Think differently. Ask another question. Learn more.

It’s a privilege to be in Washington, DC, and to work on Earth observations, science, and services.

Many people might find that hard to believe! News coverage, focusing as it does on what’s wrong and vexing, invites those outside Washington to see life here as a vicious political dogfight, accompanied by a deafening, cacophonous, unrelenting babble of (mostly) angry voices and spin.

Those who live and work inside the Beltway struggle to keep in mind any larger purpose as they bear up under stupefying workloads, urgent deadlines, and an oppressive grind that grows more overwhelming with each passing year. Up to their necks in alligators, they can be distracted from clearing the swamp.

Do you have a piece of that portfolio responsible for Earth’s resources, environmental protection, and safety in the face of hazards? You might be forgiven for feeling frustrated. It certainly seems these vital challenges are being ignored in favor of the (sometimes contrived) urgency of other national concerns. Budget cuts are the rule. Programs and infrastructure that ought to be robustly supported are in a fragile, parlous state.

But the simple fact? It’s an honor and an opportunity to do such work. Building instruments to capture and record the Earth’s workings; designing, fabricating, and launching satellite platforms to make the observations; harnessing computers to digest the terabytes of data; making sense of it all? Using the knowledge to preserve ecosystems and ecosystem services, and make the nation and the world wealthier and weather-ready?  You can’t ask for more satisfying labor. And the people here in DC? As smart, as energetic, and as high-minded as anywhere on the planet. At the core, what we have in Washington are half a million folks who were raised by mom and dad with the notion that they ought to be making the world a better place.

For the past several months, work here has had even more to commend it. Why? Because Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan is back in town, as the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction, and Deputy Administrator of NOAA.

A former astronaut – who deployed the Hubble telescope and who was the first American woman to walk in space – Dr. Sullivan is educated in oceanography and marine geology. In the 1990’s she served as NOAA’s Chief Scientist. She has run a science museum and a university-based science policy center, and has served on the National Science Board. There’s much more that could be said about her background and credentials. Just remember this…people haven’t given her such jobs over an extended period of years just to be nice. They’ve done it because again and again in such roles she’s put together an unbroken string of successes and achievements. She’s more than repaid the nation’s investment.

She’s a leader.

In the brief period she’s been back, even in the midst of grueling days, she’s been asked for, and generously shared, advice and encouragement to future leaders in our field. Those who’ve been present will tell you – such occasions have been special. She could write a book on leadership. Perhaps she will down the road.

But for today, please take a moment to contemplate a thought she’s offered repeatedly. I don’t know its origins. Maybe for some group or on some occasions she’s unpacked the meaning and the background, but I’ve never heard her do so. She may well regard it as incidental. When I’ve been in the room (as at this year’s AMS Annual Meeting), she’s said it in passing, almost as a throwaway line:

Think differently. Ask another question. Learn more.


She’s said much more, all of it significant, but I can’t get this one small bit out of my head. I keep circling back to it…and I bet you will too.

Instead of simply speed-reading on, please make some time for contemplation. How do you see this applying to your life, your situation? How can you use this advice? What would you like this mantra to mean to you? If you were expanding on this thought, how would you explain or paraphrase it to others? If you take the trouble and the time for such reflection, you’ll be glad you did.

Six quick, initial thoughts (and apologies and disclaimers, since I’m not privy to the original intent here)…

First, thinking differently suggests coming at a problem from a range of different ways, building options, identifying all alternatives, trying different starting points, etc. It’s not an invitation to be sloppy or undisciplined.

Second, it’s easy to imagine astronauts giving this primacy in their work. If everything you’re doing is unprecedented, so that you can’t be guided by routine or experience; if the effectiveness of years of work by thousands of people; if the fortunes of the nation investing billions of dollars into your work – if your very life and the lives of others – all hinges on how well you know and do your job, you too might emphasize thinking differently, asking another question, learning more.

Third, the line makes sense and offers utility as three separate activities, but also as one integrated thought. So on the one hand, you and I should constantly think differently. In every situation, we should always ask questions. And we should never stop learning – reading and absorbing books, acquiring new skills, etc. But it’s also easy to see this as a unified single act. Thinking differently in any and every circumstance will bring to mind a different question, which you and I should voice, not keep to ourselves. In so doing, we will learn more than we would have otherwise.

Fourth, this is not a one-off-and-you’re-done idea. It’s never ending. We’re to do…and repeat.

Fifth, you and I would do well to try this in our relationships as well as our work. Imagine if we did this with our spouses and life partners, and our families. Think of the benefits if we even did this in the early stages of getting to know each other. Suppose we sought out those who would help us see things differently. Suppose we asked each other questions before rushing to tell them about ourselves. Suppose we were eager to learn from one another, instead of instruct one another?

Sixth, suppose you and I modeled this behavior…and encouraged everyone we knew to join us. Would Washington and the world become a better place?

You bet.

Today…this week, this month, this year? Think differently. Ask another question. Learn more.

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One Response to Think differently. Ask another question. Learn more.

  1. Pingback: Weather-Ready Nation. Just a slogan? Or a way of life? | Living on the Real World

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