Friday, November 11, 2011

A Modest Proposal

“First kill all the consultants.” So is my modest proposal for restoring health and sanity to our institutions. It seems like every official institution I’m deeply or loosely associated with is being sold down the river to the “experts” who tell us naïve primitive village people how to do things the right way. Never mind that we have been successfully running our small enterprises and accomplishing extraordinary things in our own unique style for decades. They tell us that today’s world is complex and beyond the understanding of the average human being and requires a consultant (or personal trainer) to help negotiate you through the maze of how things get done these days. At an exorbitant salary, of course. And why do we pay it? Because “they” must know better than “little ole us.”

What gets things done? I would say that vision is the engine of expertise. Passion is the fuel and a group of like-minded folks who care about the same things is the vehicle that gets us moving down the road. I’m at the annual American Orff Schulwerk Conference and have been at every one since 1982 and it never fails to impress me how a group of volunteers can put on a 2,000 person 3-day party where everything basically works. And yet the word on the street is that a marketing consultant has been hired and told us that we’re doing everything wrong. The school where I have worked these 36 years was founded on the same spirit of volunteerism and built year by year by it, both physically and culturally. Now it appears that some decisions are being based on recommendations from loan companies, independent school conferences, “best corporate practices.” We are told that this is the way the world is now and we simply need to change with the times and accept it.

But I don’t. And I don’t think you should either. It stinks. It smells of good old-fashioned colonialism and imperialism and missionary work, folks from outside a culture coming in and running the show with no motivation beyond their own profit or questionable conversion plan. They plant a flag, show their sales pitch or gun or Bible and suggest that the natives shouldn’t “resist change, but go with the flow.” In those days, jail or death would be the consequence for native non-compliance. Now it’s simply being dismissed as an old hippie or being shown the door in your workplace.

Virtually every artist I know has had to get her or his hands smeared with a little legal ink, needed to tally up and keep track of money and goods, needed to sit at the kitchen table alone or with friends folding flyers and licking (yes, the old days) stamps. We’d rather be tap dancing on bubble-wrap or walking in the woods looking for our next poem, but we live in the world and need to deal with business and administration. And so many of us find ourselves climbing the steep learning curves of non-profit tax status or updating Websites or hustling our next gig. And guess what? We figure it out. We’re smart, we’re motivated and we’re committed enough to get through the boring stuff. And when we need help—which is often—we learn who to ask and how to make friends with (or marry) a lawyer or accountant or graphic artist. And occasionally, even a consultant!

It’s a question of balance. These business folks are a wonderful, if not necessary, part of our getting our passion out there and running in the world. Carl Orff, for example, was an absolute genius—or a very lucky man or both—at finding the people who would build his instruments, publish his books, record his music, put him on the radio, offer him (actually, more his colleague Gunild Keetman) a space to give children’s classes, build him an entire building in the middle of a Salzburg field connected to a prestigious Conservatory. None of what I enjoy today with my students would have come to fruition without such collaboration.

But order is all. The vision comes first and runs the decisions. The details get things in motion, but always at service to the vision. What I object to in the consultant culture is the imbalance of power, the consultant suddenly the “expert” with the poor innocent artist nodding his head with an “if you say so” weary look. What the consultant lacks is relationship with the passion, a shared vision, a deep love. They can fake it, but when they’re hired for their knowledge of details, it simply isn’t enough. I have stories a mile long to back this up.

I just came from a workshop about the brain and the latest research shows that the details don’t build the big picture. The big picture is there from the beginning and the details give it strength, clarity and conscious understanding, but we don't grow the forest one tree at a time. Children first understand the world through the big picture-style of the brain’s right hemisphere and then slowly develop the capacity to analyze, break-it down and understand the details farmed out to the left-hemisphere.

We volunteers have worked in much the same way, starting with the big picture vision and figuring out tree by tree how to sustain the forest. The move toward hiring experts reverses the order and is good for no one—except the consultant’s families, who will be able to pay their mortgage and hire a consultant to suggest a good car model.

And so let me modify my modest proposal. We don’t need to kill the consultants, but we do need to consider how much power we give over to them, be wary of any one who doesn’t already share our passion, be careful about how much we pay them after working for free ourselves all these years. And consider whether we need them at all and if so, precisely for what. If we need help, we should ask our neighbor or sister-in-law, friends or community members first before bringing in the hired guns.
We are smarter than we think, probably in exact proportion to how much we love our craft. 

If you resonate with these ideas, you can hire me as a consultant to present them to your institution.
After all, I got a mortgage to pay.

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