Blame it on the Dormouse. Or Grace Slick. Or me.

by Michael "Spanky" McCallister on Monday, January 20, 2014

I kind of stuck my toe back into the pre-award business as a volunteer this last week. I needed something for my head to do and the opportunities popped up. It’s funny how being back at the meeting table after a break is so comfortable and at the same a mirror of daily life.

“Feed your head,” that’s what the dormouse and the lovely Grace said, and mine is constantly hungry. Even your brain needs to be walked, fed and all too often have its mental yard cleared of its by-products, right? So, I decided maybe I could find some opportunities on the local campus to use my skills, help out some groups that struck my fancy and after all, they had foolishly invited me into their dilemmas. Time will tell if I have yet again missed the moral of Uncle Remus’s tale, but for the moment, I’m having a great time.

The aforesaid mental gluttony led me to two situations, one a service group related to my graduate degree that is a bit stuck in the ennui of “This is what we’ve always done.” The second group is related to my music alter ego (possibly Ego Prime). It’s a growing program that is hitting the limit of extant resources, but full of creative and wildly talented faculty who are primed to do some really spiffy things.

The service group is good of heart, full of skilled folks, ready to put in the effort, but stymied by how to get started. It is stuck in the well-known mode of “networking, not working,’’ constantly doing things to be ready to leap into action, but without the requisite high ground of resources and planning from which to leap. My intent is to help them develop a real strategic plan. (Michael Owen is laughing at me right now, but in that nice Canadian way; he knows how I loathe planning.) We are going to SWOT, a bit, identify needs, competitors to co-opt, build some new services, seek support from the right people and institutions and get with the program. My new colleagues do not know what is about to hit them. I snicker.

The other group is an academic department with really exciting programmatic components. I met with the Chair, a great guy, a poster person for “We’re working on that” (Someone mentioned this once, I made a call), “We’ve tried that” (But it was a while ago in a different time and economy). This person is the exact Chair we all know, completely consumed running a department without enough staff, money, time, anything. There are a ton of possibilities for these new creative folks and in itself that is overwhelming when just keeping school is a giant undertaking. I would be the last to find fault, but there are things we can do, reasonable projects that can be done without knocking the department off its rails.

Each group was hunkered down in the usual, so focused on their daily routine they could not even imagine the horizon, let along think about what might be beyond it. Oh, sure, they can talk about possibilities all day, but none knew how to go from talking to doing. Bringing in an external agitator works when there is a real intention of changing, but like the old joke, “The light bulb has to really want to change.”

Both of these groups suffer from the honest prevarication based on real problems. But they did ask me to help and once the fox is in the henhouse . . . . Neither group can see the forest for the trees—too many possibilities, too many options, and way too many pet dreams. Both need to step back and look at all of their project ideas and integrate them into programs. Both need to just suck it up and DO SOMETHING. Choose a starting place and start building. I can see you nodding your head, this is familiar territory you have experienced when working with your researchers.

This inertial trap likely also applies to you. No matter your goals, dreams, or hopes, you must identify that first step and take it. Mao spoke of that first step succinctly, even if he was a bad dude. Another bad dude, fictional but compelling, was Clint Eastwood’s character in “The Unforgiven.” He gave a long speech about why he was a successful gunman. He said it wasn’t that he was a fast draw, not even that he was a good shot. He was feared because he would pull the trigger, do the deed, not hesitate. Hesitating in a gunfight pretty much means you come in second, which is, well, dead.

So in all cases the choice is between the familiar discomforts of the known versus the uncertainty of moving forward. I firmly believe that people (and research and creative programs) that are not growing and evolving, are dying. The status quo is much more our enemy than a self-perceived threat from the new. Complete surety is where creativity, growth and discovery stop. That’s why the Dark Ages were so dark, you know.

Life is good, learning and growth are good, perspective is good. Even if it’s a good day, another one just like today is not. Meet you at the horizon, may I? Sounds like a big old party to me.

Spanky, Wildly Introspective Guy

Comments? Suggestions? Just Lonely?

Musical treat of the day: Southern Miss Radio, 88.5. Listen online at

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