As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. — Matthew 4.18-22
Analogies are difficult in the midst of a global pandemic. It is very easy to be reductive. We are constantly reminded of the things we aren’t supposed to care about because of the unprecedented times we are living in. I think we should resist reductive thinking. We certainly can gain perspective, or be reminded to call our parents and grandparents. However, we can be reminded without being reductive. The Boston Marathon didn’t become unimportant because of the coronavirus. It was always less important than the safety and public health of millions of people, but it is still okay to care about things. Maybe you didn’t need my permission, but now you have it.
It seems to me that instead of being reductive, at this moment, it is important to be flexible. Flexible in our thinking, our doing, and our planning. Perhaps the world is realizing that the tools we used and the experiences we had in the past may not fully equip us to handle the future. I guess what I am suggesting is that when faced with a new thing, a new world, a new social structure, a new church, a new pastor, etc… we must be prepared to leave our nets behind. The verse above in Matthew 4 narrates the story by looking back, “they were fishermen.” The old tools may actually be cumbersome for what lies ahead. The disciple’s world changed so frequently that they couldn’t afford to be reductive. They were constantly faced with new challenges, new experiences, and new information. The tools of old did not hold them down as they followed the one who makes all things new.
Late last year, New York Times bestselling author David Epstein released his second full-length book, Range. The main argument that weaves its way through each chapter is that breadth, openness, and diversity of experience are becoming extremely rare in the professional world, especially in engineering, science, and finance. As folks are called on to specialize at such a young age, they lose the ability to match their skills and passion. This leads to silos in the professional field and silo-ed problem-solving. The subtitle of the book is why generalists triumph in a specialized world. He grants that there are activities where specialists thrive, chess and golf are two in particular. Yet, he gets to the heart of the matter by asking the following question: Is the world really like chess or golf? He is sure it isn’t, few things are. Golf and chess exist within a kind learning environment. Bringing down your handicap would be much harder if the club was lengthening and shortening as you swing. It would also change your approach to the game.
Instead, he argues that our world and our problems are wicked. Variables change constantly. Problems are dynamic and many times the correct solutions or answers are uncertain. Then he goes one step deeper. Epstein wonders whether it is possible if we have relied so heavily on the tools we have gained through specialization that we have lost our ability to innovate. He worries that there is a perception gap between the challenges we face and the specialized training we have received. Has our specialized training and expectations conditioned us to look at the future with a toolbag full of solutions that worked in the past? He argues this actually makes it more difficult.
One of the hard-hitting but illuminating examples he gives in the book is of smokejumpers and ‘hotshot’ wilderness firefighters. He goes into the example in his chapter Learning to Drop Your Familiar Tools. Smokejumpers already have an incredibly dangerous job. They need to be well-trained and make quick decisions.
Organizational behavioral psychologist Karl Weick set out to study the circumstances surrounding smoke-jumper casualties. He observed that in their training, smokejumpers were to maintain control in extreme and variable conditions.
This is what Weick calls their ‘can do’ culture. They are taught to always be in control.
What Weick noticed was that tragically, many of the fatalities occurred with the firefighters still holding their equipment. Smokejumpers carry with them extremely heavy equipment. When things started to get dicey, one of the ways they remained in control was by holding onto their tools.
What Weick observed is that over and over again, the smokejumpers who escaped life and death situations were those who dropped their tools and ran.
An experienced smokejumper who escaped a blaze that killed 12 other firefighters told his story. “As the fire started to get close I ran uphill as fast as I could. After I had run nine-hundred feet uphill I realized that I still had my saw over my shoulder! I irrationally started looking for a place to put it down where it wouldn’t get burned … I remember thinking I can’t believe I’m putting down my saw.”
What Weick concluded is that rather than adapting to unfamiliar situations, whether airline accidents or fire tragedies, groups become rigid under pressure and “regress to what they know best.”
Learning to drop your familiar tools is a recognition of the adaptive challenges that we all will face. It makes it easier to name the problems, to balance decision making and timing, and to make better judgments.
I pray that we foster a spirit that transcends a rigid understanding and that we might be flexible in the midst of our social distance.
I wish all of you peace that passes all understanding.