A short time ago, I stood on the Great Wall in Chine and gazed out. Until then I had only read about the Great Wall. I had never planned to see it, yet that day I was there looking, touching, and feeling one of the world’s ancient and great achievements. That day I walked on the Wall. It seemed uphill no matter which way I went.
The tourist in me saw the vastness of the Wall. No one knows exactly how long the Wall is at its fullest extent, probably over 5000 miles. The historian in me felt the antiquity of the Wall. No one knows exactly when it was started, probably before 250 BC. The engineer in me reconstructed the complexity of the task. No one knows how long it took to build the Wall, probably over 1500 years. The manager in me wondered about the work involved. No one knows how many people it took or how many died in building the Wall, probably in the hundreds of thousands.
As I walked, I met people from all over the world who had come to visit this marvel of human accomplishment. Suddenly, in the midst of being awestruck, I was asked, “Want to buy a Great Wall hat? A Tee-shirt? Take your picture with the Wall?” This magnificent structure had become commercial! (I limited myself to the hat & tee-shirt.) Both on the wall and on the streets leading to the wall were small shops and kiosks offering all kinds of souvenirs. I had to laugh. China had been the feared enemy of capitalism when I was young. Today it’s very much open to trade; I quickly discovered that all prices were negotiable.
Yet all the commercialism could not distract me from the Wall. To me it was hypnotic. As I stood there, I thought about the strategy that built the Wall. It was a strategy of protection from a dangerous world…a world that still exists today. And yet there was a part of me that felt the sadness and isolation of the Wall. The Wall was meant to keep things out, and to keep other things in.
The Wall reminded me of what I see in people. We all have walls. Often we don’t know they’re there. We use them as reasons to keep ideas out. “That will never work. We tried that before. It didn’t work then, it won’t work now.” That’s not a reason; it’s a judgment. Don’t think that you’re alone in this. We all make judgments. Here’s one from recent history, “There is no reason for any individual to have computer in their home.” Ken Olson, Pres. of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.* (I have four computers in my home!)
Like the Great Wall, our walls are not built quickly. They take time. We build them throughout our life. Our culture, beliefs, and experiences are the stones that build our walls. Our walls cause us to judge new ideas. They effect how we relate to each other, how we see the world, how we respond to new or unusual things. They separate us from each other.
These walls hinder us from thinking creatively. They keep old ideas in and new ideas out. They limit how we see the world — how we hear, feel, and think. And only we can tear them down. If we are ever going to be creative, think better, we have to tear down our walls. Remember what Robert Frost said, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall that wants it down.” Mending Fences.
That’s easy to say but hard to do. First, we have to recognize that we all have walls. No one is exempt. Next, when faced with something new ask yourself, “What are seven things I like about this?” or “What are seven possibilities that I see?” Focus on the positives first. Questions, like these, are often the tools that help us suspend judgment and open us to new ideas.
So next time you’re standing on one of your walls, don’t just add another stone by judging what you see, think first about the possibilities. Then, try something new.
From the Great Wall… Charlie