What Tolstoy said to the development worker

by David Week on 06 October 2010

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Games people play

I find two there are two types of commentary on development which I find really push some kind of button with me.

Ain’t It Awful

The first is “the world is a mess, and it’s only getting worse, and nothing we’re doing is really going to fix it.”

In 1964, the psychologist Eric Berne published Games People Play, which described patterns of conversation which he called “games”. Each game has an empotional “payoff”, which is why people play them.

One of these games Berne described was called “Ain’t It Awful”. “Ain’t It Awful” is a conversational game in which one person expresses distress at the state of their world (or their life), and others chip in and agree, providing additional evidence that indeed: it is awful. The emotional payoff for the players is:

  • a sense of superiority derived from claim to have deep insight into the state of the world
  • coupled with freedom from having any responsibility to do something about it.

I always feel compelled to try and break up this game with, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” And then to propose 10 things they COULD do instead of just complaining about it. And there’s always something.

Analysis Paralysis

The second annoying commentary is “ah, but that won’t really fix anything, because the underlying problem is really the much bigger X.”

So, there’s no point in supporting school construction, because the teachers aren’t trained, the government is oppressing ethnic minorities, the curriculum is inappropriate, the governance is undemocratic, real power lies with a hereditary elite, the culture is misogynistic, and no amount of schooling is going to fix all these other problems, so any effort is a waste of time, and might even be “propping up the existing system” or “providing a bandaid solution.”

The pattern of thinking here is this:

  • everything in society is connected to other things in society
  • to change one thing completely, you have to change the other things as well
  • so we need “systemic” or “holistic” change (I’m not against systems thinking: just when it is used to paralyse)
  • we need to continuously expand our unit of analysis
  • until it’s so large that we find ourselves powerless to do anything about it.

Again: the outcome is inaction.

Legitimate paralysis

There is a legitimate form of paralysis, that I’ve seen afflict both aid and development workers: mainly newcomers. This paralysis comes from confronting such issues as:

  • there are so many people here, who do I work with?
  • there are so many problems here, which one should I work on?
  • there are so many possible approaches and solutions, which one should I take?

These are legitimate questions. But in a development context—and especially in an emergency context (I see the two as related)—it’s easy to become stymied by either:

  • too much information (TMI), or
  • not enough information.

Leo Tolstoy, adviser to development workers

A couple of years ago a friend suggested a short story by Tolstoy as one of his favourites, and helpful for life in general. The story—Three Questions—takes the form of a parable. In the parable, a king (as usual in parables: why haven’t we updated to presidents or chairpersons? Or at least queens?) finds himself overwhelmed by the demands of office.

So he asks a range of wise advisors for the answers to the following questions:

  • what is the right time for every action?
  • who are the most necessary people?
  • what is the most important thing to do?

Clearly, he was putting out an RFP for a time management consultant.

In the story, he gets multiple, conflicting advice in response to his questions. When you read the story, you may even recognise some of the advice as Conventional Management Wisdom. But the king is not satisfied with any of suggestions, and is now even more confused.

But, after a rather wild adventure in the forest, he comes across a completely different, completely satisfying answer. And the answer is…

No! You have to read the story! I promise it’s very short, and… it’s Tolstoy for goodness sake! Having failed to read War and Peace, you will now be able to cite Tolstoy at dinner parties.

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