projects. As I noted this summer, I was engaged in trying to:

* maintain UL’s position as a Core member of the Bamboo Consortium Planning Group
* develop the new website for the American Folklore Society and edit its new on-line publication, the _AFS Review_
* propose an Institutional Repository for the university
* build a relationship with Evangeline Council of Boy Scouts of America in support of their own documentation practices (which has resulted in a job for one of our PhD graduates) and a potential Atchafalaya Basin Center
* develop a proposal for an undergraduate digital media production lab (based on our prior success in finding a graduate digital humanities lab)

I am in the middle of wrapping up these tasks now, and while I miss profoundly the collaborations involved and the opportunity to improve my little corner of higher education in the Deep South, I have to admit that my little corner was largely indifferent to my help and that a certain level of exhaustion is no longer a part of my life. I simply don’t feel like I’m trying to juggle one more ball than I can manage any more. Which is, for those of you who have seen me juggle, perhaps not the best analogy, but it’s the one that sprung to mind, and so we will all have to live with it.

McKeown’s set of criteria is even more interesting as I move forward. I have been, for example, been trying to find ways to engage one of our local research centers to make it more folklore-friendly — rather, to make it as folklore-friendly as it once was but is no longer under new management. I have tried a few indirect approaches, and even found myself being rather rudely direct recently, but, still, I saw an opportunity for something bigger to happen. In talking with the prospects both with my wife and with my mentor, I realized that not only would the amount of effort, and real feeling, I would put into the project never be mirrored but that also such organizational revision, as much as it is something I care about and is something that I am fairly good at, is not seen as a significant need in my corner. Thus, there is no market. Why forge ahead into a space in which there are no potential buyers? (Do I think that the kind of organizational revision is really needed in the larger world? Yes, but my little corner of higher education is very focused on survival at the moment, and they do not subscribe to the notion that the best way to survive in turbulent times is to look to the future and re-cast yourself by your vision of that future.) Perhaps, in the past, I might have railed — in my head at least but also perhaps dangerously in public — that others were being blind to the obvious. The fact is others see things differently. In my corner of higher ed, those others are in charge. Their reality is my reality. They are my immediate audience, but they need not be my larger, or long-term, audience.

To return to the more compelling set of questions: what is my passion? what is my talent? what is a significant need to which I can apply those two things? While my work with texts represents an opportunity, and I really would like to pursue my next book project, _Everything Is Not a Story_, I realize that my real passion is for *making* and *makers*. I love being around people who are alert to the possibilities in the universe that have not yet been manifested in material form. The talent that I think I bring to this is that I not only love such individuals and processes but I can describe them with words. Finding a place from which to do this is my current dilemma…