I believe in making the world a better place. That used to mean I believed in fixing flaws. I was optimistic and enthusiastic about identifying problems. “Identify the problem and you’re halfway there to fixing it,” I thought. I looked for flaws to fix in my cello playing, in schoolwork, in my relationships, in my community. I tried to fix them with more practice, with more study, with more talking, with more volunteering. And was ultimately left unsatisfied with everything I did, because there were still flaws.
Then, about 7 years ago, in a class on organization development for my master’s degree, I was introduced to Appreciative Inquiry or AI. Its basic premise: you get what you look for. If you look for flaws, you’ll find them, but you won’t find what you need to fix them. When you look for strengths, you make the flaws unimportant, because in identifying strengths and looking for ways to build on them, you’ve found what you need to move forward to a better future.
My inner critic was harsh. “What kind of Pollyanna nonsense is this?!” it said. “How can you improve if you don’t know the ways you’re failing?” The process appealed to my natural optimism and enthusiasm, however, and I investigated further. I learned that in studies of people learning to bowl, the group that receives feedback only on what they’re doing well makes dramatically more improvement than the group that receives feedback only on how to fix their problems. I learned that in impoverished communities where they focus on their strengths and what they already know how to do well, they imagine possibilities for the future, grounded in those strengths, that a study of their flaws would never have allowed them to envision.
I began to apply Appreciative Inquiry principles to my life and work. I designed an AI process for my church’s board to collect data to write a values and vision statement. I was overwhelmed by the stories people told about their best moments with the church and the possibilities their best connections opened up for the future. When confronted with obstacles, instead of asking “what’s the problem and how am I going to fix it?” I tried asking “what’s already working well here, how can we get more of it, and what possibilities will that open up if we do get more of it?” I found that instead of ignoring problems, I was just making them irrelevant.
I’m still working to build my appreciative inquiry skills. My kids, I think, would like to hear more about their strengths and less about their opportunities for improvement. But I’m trying. I still believe in making the world a better place. The difference now is that I more often believe I’m succeeding.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.