What am I thinking?

Nirvana is Unattainable.

“Nirvana was huge, but it didn’t appeal to everyone.” ~Eddie Van Halen


I’m engaged in a lot of conversations around campus about solving problems and making improvements. It is something I’ve spent my career engaged in at all levels of institutions and organizations. Organizations, like institutions of higher learning, must continually evolve. As I mentioned in an earlier post, higher education is a complex living organism shaped by centuries of culture, policy, perception, and need. Internally, this complexity means carefully navigating and cajoling various and disparate stakeholders toward improvements or change.

As a result of these complexities and disparate constituencies, a common response to suggestions about improvement, support for an initiative, or even rebuttal to criticism is that “______ won’t work for all disciplines or departments, so it isn’t worth doing.”

This is the Nirvana or perfect solution fallacy. An argument that gets used in all sorts of debates where realistic solutions or suggestions are compared to an idealized or perfect world solution and rejected because it does not meet this impossible standard. Perhaps even more disheartening than hearing this fallacy used by smart folks is when smart folks allow the fallacy to dismantle progress.

Nirvana is for the Faint of Heart

guy fawkes mask nirvana
source: wikimedia

There are any number of things happening when someone is using the nirvana fallacy to object to a reasonable solution that might not be perfect but is better than doing nothing. The fallacy is just a mask for the real issues underlying the conversation. The issues are manifold but here are a few common ones I’ve found.

  • They person doesn’t understand the problem completely, the importance of the problem, or the context of the problem.
  • They don’t share the same sense of urgency or priority as you do for the problem.
  • They might just be afraid to make a change to something unfamiliar or different.
  • They don’t see the situation as a problem or just don’t want you involved.
  • They just don’t have the time deal with it.

Regardless, the fallacy masks a weakness in their position that needs to be addressed.

If you’re on the other side of the conversation and you don’t address the fallacy head one it means something similar; a weakness in your own argument. More than likely you don’t have a clear sense of the situation, problem, or the importance of addressing things at this time. I’ve also found that when the fallacy disarms a conversation it means that the problem isn’t a priority so the mask of a nirvana fallacy just takes apart the conversation.

Moving beyond Nirvana

With all this in mind, let’s move beyond the nirvana fallacy in our conversations. Which might be easier said written than done. I’ve got a few suggestions that have worked for me in various situations to dismantle the fallacy and move the conversation back into the reality of what is possible, probable, and necessary.

First, be prepared. It isn’t just the motto of the Scouts you see, it is a mantra for leadership. Prepare the conversation by being well-read about it, seeking out solutions from other contexts, determining the true importance and priority of the problem, and aligning the problem and need for resolution to institutional strategic planning. Likely in this you will either strengthen your position of self-determine that you don’t really have a priority problem to handle at this point. If you do, then what comes next might help with the conversation.

Option 1, there’s something to be said for being courageous and candid enough to kindly mention the fallacy in the conversation. Sometimes calling out the fallacy has led to some very real conversations about why my colleagues were not interested or able to pursue the solution; in some cases even the conversation.

Option 2, is to question the other party about what solution they recommend. If your’s is not perfect enough, then they must be able to offer an alternative that might be better than yours. More often than not, this meets with an “I don’t know” response which breaks down the barriers to having a deeper conversation about why nothing should be done in the absence of the perfect solution.

Option 3, explain in direct and honest terms the nature and gravity of the problem. Call on your colleagues to rally to the cause and the need to solve this problem for the good of the institution or organization. It might be an appeal type fallacy in some regard but a strong linkage to priority is difficult to ignore.

Perfection is in the Process

perfection is stagnation, nirvana
source: pixabay

Maybe it is worth even explaining that there is no perfect solution and that any perfection we’re seeking is in the process of improvement itself. Long ago when I began to write seriously I was getting hung up on being perfect. This led to bouts with writer’s block that would spill over into my other work. The perfectionism stopped my progress.

It took a mentor of mine to teach me that perfection is in the process; not the product. That without something in our hands to work with, we can never make any progress. It is all vaporware until we have something to work with together. This freed my mind to trust my colleagues with my ideas and my works. I could offer a possible solution and let myself be free to edit and seek alternatives. In a very real way this knowledge unblocked my mind.

The same goes for our nirvana fallacy conversations. We must not allow ourselves to do nothing in the absence of nirvana. There’s a lot of truth to the sayings:

“Perfect is the enemy of good.”

“Sometimes good enough is good enough.”

 

I’ve run into a lot of projects that were stalled or shelved because someone pointed out that they were just not perfect and therefore should not be pursued. What are you working on that has been roadblocked by nirvana? I’d love to learn how you’re working around the blocks and onto success. Send me a message and let’s talk.

Resources

I found these resources helpful in learning more about the nirvana fallacy. Maybe you will too.

 

The Fundamentals

Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. You’ve got to get the fundamentals down because otherwise the fancy stuff isn’t going to work.

~ Randy Paush

Fundamentals of Fire Building

Campfire Fundamentals

When I was a Boy Scout I learned there are three basic things to build a fire: tinder, kindling, and fuel.

1. Tinder is the smallest of the requirements and it is meant to be no larger in diameter than a pencil point. tinder should be no longer than the width of your pinky finger to your thumb. You need a pile about the dimensions of your hands placed together in a circle.

2. Kindling gets added next. Gather wood no larger than your thumb’s diameter and not longer than your forearm. A pile of kindling should be no larger than an armful.

3. Finally add the fuel (not gasoline). Wood should be no larger than the diameter of your wrist and as long as your arm. Gather a stack about the height of your knee to be effective.

These are the fundamentals of building a fire. With your basic fire you can begin to branch off and use it for warmth, food, clean water, security, and signalling. You might also find yourself curious about building fires for different purposes; the fancy stuff. Just don’t forget the fundamentals- tinder, kindling, fuel.

Fire Fighting Fundamentals

Defensive Firefighting fundamentals
source: firerescue1.com

Later in life I would join the volunteer fire company and continue to serve my community. We learned a lot about the essentials of firefighting and emergency response. The fundamentals came down to a phrase repeated over and over again to new firefighters at the time, “put the white stuff on the red stuff”. At the time is seemed overly simplistic and perhaps it really is but when you need the fire down, water (the white stuff) is the secret sauce you need most.

No matter how complicated, hot, or dangerous the fire got, putting the white stuff on the red stuff seemed to be the basic rules. It was the foundation on which would build skills and knowledge like interior attack, rescue, ventilation, investigation, and incident command; the fancy stuff. Just don’t forget the fundamentals – put the white stuff on the red stuff.

Fundamentals of Technology Training

Clippy, fundamentals
source: wikimedia

I spent a lot of my career teaching people how to use technology in their jobs and lives. This has spanned from using MS Office products like Word and PowerPoint to advanced Learning Management Systems and Client Relationship Management software. The basics in technology training are essential to understanding the functionality and fanciness of the software, hardware, and applications that have taken over our lives.

In teaching people to use software, the basics are cut, copy, and paste. These three editing fundamentals will enable you to use just about any piece of software and get it to do what you need. Want to edit your article down? – cut, copy, paste. Want to clip this audio file for class? – cut, copy, paste. Want to add an image to your paper? – cut, copy, paste.

From this fundamental place of knowledge you can go onto some amazing things. Everything is in reach: programming, video editing, spreadsheet calculations, databasing; the fancy stuff. Just don’t forget about the fundamentals – cut, copy, paste.

Fundamentals and Faculty Development

Now that I am along in my career, I find myself supporting higher education faculty in their pursuit for excellence in pedagogy and research. I spend a lot of time talking about the changing landscape of education; distance and digital education; the need to support faculty advance their knowledge of technology in teaching; and finding methods to get my faculty friends to not only gain the skills but share them too.

Higher education is a complex living organism shaped by centuries of culture, policy, perception, and need. It is hard to imagine from the outside, that the pace of higher education is quick and fluid. As an insider, I am sometimes baffled by the rapid changes in direction. It is also easy to get caught up in trying to please all the constituencies inside an institution of higher education. It can be a tempest and what is needed in those moments is decisive leadership that relies on the fundamentals.

Ernest Boyer fundamentals
source: Ernest L. Boyer Center Archives

I was recently thrust into such a tempest and needed the reminder about the fundamentals as they relate to higher education; specifically to scholarship and faculty development. Taking the counsel of those I trust and admire, I found myself glancing back to the basics of what I do within the context of higher education. It recalled for me several seminal works and introduced new works that re-examine those fundamentals for an updated world.

My desk now littered with the works of Boyer, Biglan, and other seminal texts about the role, responsibilities, and rights of faculty, scholarship, and teaching. It is a shrine to the major influences of our work. To them, I added the works of scholars who revisited these fundamentals and added a contemporary context for our times. Each turn of the page from these works reminds me that the fundamentals are what it is important.

Discovery, integration, application (engagement), teaching and learning form the fundamentals. Even if your institution, discipline, or department doesn’t embrace these models completely, they form the basis for so much in the field. With this foundation we can build new faculty experience programs, research support, online faculty development, instructional technology systems, policies, and programs; the fancy stuff. Just don’t forget the fundamentals – discovery, integration, application (engagement), teaching and learning.

 

The more complex the situation the more we need to rely on the basics. Let’s talk about the fundamentals. Leave a comment or send me a message. I would welcome a dialogue about how the fundamentals work for you or how we can get back to them.