Personal relationships are often messy. This can be especially true for families. Families are imperfect, and at the same time incredibly unique.
We literally share the same DNA with members of our family. There are memories forged from very personal experiences that bind us together. The enduring personal stories of family differ from person to person. For some, these are treasured recollections but for others the marks of deep scars.
Regardless what has gone before, families are those relationships we can always return to without the need for explanation. The bonds that tie families together are stronger than we realise, and this only become fully known in the difficult times.
While the dilemma of how I should proceed with the 10 City Bridge Run was unfolding, there were bigger issues at stake that demanded my attention. Given that I was seeking to embark on the 10 City Bridge Run, the obvious problem to address was that of child mortality, a situation that mattered more than whether I was able to run in 10 cities within Sydney let alone the world. But a more pressing and immediate problem was soon to overshadow the world of my family.
2011 proved to be a long and slow year. I felt sheepish about the intention I had for the 10 City Bridge Run, and this seemed more like a mirage now than any sense of credible dream. I am able to tell how much I was invested into this quest at different times by looking at the blog archives. It shows that between April 2011 and March 2012, I posted a total of zero blogs. No activity in 10 months. I was stuck.
Even though my father was the first supporter of the homespun crowdfunding campaign I had initiated, I felt unable to talk with him about the difficulties I was facing related to knowing what to do about this journey. It was a time of feeling like a complete failure. I didn’t have the means to move forward, and it didn’t make sense to back out because it would been an admission that the problem was beyond solving.
At the beginning of the new year in 2011, I received a call from my brother which helped to put this situation into perspective. We had a respectful relationship, and we cared deeply for each other as brothers even if this wasn’t reflected on the frequency of phone calls between us. His voice was confident, but he spoke with more of a sense of urgency than normal.
During the phone call he went on to explain that he was about to go to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne where he lived for some tests and observation. After noticing some unusual bruising on his skin while pruning trees in his garden the day before, he went to the doctor as a matter of precaution. The doctor quickly referred him to have further tests conducted, as he had correctly diagnosed that my brother’s health was threatened.
My brother explained that he might have some form of leukaemia. Leukaemia! It struck me that I didn’t really know much about this disease other than it was bad news. He asked if I would come down to Melbourne from Sydney at the earliest opportunity to have a blood test in case I had a positive match as a person who could be a stem cell donor should that be required. A few hours later, I was sitting in a plane flying to Melbourne.
Arriving in Melbourne, I went straight to the hospital. My brother looked unbelievably relaxed and focused on working toward a solution. At this point, I was able to see the deep reserves of courages innate to my brother that were not displayed during the routine of everyday living. He explained more about the disease which had been diagnosed. I was amazed at how much information the doctors could tell him already, and how quickly the medical system was responding with him already having been in to have his blood washed, and shortly due to repeat the procedure again.
He explained why a stem cell donor might be necessary during the treatment for leukaemia and that members of a family, especially siblings, are likely to have a higher chance of matching because of the shared DNA. Later that afternoon I sat in a treatment room awaiting a nurse to take a blood sample. I was expecting the worst after hearing the details from my brother, and remember flinching as the nurse lanced me with the syringe to extract blood. I felt incredibly sheepish when seconds later she turned her back walking toward a counter upon which she would deposit my blood sample. “You can relax now”, she quipped cheekily.
It turned out that my blood was not the match my brother was looking for, but the good thing was that we both knew that neither of us would hesitate to help the other in a time of crisis. It was a sobering moment for myself and the whole family.
I left Melbourne after farewelling my family, buoyed by my brother’s defiance over the diagnosis which had been handed to him. He confidence in the medical system was reassuring, and I was thoroughly impressed knowing that whatever was to happen he was in very good hands.
I returned to Sydney refreshed from the time I spent in Papua New Guinea. Without exaggeration, it had been a life-changing experience. It had taken me to travel to a place where people had “nothing” in a material sense from a Western perspective to realise how much lack we experienced in our society. By comparison, the lives of people in remote villages in Papua New Guinea seemed idyllic.
I remember one occasion vividly, and even now I can feel the freshness of the ocean in such a way that I am immediately transported back to that time. I was on an island called Bagabag which sits about seven nautical miles north of Madang. It is a timeless paradise where night gives way to day, punctuated by a spectacular transformation at dawn. There is no need for clocks on this small island with the dramatic sunset announcing the end of each restful day with certainty. There is no internet, no mobile phone network, no electricity, no running water, but it is a place where you feel as though you have everything you needed in abundance.
We went fishing on the afternoon I arrived. Setting the boat out onto the coral reef surrounding the tropical shoreline, we all laughed together enjoying the simple pleasure of reeling in fish effortlessly, catching enough for our dinner that evening. The ocean was impossibly blue, and the vibrant reef teeming with life below thoroughly inviting. I said I wanted to go swimming, which amused my friends who lived in the nearby village. “Then just go!” they exclaimed. Life was simple and perfect. I dived into the crystal clear water. Visibility extended further than my eyesight could see towards a distant horizon. As I submerged to swim among shoals of colourful fish, it was as though I had departed from the Ordinary World momentarily to enter a Special World which existed under this aquatic realm. I may have as well been the only person swimming in the ocean on the planet. It was a remarkably exhilarating feeling of complete freedom. Liberating!
Returning to the boat, the spectre of child mortality was perhaps the furthest thing from my mind. I didn’t have the benefit of tabulated statistics to put this population into perspective. There was no brochure of poverty porn peddling photos of misery and disadvantage. All that I could see was the happiness of the locals.
The next morning, I was captivated by a procession of local women who were walking through this village with their children and babies to the small school which sat many kilometres on the other end of the island. The exotic nature of this island was intoxicating. It was easy to believe that this paradise was perfect, and to lose perspective when trying to understand a problem like child mortality. To be fair, I was visiting the island to examine opportunities for ecotourism and not focused on maternal and health issues specifically, but it is telling that child mortality was so easy to overlook because it is largely unseen to the casual observer.
I opened a respectful conversation asking how people from this village might be affected by child mortality one night after we ate dinner together. It was humbling to hear their responses trying to help me make sense of a complex issue, my questions a blunt intrusion into their most intimate and personal lives. Of course there were problems, and of course they wanted the best for their children. But changing the situation seemed incomprehensible to them. It was a salient lesson for me. The conversations I had been reading from the large conventions with rock stars and world leaders seemed a million miles from this reality. There seemed to be a disconnect from the boardrooms in New York to the remote villages in places like Papua New Guinea. How could I be sure I was seeing things for what they were? I was convinced that human bridges were necessary to overcome this gap, but what would that look like exactly?
A short while later after swimming in the ocean, I departed Papua New Guinea and returned to the life I had left behind in Sydney. Even though I was now amongst the metropolis of a city, I felt as though I was back in the wilderness, figuratively speaking. My existence in the city seemed barren because of the financial hardship I had entered. Even though I was living in a big city, I became increasingly aware of what I could not do with the absence of money. It was an unenviable wilderness. My life was fast becoming a farce in that I was seeking to address an issue of extreme poverty but at a time when I was beginning to plumb the depths of personal poverty myself. This was a truth I was unable or unprepared to share with others. The money I had raised from the earlier crowdfunding had been banked and sat impotently held in trust, awaiting for a sufficient quantity that would allow for my travel. But for now, I was almost broke and effectively homeless.
My personal situation created its own dilemmas in how I ought to share the story of this quixotic task I had accepted to build bridges that somehow might address child mortality. It was unpleasant to say the least. A cruel irony was emerging that reflected an imbalance I have seen in the lives of others too where there might be access to a solution, but no access to resources. The opposite is equally as bad where there is an abundance of resources, but no vision for making things better. Both of these scenarios are wastelands where we are confronted by our own wilderness.
Overcoming Backswing requires us to often strike at the ball even if we know we are beginning from a low base where there is probability of hitting big is slim. This is a painful place to advance out from, and can be a crushing place to be. Even so, we must do the work. We have to show our form at batting first, even if it means striking out. We must be patient as we hustle and work towards achieving the goal which has become our burning desire.
The secret to overcoming backswing when you are in the wilderness is to make small hits. Hold onto the grand vision, but be satisfied with modest progress small gains toward a better outcome. It will take time. You must preserve. And it is all on you.
We don’t talk enough about the wilderness that we often find our lives wandering into. We are happier denying the existence of tough times. It is an uncomfortable truth the share with others. Radical collaboration is build on trust grounded in a sense of openness to being vulnerable.
Overcoming Backswing means that we have to be prepared to talk about the wilderness. Find those you trust. Find a way out. You will need to do some serious work if you are going to overcome Backswing and eventually hit that ball out of the park. Whatever happens, don’t let your dreams die in the wilderness. Live. Don’t simply exist.
If Backswing is that thing we are trying to put into perspective so that we don’t get caught up paralysed into a state no action, then hitting the ball out of the park is that thing we are wanting to see more of. There is a relationship between Backswing and hitting the ball, and this book explores that in many different dimensions to focus on how this affects both the personal and the institutional domain.
I left one name out of the previous chapter intentionally in the list of people who helped buoy my sense of hope, and wanted to mention them here because of the significance of their actions. Tim is a person who I have already mentioned earlier in this book. I described earlier that he is perhaps the one person who has consistently bookended my experience on this epic quest from the time in 2007 when I first flagged my intention to commence the running quest which eventually became the 10 City Bridge Run.
I want to avoid isolating one individual when I mention the encouragement I received from other people. All supporters to the 10 City Bridge Run have contributed to making this journey possible, and I am extremely thankful for them all. Tim provided the inspiration behind an expression I have used called The Kindness of Strangers after a morning we shared together where he showed his immense capacity to care for others.
He and I would often meet with other people in Surry Hills, in fact in the same cafe where Kelley and I sat and discussed the website which I describe in a previous chapter. Our mutual friend Gavin has convened this space where many still regularly meet for coffee on a weekly basis. It is from the small actions of others that big ideas grow. Innovation and new value creation are unintended consequences of association, and seldom is there a single ‘eureka!’ moment between two individuals which solves all the problems for a single issue. It is because of the human bridges created by people like Kelley and Gavin with others gradual and small iterations that empowers others to make significant impact far beyond the reach or view of those who might be the catalyst for this alchemic ideation.
So too was it with Tim. One morning we were having coffee together, and unusually we were alone which allowed some space to talk. To really talk and engage in the process of real conversation takes courage and personal investment through being personally present with a willingness to participate. This doesn’t mean necessarily agreeing, but it does mean that there will be listening and respect shown which is reciprocated out of care for one another.
On this occasion, Tim asked me how I was going. He sensed everything was not quite right, and he was correct. Together, we entered a very personal conversation, and allowed each other the privilege of opening a space where we could both be vulnerable. During the conversation that followed, Tim responded with great courage by suggesting that we explore some options that would be to my immediate and long-term benefit. The Kindness of Strangers is grounded in a concern for the humanity of others, and is essential in the building of a human bridge. Tim had no obligation to spend that time with me. It was a generous gift that I received from him that day.
Often when people think about hitting the ball out of the park, there is a tendency for this to be measured in material gain: money, fast cars, flash houses, and everything that comes with this. Material things are nice, but the truth is that we really come closest to hitting the ball when we are at our best in caring for other people. Maybe Backswing is at its worst when we hold ourselves back from simple acts of kindness that truly connect us with our humanity through the opportunity to help others.
The details of how Tim helped me that day need not be mentioned here specifically, suffice to say he helped me to take stock of where I was and also pointed a way forward. Without these small acts of kindness from good friends and sometimes strangers, this trip would not have been possible. The Hero’s Journey traverses a fragile passage. The human bridges we make with other people are essential to finding our way through.
With the help of others, I was inspired to continue the quest to address an important question about child survival I had commenced which I had called the 10 City Bridge Run. Knowing that I was beginning from a place of financial hardship as I recommitted to the journey ahead, I realised I had no idea where this would take me or indeed how I might get there, let alone when.
Coincidentally, around this time, I was invited to travel to Papua New Guinea by a business consortium who had tasked me to examine the opportunities for ecotourism. A few years earlier, I had completed some similar work addressing a particular opportunity for ecotourism in a remote desert Indigenous location, and as a result of the quality of my work I was sought out by these people to investigate the situation in Papua New Guinea.
I had read a lot about Papua New Guinea, but never set foot there. How hard could it be, right? After all, I was a bit of an expert. I was soon to see how strongly issues of health infrastructure, education and governance would have on shaping child mortality.
It was ironic that I flew to Papua New Guinea confident of my ability to intervene, but not really stopping to think that it would be a remarkable opportunity to really learn more about child mortality. I had a perspective that perhaps was not atypical of many (white) Westerners visiting so-called Developing or Third World countries. Unflatteringly, the measure of a developing country was typically based on the things that made issues like child mortality prevalent. We define a global system measured by a relative ranking of injustice. Just great…
I arrived into Port Moresby with a mind that was half made up about the capacity for knowledge transfer and capacity building. I mistakenly thought that Western technology would be the saving grace for allowing ecotourism to prosper in Papua New Guinea. After all, our lives and cities didn’t seem so bad, and our statistics were something to boast about. What I came to learn was that Western lifestyle stood to gain from the knowledge transfer from the remote village lifestyle found across Papua New Guinea.
I spent most of my time in two remote villages, both located is very different parts of a remarkable country renowned for its diversity. Travelling to the first village was an education in itself. A plane to a small airstrip, then a bus to a beach, from where we took a Zodiac dinghy across a stretch of ocean, and from there rode in the back of a truck to the village. I began to appreciate how badly formed infrastructure might affect access to health.
As I surveyed Papua New Guinea, infrastructure seemed to be a problem in all the areas that mattered: health, transport, communications, education, clean water, distribution of food, access to markets. In spite of this, it was curious that the infrastructure for logging, fishing and mining seemed to have little obstacles. When money was involved, mountains literally could be moved. Here was a country that used to be a protectorate of Australia and that was virtually unknown as it was roughly assaulted by the extractive industries of foreign business interests.
How could this be? Papua New Guinea would appear in the books and articles I was reading about poverty and child mortality, but I could never recall this information. I suspect that in the interest in places like sub-Saharan Africa trumped the oxygen from the conversation in other areas.
I decided to start collecting photos of human bridges for the book I was compiling that supporters had sponsored to enable funds to be raised for my trip to occur. I realised that I could collate thousands of photos in Papua New Guinea, and maybe I could even leave a few cameras behind for people to continue to help build the number of photos I was hoping to gain. I would ask people from a village to form a human bridge so that I could take a photo. They were happy to help, but I was finding it difficult because I hadn’t fully appreciated the nature of village life. Not only was there a language problem, but the concept of a bridge as I understood it was not a readily understood by the locals.
A photo of a human bridge has to tell a story. It was ironic that I saw the ordinariness of their village life as fascinating much in the same way as the regarded my digital camera as mind-boggling. I had failed to appreciate what a human bridge actually meant, not only to me, but also what was unique in these people’s lives that would be important so as to communicate a gripping narrative about child mortality. It was only February 2011, and already earlier that year I had benefited greatly from the human bridge that Tim built with me, and yet I couldn’t see the unique situation I found myself in to use this opportunity to tell a story.
Worse still was perhaps that I was seeking to take these photos in a way that almost certainly was questionable, if not unethical. I hadn’t adequately asked for their permission because of the language barrier, and neither had I adequately spent time to explain why I wanted their photo to help with an issue which I ought to have recognised was serving their welfare.
I wasn’t the first person to get it wrong when visiting a developing country like this. There is a tendency for Westerners to assume they are bringing solutions which can help to add capacity. I am not saying that Western technology has no place, but unless we truly understand the situation that other people are facing, how can we ever hope to be part of the solution to address the problem. This is the problem with so much emphasis on statistics within agencies such as the United Nations, if only those statistics are used for understanding the situation. It is a complex mess that needs help from everyone.
I was taking a boat from one village to another and went to review the photos on my camera. It was a new camera, and I was presented with an option which resulted in me deleting all the photos on my memory. All was lost. All the precious photos were gone! I remember spending half a day in a small computer repair shop that a friend of a friend operated. I was hoping that there might be some ghost copy of the photos on the memory card. We tried and tried, but couldn’t recover anything.
As I was preparing to leave Papua New Guinea, I had the good fortune to visit some of the hospitals and speak with some of the doctors about child mortality. They were all locals, and incredibly passionate about overcoming the immense challenges they were confronting. They all sighed deeply when beginning a conversation with me. Yet another white guy who had come to try to solve their country…
I learnt a great deal from those hospital visits. There was no dying babies to see, and I was heartened by the large numbers of young mothers with their new-born babies. It helped me to put this issue of child mortality into perspective.
In hindsight, I realised that my time would have been better spent trying to talk and understand people rather than photograph them, and that the time I had spent trying to recover lost photos would have been better spent listening to doctors educate me about their country.
A had lost all my photos, but that didn’t matter. It was actually a new beginning. I had received my first lesson in understanding the problem, but I still had much to learn.
And so I was in the wilderness. It was a summer of perfect weather at the end of 2010, but I felt I was entering a winter of missed opportunities. I had injured myself from overtraining that I couldn’t beginning running again, and besides which lacked the motivation to start to rebuild. It is when we are hardest hit that personal discipline is most important. Even if during these times you know that it will be unlikely to hit any home runs, you still must try. Never let personal disappointment become the reason for embracing Backswing.
I was at a loss as to how to find a way forward for the 10 City Bridge Run. I felt caught between having began and not having the means to continue. I was wedged. To my mind, financial constraints was the limiting factor, and as I thought more about this it brought me in closer orbit to the question I sought to address through this method: what impact could one individual have on changing a problem? I knew that collaboration was integral to any solution, but also recognised that unless I had the requisite fuel to sustain myself what good was I to anybody?
My thinking showed a great limitation and failure in imagination to embrace possibilities outside of my own thinking that could come from the crowd. I was reluctant to accept that fact that perhaps my efforts were fully dependent on the support from others. I had yet to fully embrace the offering that is presented through crowdfunding. This dependency on others to allow collaboration to occur is something we are not attuned to from the way we are conditioned in society.
Christmas came closer and seemed to bring a deadline of finality to my fate. With every day, I seemed to move further and further from the possibility of ever conducting this epic quest. At this point in time, the only thing that seemed epic was the catastrophic nature of my ineptitude. It appeared that I would have to write back to the supporters who had backed me and explain that I had stuffed up. I would need to come clean and declare that I was pursuing a fantasy, an unobtainable dream. It was a feeling of being gutted.
I had organised the crowdfunding around the publishing of a book of human bridges. My original concept for this book was wildly unachievable in hindsight. Having wildly unachievable goals is not necessarily a bad thing, as though as you have the mettle to continue to pursue them regardless of the obstacles that might come your way. A goal that seemed wildly unachievable also was part of a narrative that an individual might have the audacious temerity to even suggest that influencing child mortality was possible from their actions as a start point.
Initially, I had planned a book with 24,000 photographs of human bridges. I wasn’t exactly sure what these would look like, neither was I exactly sure how I might curate them, but I believed that because I could comprehend the idea that the realisation of that task would in some way be possible.
I might give the credit here to the early supporters of the 10 City Bridge Run. Whether they were supporting me out of a sense of loyalty because we were friends, or whether they too bought into the idea of change I am not sure. But it was only because of their response to my request to support this initiative that I was able to even consider this idea as possible. There are times when new ideas are not good ideas, and need to be killed off or refined. How we engage with new ideas is a personal decision for us all, but we must be aware of the impact this might have on others.
The support from others gave me the encouragement I needed to continue. It really did. This points to another aspect to Backswing. We should be respectful of the dreams and ambitions of others. Our actions and words can build people up or tear people down. Just because someone asks us for their support it doesn’t mean that we have an obligation to respond exactly in the way they expect. Sometimes, declining to support their request accompanied by remarks that are constructively critical of what they proposed can be the best thing for everyone. Few ideas are perfect at the beginning, and they need opportunity for refinement.
We should allow the people the space to swing at the ball and strike out. Don’t let this happen in a way that is wasteful or damaging to the person who is waiting to hit the ball, but we should do what we can so that they are not left at Backswing simply because the lack of support or feedback from others.
The year was drawing to an uneventful end. At Christmas parties, people would ask me what I had been doing in general conversation. I found responding to that question was difficult. I couldn’t pretend that nothing was happening, but also to admit I was part way through a debacle seemed unwise. I stumbled through the awkward response with a muttered excuse for my existence, hoping that they would would be disinterested enough to not ask anything more.
And then something unexpected happened, unsolicited, that would change the course of this initiative. Prior to getting to the point of being injured and running out of time in early November, I had emailed many people with what in hindsight must have read like a desperate plea for help as opposed to extending an invitation to get involved through supporting the 10 City Bridge Run. I had many encouraging responses from people who wanted me to succeed but who weren’t in a position to contribute. Then, coincidentally as we approached Christmas and into the early New Year, I received a handful of responses containing the support from friends, many of whom inhabited very different social worlds.
Their support was like seeing the first light of a new dawn, and even when those early rays are heralding a false dawn. Even a false dawn is still an opportunity for a new beginning. Each person had a different reason to support me, and none would have been aware of the position of exasperation I had reached. It must be said that without the support of those who stepped up earlier, their would have been nothing to support. But as it was, the trickle of supporters made a profound difference.
My sister Bronwen and her family were the first people to make a contribution after this moment of feeling crushed had been reached in early November, and of course having the support of my sister meant a great deal to me. I didn’t need her support to value the relationship I have with her as my sister, but given I was in a position of profound need at that point, even a small gesture brought with it added significance. A number of good friends followed, all offering their encouragement, some because they knew I had slipped into a position of financial hardship, others because they were expressing their own sense of generosity grounded in a shared friendship. Receiving the support from others when you are desperate is humbling. These people are perhaps completely unaware of the difference they made at the time, but I always enjoy seeing a number of friends for the difference they made at this point for that reason, among them being Tom, Anni, Min, Jim, Ian, Joy, Andrew, Pete and Edna, Tui, Chris and Judy, Janine and Mark.
The responses from Mark, Chris and Judy were special simply because I hadn’t been in contact with them for a few years before they wrote to me with their support. Like an addict buying into the fantasy that somehow another hit would be all they needed for happiness once and for all, I found myself gripping onto their support as social proof that somehow I was on the right path.
I responded to Mark, Chris and July with letters, but I didn’t have a current address for them and no email that I believed to work. I have no idea if they received my note to say thank you. Since that time, I have sent many updates of my progress, and as I am writing this I am aware of my omission in not making more of an effort to track them down to say thank you in person with news about the status of the 10 City Bridge Run. I expect that the first time they will know how this journey is proceeding will be when they read these words printed in the first edition of this book. I hope they will be proud of what has been achieved because of the catalyst that their support made to the situation, and will know how thankful I am for them being part of the team, as I am of all the supporters who have made this epic quest possible.
A flicker of hope can be a lifeline, but also create a dangerous illusion. We need to listen to our own instincts as well as to those around us. Not every voice we hear will be right, and sometimes it is the encouragement from others that trumps our own desire to quit and keeps us going. It has hard to know during the difficult times what is likely to work. All we can know is not to reinforce failure. Own the process, own your mistakes, and be prepared to keep going when the opportunity presents itself.
There is a fine line between courage and recklessness. The more often we are brought to a place where we find the strength we need from a flicker of hope, the stronger our ability will become in discerning how to advance into the fog of the unknown. Never give up.
September and October came and went in 2010. I hadn’t given up on my intent to undertake the running stunt, but I also appreciated that time was slipping away through my fingers. Christmas was presenting an immovable bookend to the year at which stage snowfall in the Northern Hemisphere would impede my plans to run. I decided that the last window of opportunity I had would be to commence running in Sydney at the same times as the G20 Summit started in Seoul, and then run across the mapped course of countries I intended to visit, finishing in Seoul before the Christmas Eve.
I was really thankful of the support I had received from so many people, but I hadn’t raised enough money to continue the journey beyond a start, and thought it would have been irresponsible to begin under those circumstances. I was feeling downcast that my efforts have amounted to nothing, and questioned whether my performance during the 9 City Bridge Run the year before was an accurate representation of my ability.
I was not prepared to give up, but neither did I have the resources to meaningfully project when I might actually commence. At that time, I couldn’t comprehend that achieving what I wanted to do might have meant taking more time to set the conversation. There was a sense of urgency which mirrored the need for action, and I wanted to demonstrate this through my actions. In hindsight, I wouldn’t commence the running until four years later in 2014, and I would eventually be running across the Christmas period and through the snow. My own thinking created unnecessary limitations that did not help the bigger situation.
Ultimately, the decision to delay was not going to be mine. A few days before the last possible moment I had to commit to the journey in early November, I had been training so hard and for so long that I had pushed my body too hard. My legs were injured from overtraining, and I needed to rest. I was a crushing experience. I couldn’t even run to catch a bus on the street. I felt crippled and hopeless, but even at this time I look back with some unease that my concern was about whether I could run the distance more than the plight of people who were trapped in a situation that condemned them to experience the appalling travesty of child mortality wrecking their lives. Being crush is a relative state of mind. There is always someone worse off.
I was thinking that if I delayed, then that would be it. This of course revealed my obsession with running as a method, and my failure to consider how collaboration with a larger group might give a change in perspective that could help to make a better solution possible to what seemed like an impossible situation. Looking back, it is easy to see the many options that were actually open to me at the time, but from the position I was in then I couldn’t see these alternatives. Not seeing alternatives and the freedom of action that you have through exercising your imagination contributes towards Backswing. It doesn’t give you the best option to hit the ball hard.
What I did appreciate was that destroying myself in the process of trying to make some change happen was neither smart nor noble. I wasn’t far off bringing myself into a difficult situation where I was hamstrung from doing many things because of my obsession with seeking to make something work. When people say “never quit”, this advice must be heeded with respect to your own long term survivability. There is no point in not quitting of the consequence is that you are destroyed in the process.
I was about to enter the wilderness, but I didn’t know it yet. It does raise a question about failure: when is failure actually failure? Entering the wilderness is a terrible feeling, and feels like failure. At the time, when you set yourself into exile in the wilderness, it seems to be the same as entering into failure. But this is not so.
Failure is an essential part in a process of trying something difficult, not the end of the game. Being in the wilderness is part of the Hero’s Journey. It is only be entering the wilderness that we are able to leave the Ordinary World fully behind and encounter everything in the Special World that we are destined to meet. I don’t think we should celebrate being in the wilderness, but when we find ourselves there or staring into the abyss that we will soon enter, we should take stock and examine what brought us to that point, what we are supposed to learn, and importantly how we will get ourselves out of that mess.
It is really important not to underestimate the value of failure, but to do this requires us to see it in context. Being held captive to Backswing is to give in to the fear of failure. We have to find the presence of mind to have the courage to keep turning up, to continually modify our swing, to learn from the last pitch, and to never give in to times of hardship. Backswing is an essential part of hitting the ball, but out game can never be All Backswing. When encountering failure, it is easy to get spooked into retreating to safety. From the comfortable place of Backswing, it feels like we are still taking to the plate, but actually we are resigning ourselves to mediocrity.
Audit yourself, especially when feeling crushed. This is where having a mentor and learning partner is helpful. Someone else who knows you well, someone you trust, and someone who understands your goals to work with you especially in the difficult times. Their role is not to do the batting for you. You can never abdicate this responsibility. It is not something to be sublimated to others.
Accept crushing defeat as the disciplining torch from the refiner’s fire. Survive. Come back stronger. Don’t take your wounds lightly. Be proud of your scars, even if no one else can ever see them.
Not that I knew it at the time, but my actions were beginning to mirror the dysfunctional behaviour of many of the institutions that were working hard to reduce child mortality. Those organisations are credible, well intentioned, set up with reputable people, and everyone wants nothing but for a successful outcome. The result is different to that which people seek.
It is as though those organisations, and so to myself as I went further along this journey, were unable to see or hear. We were distracted by resources. Either distracted because of the abundance of resources so that activity becomes focused around management of funds or building an efficient fund raising machine, or distracted because of the scarcity of resources, and so activity becomes focused on survival.
The result is that they and I were pushing the market and the audience, not pulling in response to a shared conversation or demand. Backswing is at its worst when we believe we are making attempts to hit at the ball, but in fact never releasing the bat forward because of our obsession with our own thoughts and inability to listen to those around us.
All Backswing is to reinforce failure, held back because of the fear which holds us captive. We mistake the actions of pushing for the effortless arc involved during the authentic swing. We try so hard to find a successful outcome that we are deaf to the signals around us. This is neither elegant nor productive.
A lack of resources is never an excuse for inaction. Backswing from a lack of resources is a failure in imagination. A lack of resources can be a blessing in disguise because it forces us to listen to the environment to learn how to use what is scarce to achieve a disproportionate result. There is nothing to be gained by just saying something is too difficult because it is in times of austerity that often we get to see what is necessary for us to move forward. Hesitancy from fear because of lack of resources achieves nothing. Recklessness is neither the solution, but learning to listen is a critical skill to develop.
Similarly, when lacking a clear plan as to how to advance forward, it is useless to create a number of meet ups simply to give the illusion of progress. All this really achieves is to perpetuate the inefficient spinning of wheels, and it is likely that when faced with the public scrutiny at a meet up that there will be a reluctance to share the difficulties you are encountering in moving forward.
Hearing the weak signals around us is critical to overcome Backswing, and this takes the development of some critical skills. The ability to speak into the void, the capacity for reflection, mindfulness, and a keen sense of communication underpinned by active listening are all necessary. Together, these allow us a basis to develop a radical approach to collaboration, and an ability to work with what is unknown. Practicing these skills takes courage and jars with our innate sense of what is safe, comfortable and reasonable.
The best voices to hear from others are those of protest. They might not be from an opponent, but more likely from a trusted friend. Good friends will take the time and risk social capital which holds the relationship together to tell us what they think we need to hear. They might not be right, but the least we can do as a friend is to respond to the difficult conversation by seeking to understand them.
The folly of the deaf is that they are happier when their comfort is not disturbed. But an old adage from my army service holds true: “bad news never gets better with age.”
My plans for this epic quest were disrupted but not shelved. The humiliating experience of not having the ability to pay for an airplane ticket was an obstacle to allowing this stunt to occur. Putting that into perspective, it was definitely a #firstworldproblem.
First World Problems are interesting to observe. Don’t get me wrong: problems are problems. No one likes the frustration of not being able to achieve what they want. The difference is that First Workd Problems are defined by some (trivial) thing that we want instead of something (lifesaving) that we need. Fresh water, sanitation, medicine should be basic human rights, but instead are completely out of the reach or things that billions of people cannot easily access. Those things are real problems.
On one level, whether I was able to fly around the world and conduct a running stunt was going to make zero impact on child impact. Being able to conduct the running stunt in 2010 as I had intended without any hitch would have had feel good value for all involved and provided the added benefit of a smug self-satisfying glow for being part of an something that seemed to make a difference. But would it really have made a difference?
There is a fine line between being the damning critic and offering constructive advice. Similarly, there is a fine line between encouraging the pursuit of an idea which gives the permission to fail and an uncritical overly-idealistic embrace of fantasy. To navigate our efforts effectively we need to be grounded in what really matters a consequence of trying something. In this case, even though the stakes were high for the lives of millions of people as a result of child mortality, really understanding this impact in the context of our own lives was almost incomprehensible. Statistics are so easy to play with when talking about extreme poverty. The reality is so atrociously horrid and complex that our comfortable First World lives are hard to penetrate with the truth.
I continued to seek the support from those I knew on email through my own homespun crowdfunding campaign on PayPal. Gradually, I was inching towards the possibility of actually commencing this journey towards the end of 2010. I was aiming for a beginning that was orientated around the United Nations General Assembly which convened in New York at the end of September and bounded by the G20 Summit which was to be held in Seoul commencing in mid-November 2010.
I was reading more and more about issues relating to extreme poverty and child mortality, but my obsession was in making the running stunt work. This was an early signal of Backswing. Distraction from what is really important is often the most evident expression of Backswing in an institutional setting. We have all seen this before when the reason for being gets sidelined in preference to the activity which gives everyone identity. It is a great expression of irony.
There is a conversation that unfolded during the time I was undertaking the 10 City Bridge Run which questioned the efficacy of ‘slactivism’, including asking whether initiatives like the ‘Ice-Bucket Challenge’ were actually making any positive difference. Critics of slactivism had a point, but also seemed to be motivated from envy because of a purist view that wanted everything to be strictly about the issue on their terms, and couldn’t stomach some people having outrageous success in attracting attention through seemingly superficial social media campaigns. We are never going to know the impact of someone’s intervention. No one knows for sure what will be of no consequence. Neither can we see the new ideas and inspiration that grows from people trying something different.
On face value, I should have rightly killed off the 9 City Bridge Run idea before I commenced in San Francisco back in 2009. I would have financially been far better off for never having started. But as clumsy and often pathetic my efforts were during the 10 City Bridge Run, it has been an education for me and brought me to this point. I am now in a position to work through a radical approach towards collaboration with others to make something meaningful come alive.
As my confidence that I might pull this off the running stunt was waning because of an inability to raise the necessary funding to commence, supporters and friends seemed to be getting right behind the idea with an increasing sense of expectation and enthusiasm. I felt conflicted about how to manage this dissonance because of what I knew might be achievable. I knew I didn’t want to curb anyone’s enthusiasm, but neither did I want to make false claims for something I was unable to deliver.
I had planned a launch event which involved inviting friends to run across the Sydney Harbour Bridge together. Given that I was planning to run 10 sub-marathons each of 24 km, I thought that if I was able to gather a small group to run 2.4 km together that it would help to demonstrate the human bridge metaphor which I believed underpinned the whole initiative. What I was hinting at was that if it took one person to run the distance of 24 km on their own, this same distance could be covered in a shorter amount of time with far less effort if 100 people together each ran 240 metres. The cumulative distance was the same and we could more expediently arrive at the same or a better outcome when we worked together. Human bridges came in many different forms.
I made plans for friends who wanted to attend to meet at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, from where we would run across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Milsons Point on the opposite side of the harbour from the Sydney Opera House. There was a wonderful sense of enthusiasm at that event. I was really encouraged by the excitement which people brought with them. No one cared about how fast or slow they were, but they were celebrating their participation.
Again, this showed an inability in my mind to see the opportunity which was presented to me. I was fixated by the running of 24 km, meanwhile my awareness of the involvement of others and even the tackling of child survival moved further and further out of my view. The irony was that all the while I was talking about human bridges I was missing the most obvious human bridge that my friends were building right before my eyes which also had me included.
At the conclusion of the run across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, we sat in a cafe in Milsons Point and celebrated by eating breakfast together. We took some great photos thanks to our good friend Nancy who helped out with the camera. During breakfast, my good friend Fleur was part of a conversation with the rest of the group. Fleur has a special insight for understanding people, and asked me if I could articulate my personal narrative. It was a very good question, and I don’t think I fully satisfied her question. We workshopped this for a short while, but with the care of a good friend she left this unanswered question with me as something to seriously think about in more detail.
Irony comes in many forms. I’m sure you have noticed this before with examples like the obsession with getting a gala fundraising dinner exactly right for an initiative that seeks to overcome hunger in such a way that the issue of hunger among those most in need is overlooked. More relevant to what I was seeking to achieve was the gathering of world leaders and their entourages who year in and year out would attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York, flying business class and staying in five star hotels so that they could discuss extreme poverty while eating gourmet food from some of the best kitchens on earth. In my case, the irony was my pursuit of a narrative to address child mortality, but not spending enough time to understand my own motivation for doing this in the first instance. Teasing out irony is important. A refusal to examine it is a worrying denial of something that might be wrong.
This was also around the time I launched the website I wrote about in the last chapters, and Nancy also helped me to do this on WordPress. She is a bundle of enthusiasm about everything in life, and we were enjoying the process together. Shortly after going live with the website and letting people know it existed, I received my first comment which came from my mother. It was a typical ‘Mum’ comment, gushing with pride in her son. Nancy was delighted, and thought it was a lovely gesture in the context of building human bridges. I agreed that it was too, but was also a little embarrassed that this was fast becoming a very personal journey. If we are serious about wanting to make change happen, we have to be open to sharing more of ourselves with others than we might be comfortable with. A human bridge must have strong foundations, and that always begins with our willingness to connect with others.
Quixotic is perhaps the best way to describe this beginning of this epic quest. I had shape without substance which created a hollow man, unable to stand. A hollow man is worse than a straw man. At least a straw man can be ripped apart and repacked.
I was reading more about child mortality and the condition of extreme poverty which plagued many locations which coincidentally were found in developing countries. I was gathering an education safely at arms reach. Statistics galore, and most of the literature was based from the same content generated by the same agencies. Where there was first hand accounts of the problem, this information seemed to be generally written specifically for the purposes of providing a hook to solicit fundraising for a particular organisation.
The United Nations was the leading agency in providing information to inform a global audience on the issue of child mortality. Since 2000, this had become measured in the context of the eight Millennium Development Goals which had received an almost unprecedented support from all member states of the United Nations. The intention was to reduce child mortality by two thirds from the recorded 1990 levels before 2015 when the MDG would be due.
The method I was intending to pursue sought to raise awareness of this situation by running 10 sub-marathons each of 24 km in 10 cities across 10 countries. Initially, I wanted to run in countries which together would help frame a narrative to understand the issue of child survival. It was a global issue in that we were all responsible to help effect a solution. By running, my sense is that during the journey I would learn more about the issue and also have the opportunity to open a global conversation that would address the question of child mortality. I was calling this conversation the Design Forum, and intended to convene this in each location where I ran. I knew the task was difficult, and that was to mirror the fact that reducing child mortality itself was no easy task. I had proposed to run 24 km because it mirrored the information available through UNICEF in 2010 which recorded the 2008 recorded figures for child mortality that claimed 24,000 children under the age of five we dying every single day. This is an appalling statistic, and by running across this distance my sense was that I could make a point which others might pick up in conversation.
I was not new to the United Nations organisation. I had previously had a lot to do with the United Nations in East Timor where I had served as a peacekeeper following the intervention which resulted in the creation of a new state with sovereign independence set apart from Indonesia. I knew of the frustrations of working with the United Nations, and the entrenched culture inside the United Nations which attracted a particular calibre of worker. I had a familiarity of working with the security framework which was the convener for so many issues affecting security in places where through my previous Army experience gave me responsibility for management where the United Nations was the lead agency.
The United Nations is a curious organisation, a sometimes dysfunctional mixture of bureaucracy, corporate communications and good intentions. It is a juggernaut which often succeeds in spite of itself. Opinions vary, and it is easy to be critical of a large organisation. John Bolton, the former US Ambassador to the UN has been among the staunchest critics, with provocative quotes to argue in favour of his perspective such as when he claimed: “The [United Nations] Secretariat Building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost ten stories today, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
My early sense was was that the information I was reading about child mortality from the United Nations showed that the world was coming from a low base to understand the issue. Most discussion I read seemed to promote a view that was heavy on explaining the MDG rather than questioning how people might get involved to make a difference besides signing petitions of making financial donations to large charities. Something seemed to be missing from the conversation.
Early success seemed to come in response to my appeal for friends to help with my crowdfunding effort which I had executed through PayPal. It was not really a good solution for what I was seeking to achieve, because it created a 1:1 relationship between myself and those people I was asking for help. There was not much capacity for people to partner by sharing my vision for success. People seemed to be responding because of the enthusiasm I had for the idea, but also because people genuinely recognised this was a difficult problem to address.
My website was picking up traffic, and I think that was also visitors who were curious about such a bold vision for change. I was buoyed by this support. It was a good feeling that what I had proposed might be possible.
I had promised to start on a particular date that was aligned with the 2010 UNGA at the end of September. I thought that having a firm schedule was important to sell the idea. People had to know what I intended to do, and I also had the need to book flights and warn out places I intended to travel that I would be visiting in the coming weeks or months.
While I had this schedule organised, deep down I knew that it was All Backswing. I had made no contingency in the event that I did not raise enough money, and while the response was promising, I also knew that I was falling short on being about to execute a meaningful intervention. Perhaps I ought to have opened my conversation around funding more candidly, but I thought that if I had done so, people might have understandably asked me to step back from the edge and be reasonable.
How we discuss backswing with others is important. Admitting that we are heading towards possible failure or at least a messy train smash is an important conversation that should be undertaken by those who have invested their time, energy and money into supporting such an endeavour.
I knew a travel agent who I visited on several occasions to plan the route. She was extremely helpful to help map out flights and dates. The endeavour seemed achievable, and there was a known cost for the endeavour which I was fast approaching the requisite amount of money to undertake. For the moment, this was going to happen, or so I thought.
I eventually raised just enough money to pay for the plane fare, and thought I would pay for the ticket which would commit me to action, and from there work out how to fund the remaining expenses even if that meant beginning the journey first with less than the required resources needed and then resolving that issue later.
One morning, I headed to see my travel agent friend after withdrawing from the bank the necessary amount of money I needed for the plane fare. I sat in her office, and we confirmed the route. The total cost was around three and half thousand dollars from memory. She confirmed this, and then said those dreadful words which I had completely not anticipated: “and so the final cost with tax will be…”. Tax! I hadn’t considered the cost of tax. I didn’t have enough money.
As if a small boy in a lolly shop who had counted the coins from his money box in anticipation of buying a handful of chocolates after diligently saving up for this special occasion only to find the cost was five cents more than he held in his hands, I felt awful and embarrassed. It wasn’t the travel agent’s fault. I was responsible.
I had to ask the travel agent to postpone my plans, and that I would work out a way to return in a short while to pay the remaining amount due. It was one of the rare moments in my life when I had wished the building would collapse into a pile of rubble rather than having to admit that I didn’t have the money to pay for the ticket.
But who had been let down? Was I the person let down, or was it the travel agent, or maybe more likely I had let down the supporters by failing to meet their expectations that I would deliver on my intention? In actual fact, the greatest let-down was unseen by us all. This was a collective failure to undertake an initiative. That is not to say this was the only initiative that mattered, but perhaps earlier advice that might have sharpened my resolve or cautioned me about beginning half-cocked would have been valuable so as not to disappoint a long list of supporters who had the expectation that something wonderful was about to take place. The people who were let down by all of this were those who were most in need. These people were real, even if faceless, and not simply a statistical phenomenon.
The wheels seemed to have fallen off my early success. I pondered what to do next.
The journey now seemed real. There was a website, and on a map I could trace a line following the route I intended to take, scheduled against dates on a calendar. My training was increasing in intensity, and all of a sudden it seemed as though this journey was going to be easier than I had thought.
I soon realised that I would be unable to complete, let alone start, this quest without the financial support from others. I wasn’t going to repeat the folly of the 9 City Bridge Run and fund the whole trip alone. I knew that whatever the outcome, I would be responsible to meet some of the costs, if not the lion’s share. I also recognised that the financial contributions from others would be more than just passive assistance to meet costs, but more a tangible demonstration of their commitment to supporting the idea.
This for me was the beginning of Backswing. The start of any new idea will be filled with uncertainties. By definition, there will be more that is unknown than known at the conception of a new idea. Speaking into the void and navigating across unknown territory is normal. Those things involve a process of iteration: striking, and sometimes hitting the target, but more often than not finding a route through trial and error.
It is when we seek to have certainty that the paralysing state of Backswing overtakes us. I had reached this point from having earlier attempted something which didn’t work as I intended. I continued to try to make the idea work. But it was when I suddenly felt the expectation of a crowd that the unintended consequence of holding myself in check emerged.
I was doing something I hadn’t done before. I knew what I was delivering wasn’t perfect, but there wasn’t much alternative aside from just giving up. This is the importance of ‘shipping it’ as Steve Jobs and others were so insistence to demand from our actions. But I also knew that there was a balance between shipping and responsibility. What responsibility did I have to ask people to contribute money towards a process which I had more doubts than certainty in terms of the outcome?
I have often been inspired by the early explorers. People who set out across land and sea to a destination that weren’t really sure existed, and without any knowledge of what lay between them and the anticipated objective. Similar to how the Hero’s Journey is misunderstood, we can take a romantic view of the early explorers, and look at the overall sense off adventure, but this is normally a view taken in hindsight. Today, these explorers are seeking to conquer new domains of plumbing the depths of the ocean or seeking to make spaceflight viable for a mainstream passenger.
The success of any pioneer or pathfinder is determined by their ability to forge ahead in the face of uncertainty. To wrestle themselves away from the comfortable mediocrity of Backswing and to push ahead so as to navigate a route to their destination. It is precarious, and at times fatal.
In this regard, perhaps my mistake was not being more transparent with my doubts and uncertainty. It is not as though I was being disingenuous. I wasn’t holding out on people, but sharing a vision and asking people to join the journey. In some respects, it was perhaps a good thing that I was not too cocky because if I were there might have been no social constraints I imposed on myself for seeking the support of others.
This early beginning in cringeworthy to look back on. It was August 2010 when I first posted the website. I had an aspiration to commence in New York after the conclusion of the United Nations General Assembly which took place at the end of September. The idea was half-baked, but still it was a good one. It might have been a good idea, but there is nothing more important than execution. A sexy idea is no good if it can’t be acted upon.
I started a newsletter. It was homespun, and I should have appreciated that this involved me seeking the help from designers who might have been affordable. Today, at the time of writing this book, cheap help from the market is widely available. Back then, it was more elusive, and perhaps fair to say that I was more likely to get fleeced from a designer rather than finding a hungry developer to work alongside for our mutual benefit.
I wrote to my immediate email list. Each email was written individually. I didn’t make an email list through mail chimp because I hadn’t sought the permission from these people for this distribution, and I didn’t want to become a spammer. Looking back, there was an easier way, but that was where I was. I had my own financial constraints, so I was working to real limitations too. There was no money tree that was enabling this endeavour.
Part of my method was to test the question asking what influence the individual could have in shaping an outcome. I wasn’t imposing constraints that might limit this question, but it also meant that I needed to act as an individual and not to sublimate my identity to those of a larger organisation. In doing so, I wasn’t railing against the institution nor questioning the legitimacy of organisations. I had spent many of the previous years since 2004 examining the role of social entrepreneurs in and on society, and I wanted to test the rhetoric which often bandied about. There was more to be said about the influence of individuals working collaboratively towards a shared aim. It wasn’t something that I could just write about. It had to be practiced in order to prove.
I knew I needed to fund this quest, and so my attention towards crowdfunding as a solution. Kickstarter, the US crowdfunding platform, had existed for just over 12 months and wasn’t a service I could draw upon outside of the US. I wasn’t prepared to extend the risk and responsibility for funding onto others living in the US in exchange for access to their bank accounts as a proxy where any crowdfunding might be deposited. I needed to find a local solution.
This half-baked idea was being propped up with an architecture of other half-baked ideas. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does create a dynamic and fluid situation that is then hard to describe to others with a high degree of certainty. The less stable the idea, the more likely change will be encountered through the necessary and iterative process of innovation. In many respects, in creating something new it is the optimal state to begin with because it allows greatest flexibility for adaption. It also creates difficulty in that people who are new to the idea might find it difficult to understand what the idea is, or see the holes which might lead them to lose confidence in the ability to deliver an outcome.
I was going in blind, but if I was going to do this, I needed to make a start and work it out from there. I was also concerned about the dilemma I was soon to face: how would I communicate and sell this half-baked idea to others? Who would buy into this idea? Would I make myself a laughing stock by presenting an idea that would fall completely flat? I had no idea where this would go, but my vision for what I wanted to achieve in terms of the method was strong.
During this time, my running training was advancing from strength to strength. I was making good process across distance, with good speed, power and endurance, and very satisfied with the results I was achieving when measured against my heart rate. But because the idea was half-baked, I was reluctant to talk up my training. There were others who were stronger, faster, fitter than me. It was a mistake for me focus on what I was not. None of us are ever going to be good at everything. Get started. Now. Ship. Don’t wait for the critics to tell you what is wrong. Damn the torpedoes!
I was running in silence. There was a lot of enjoyment that I found from my running, a sense of accomplishment in being able to complete the epic task I had set myself, and this was a necessary part of achieving the endstate of improving child mortality. This silence was in part the result of a timidity and reluctance to share wholly about the quest I was engaged. If we only focus on the hitting publicly but are not prepared to discuss our misses, this will only lead to Backswing. We have to own our performance. Self-sabotage will override our best intentions if we are only prepared to share the success with our audience because we feel sheepish about starting from a half-baked idea. Swing early, strike out, but in doing so, learn.
And so I posted the first emails. That was a lumpy and imperfect process. I’m sure the emails were longwinded and incoherent compared to what I might write today. One lesson I leant in the army was that sometimes you just have to go with what you have got. It had begun.
Very quickly, I received my first supporter, and this was from my father. You might remember my earlier chapters where I talked about the building of this human bridge with my father as a consequence of undertaking the 9 City Bridge Run. I don’t think we ever recognise the full utility of a human bridge when they are first formed, besides which human bridges are not constructed for their transactional value or what we will get out of the relationship. Human bridges are about what we give, and also how together we can help others rather seeking to be self-serving.
The response from my father came within a few short minutes after posting the email. It was as though he had been waiting for the opportunity to help. I was was of course delighted. I had some social proof of the idea, but more importantly I had the confidence of my father supporting my initiatives. I’m sure he took the view that he was encouraging me to live my dreams regardless of the outcome. That too is a true gift. We should value this more than anything else.
A half-baked idea is not necessary bad, and it is a beginning. Especially if you are beginning somewhere new, that first idea will be lumpy and rough. Accept it, and work from there. Allow others to become part of the process. Take time to celebrate the beginning, don’t be too concerned about how bad it looks.
You have to remember that I am writing this book many years after the events took place. Even so, in some cases, it feels is as though the events were only yesterday. In the case of the 9 City Bridge Run, that was actually last decade, almost eight years ago.
I wrote the after action review mentioned in Chapter 10 following a public forum which I convened to open a conversation addressing wellbeing as a counterpoint to depression and suicide as a result of the 9 City Bridge Run. I actually felt numb and stupid when reflecting on the experience. What had I done between 2007 and 2009 that made any difference to anything? My efforts seemed to have resulted in collateral damage with me as the casualty, and not much else. If I had known then that it would be a long eight years before I made sense of this journey through the publishing this book, I don’t know if I would have had the grit to continue. Sometimes it is better not to know how bad it is going to get when you are at the beginning of an epic quest.
I knew after reflecting on the 9 City Bridge Run that if I did nothing with the experience, then it would amount to failure. I had learnt something, but the problem was that it wasn’t exactly clear what I had learnt at that time.
I wanted to try again because I knew it would be possible to make some difference through this method. I didn’t know how exactly, but my sense was that it was valuable enough to try. Cast your mind back to the earlier chapters where I defined the genesis of this idea and you will see that it was never about how far I could run or even about me being at the centre of the action. In some respects, this created some dissonance in how I felt later. More often than not, I felt uncomfortable in needing to take the limelight. Overcoming our crippling insecurities is just another part of the Hero’s Journey. The insecurities that we allow to dominate our minds is also a key reason for getting stuck at All Backswing.
My sense was that the imperfect method which had proven so problematic and which I was exploring was worth pursuing further. For some reason, the idea of running across bridges to build bridges was an idea I couldn’t let go of, and maybe that was my folly. As I considered how to take the idea further, I felt turned off advocating further on the issue of suicide largely because of the lack of assistance I had received from the organisation who I had intended to support during the 9 City Bridge Run. I also recognised that for as important suicide was to address, there were more pressing issues that I could influence.
My aversion to continue with addressing suicide as the key problem was a case of institutional Backswing impacting on the individual. On a personal level, Backswing holds us back. It cripples our potential. On an institutional level, Backswing cruels a brand. In both circumstances, this occurs without the person stuck at Backswing not fully appreciating how short of their potential they are falling.
I have since formed a view that how we come to be involved in an issue is almost as important as what we do itself. Have you seen this before: organisations where the conversation makes sense, but somehow seems forced? There is something mechanical about the delivery which doesn’t seem quite right. I think too often the not-for-profit world is weakened by organisations who seek issues to champion because of their capacity to reduce tax through their legal status where they are able to exploit cause-related marketing, rather than being a feisty collective of activists wholly motivated by a deep-seated passion to see change occur whatever the cost because of their own personal interests.
It matters why we do things. I am increasingly convinced why we do things is more important than how we seek to do the work. We must strive to resist a culture of philanthropy which is grounded in building the perfect fundraising machine, which although efficient is disconnected from impacting the mission with authenticity.
This is not a new idea. As a society, we have been sold a pup because so many not-for-profit organisations manipulate their marketing to influence our donations. It is the same problem around corporate social responsibility which is at times dumbed down to a branding issue in the name of cause-related marketing.
The answer to this problem I think is to increase our tolerance for the failure for not-for-profit organisations (not so as to bail them out, but to let them perish if they are ultimately unviable). People shouldn’t pursue failure, but if failure is the result of an attempt to realise a noble outcome driven by passion in the interests of achieving change, then can we not see this as somehow worthwhile? It is better than corrupting an entire system with a flawed DNA that serves the interests of no one except so as to make annual reports and the reputations of executive teams sing.
How willing are we to make ourselves vulnerable in the service of the larger task? Our reluctance to accept vulnerability at an institutional level is the point where a state of All Backswing can often emerge. There are so many people who don’t want to have their expectations failed, that they would sooner preserve the certainty of the status quo that seek the necessary path that leads to change albeit inherently risky. We have to swing at the ball to hit, and this is a risky process. Often, we are going to miss.
As individual actors within the institutional construct, we have an responsibility not to buy into the delusion that everything is ticking along just fine. We must demand transparency. We must be obsessive about hitting hard, not only the glamour of the wind up during Backswing. If Backswing is all you have got, the bat will never be placed in proximity of the ball. But that is half of the reason for having All Backswing: it negates the responsibility for hitting.
An organisation that gets transfixed around budget when they should be focused on mission is avoiding the hard task of combating a real systemic problem in society. And in doing so they are becoming complicit with the problem, enabling it to fester.
If you have ever been in a state of poverty and then released through the kindness of someone else without any expectation or ability to pay this back, you will know what I mean. It is an overwhelming sense of freedom, which is incredulous to comprehend at first, and so slightly different to joy. Being received from poverty is a humbling experience where there is no one to thank because their actions were made from a true position of philanthropy. There is no branding. No good photos for the annual report. No humblebrag speeches by a puffed up CEO and Chairman. It is charity at its finest.
This is where not-for-profits should be aiming to get to, a position of true charity, preferably in a way that also enables systemic change. There must be a driving desire, a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo that allows injustice to continue. This dissatisfaction must drive a search for new models and innovative interventions. While it does feel good to receive the thanks from others for helping out, this praise ought to be seen as less important that the opportunity to create the preconditions for others to “pay it forward”. We should have a sense that our satisfaction to help others is just as important as our need to eat and breathe. Helping others is an innate need we all have so as to be fully human. And this authenticity in connecting with our humanness is the foundation of our motivation to build human bridges that help others.
I thought long and hard about what issue I could address which I thought mattered most with the greatest need to address. I was also interested in addressing an area which also correlated with an issue that was lacking an abundance of interest. It had to have meaning and impact. I wasn’t interested in just joining the beauty pageant of cause-related marketing and so to what was sexy and popular at the time.
I narrowed this down to the problem of extreme poverty as it affected the bottom billion, especially through child mortality. I didn’t have a robust understanding of this, and most of my knowledge relied upon books and presentations I could find. What seemed clear to me was that there were some committed practitioners doing some amazing work, but also many institutions just presenting statistics and data to in effect tug on the heartstrings in order to appeal for change. Tugging on the heartstrings is good for fundraising, but I would question the effectiveness when it comes to radical and massive systemic change.
I knew there was something I could do to influence this situation, but I didn’t know what exactly. I could have been more bullish in expressing my lack of knowledge of this problem. Leading with questions is a very important intervention in any area.
It so happened that a friend of mine called Ruthe who I knew through my earlier foray examining social enterprise across the UK and US let me know of her friend Kelley who was soon to visit Sydney. Rathe asked if I could connect with Kelley in Sydney and show her around. Of course, I was delighted to help and so I met Kelley in Sydney and had a great time showing her around. One morning, we stopped in a cafe in Surry Hills for coffee. The conversation was good, and after some general chit chat she in true New York fashion called me on my bullshit. So what is really going on, she asked. She wanted to know what I was doing or more to the point wanted to do.
I explained that I was playing around with this idea involving running across bridges to build human bridges. Kelley listened very patiently and with great care. She led me through a process with some subtle questions that would lead me to take action a short while later.
I remember that during this conversation I confided in her a question which I was hiding from answering. Did I think it was alright if I put this idea about running sub-marathons in 10 cities across 10 countries to somehow impact child mortality out there on a website? She responded saying with good humour that unless I tried I would never know. Looking back, that is so elementary. It was one of those threshold conversations that gives ourselves permission to depart from the Ordinary World and embark on a journey which is far from certain.
To her credit, Kelley didn’t try to counsel me to avoid the uncertainty of a personal quest in preference to working through an established global not-for-profit organisation. Safety was never part of her considerations, and at the same time she was far from encouraging recklessness. I still remember Kelley giving me this permission to try something that might not work without any hint of censoring my aspiration for what might be possible. Looking back, it was an insight into the process of innovation.
Journeys take a path few of us can predict, especially as we venture out from the Ordinary World. Kelley was one of those supportive characters who act as a guide and ally though the Hero’s Journey. It was significant that she was there at the beginning of this journey, because coincidentally she was also the one person who would eventually be sitting patiently and listen to what had taken place across the many years which spanned this quest at the conclusion of the run in New York. Never underestimate the impact that other people are going to have in your life. This journey all began with a coffee in Surry Hills.
And so I launched my first website. I was very aware this was a new skill I had to acquire and I was far from being an expert. I was finding that it was necessary to jettison my familiarity with being a highly competent expert in my previous work as an Australian Army Officer, and to learn to embrace the beginners mind again. Admitting that you really have no idea what it is you are trying to achieve is a difficult place to find yourself.