(Older guy’s annual question) What’s the favorite hobby of people my age?
(early-career group’s annual answer) Travel? Golf?… Reading?… Bridge?… (old guy shakes his head, prompting increasingly sarcastic guesses) Bingo?… Naps?
(Older guy) No… the favorite hobby of people my age is getting together with each other and saying “The world used to be terrific but now it’s going to hell in a handbasket…”
(early-career group – laughter, flash of recognition; after all, they’ve all watched this scene play out at home, year after year – at the dinner table, while growing up; at family reunions; on holidays…)
(Older guy, continuing) …but the cure for that is hanging around you all! To do so is to realize that the future is in good hands.
In a wonderful TED talk, Shawn Achor posits that the barrage of news each day – dwelling as it does on sordid aspects of politics, terrorism, war, social inequities, natural disasters, and the acrimony and polarization characterizing national conversations on all this – insidiously gives us the false impression about the reality of the world we live on. The negative emphasis blinds us to all the powerful, positive trends underway – worldwide reductions in poverty, gains in agricultural productivity, progress towards renewable energy, statistically verifiable reductions in the rate of violence, and more. It breeds those twin imposters for wisdom – cynicism and pessimism.
Worse – this negative view inhibits our common progress towards building this better world. Mr. Achor argues that the end of each day we should reflect back for a few minutes on the day’s events – identifying three aspects for which we were grateful, and journaling about one positive event. He asserts that such a daily practice will develop in us an attitude of looking, searching for – and expecting– the positive. His studies suggest that this simple attitude adjustment makes us more successful in work and the rest of life.
For the past eighteen years – predating Mr. Achor’s talk and work by a few years, it’s been my privilege to see this in action – not intentionally, but as a happy incidental consequence of something else entirely. When I arrived at the American Meteorological Society in 2000, Ron McPherson, then the Executive Director, set me to work establishing an AMS Summer Policy Colloquium. His idea was the Colloquium would be the policy counterpoint to the eminently successful NCAR Summer Colloquium(then over 30 years old, and continuing to this day), which each summer brings small groups of students and faculty to Boulder for a period to consider a specialized scientific or technical topic. The plan was – every year – to bring some 25-40 early- and mid-career professionals from our Earth observing, science, and services community (spanning public, private, and academic sectors) to DC for ten days. They’d meet with counterparts from Congress and Congressional staff, the White House, State Department, federal agencies, and the private sector (many – a slight majority – with scientific backgrounds themselves). They’d dialog about science policy. The Colloquia wouldn’t be enough to ground Colloquium participants fully in federal policy for science, and science input into policy and politics; they could only provide a taste. But ten days of such conversations would whet participants’ appetite to learn more. The encounters would equip and inspire them to engage more effectively and actively with political and business leaders going forward. And they’d get to know each other. Over the years, as the number of Colloquium alumni grew, our geosciences community (or Weather Enterprise – or whatever alternative label you prefer) would grow more effective in helping society realize benefit from our work: more rapid growth in food, water, energy, and transportation sectors of the economy; increased community-level and national resilience to hazards; protection of the environment and maintenance of critical ecosystems services.
That has been the plan. Even after eighteen years, there’s still room for improvement in both the substance and logistics of the Summer Policy Colloquium. But there’s one area that hasn’t needed upgrading. That’s the participants’ strength of character, intellect, positive energy, and shared desire to help the seven billion people build a safer, more prosperous, greener world for themselves and future generations.
Over the years, more than six hundred professionals have been through the program. Hardly a day passes without e-mail exchanges or phone calls or face-to-face encounters with one or two, or reading about some of their latest accomplishments. Usually enough, by itself, to meet Mr. Achor’s standard of three pieces of good news each day. But for ten days every year, when the Colloquium is running, the vitality of the conversations, the inspiration of the personal narratives, the sheer vigor and potential of the group is something special.
But the secret sauce is not the 40 people in the room. What makes the Colloquium uplifting is the breathtaking extrapolation it reveals. Just short of 700 people participating over nearly 20 years? A drop in the bucket compared with the world’s 7 billion. The vast majority of these aren’t waiting for a Colloquium experience to do something positive. They’re already working in their respective, diverse ways to make a better world – and there are ten million times as many. The next time you’re on the sidewalk, or in traffic, or in your office or the neighborhood – look around you. You’re part of a seven-billion-person support group – people just like you who wake up each morning with a common thought – to do good.
Thanks to all of you. Looking forward to meeting another contingent at the Colloquiumnext year – and once again having my faith in human nature reaffirmed.
The focus varies each year.