Ode to Revision

I’ll never be done writing about Pearl Rock Kane, and she’ll never be done teaching me, so here is one more lesson from the master.

On Sunday, I attended a service for Pearl at Teachers College, Columbia University. Many eloquent, thoughtful people spoke about her legacy and there was a beautiful musical interlude. Admittedly, for me, the program was overwhelming — overwhelmingly poignant, overwhelmingly crammed with incredible message and story after incredible message and story. Admittedly, it’s taken about a week for things to settle in my mind and for themes to start to emerge.

Anybody who writes about Pearl or knows (yes, knows) Pearl or talks about her legacy will come around to mentioning behavior. In particular, they will say that Pearl taught them that leadership is behavior. It’s not a position or a title. It’s behavior.

One of the leadership behaviors that Pearl’s eulogists expressed at her ceremony was an endless commitment to tinkering and tweaking, to iterating, to remaking, to re-marking. They told stories about how, whenever Pearl would design a course, she would always make it new, each time, and whenever Pearl would give a speech, she would always work on it again and again until it was meticulously prepared. Her daughters joked about this tweaking habit, this endless ode to revision, during their talk. One of them stopped the other and said, “you said the same thing at Mom’s funeral; she would expect you to make some changes.”

This theme, as it took shape in my head, made me think of a friend and mentor named Denise Brown-Allen. When Denise left our school to do a different — bigger — job, I moved into her office. Amazingly, she left everything behind. She left binders and lessons and ideas and folders. She left files and books and papers. It wasn’t messy; it was just hers, her stuff. I called her to ask her if she wanted me to box and save any of it or send it to her, and she said, “I already used up all of that. If I’m going to be any good where I’m going, I have to do the work again. I have to make everything from scratch as best as I can and with whatever I have learned.”

New job, new context; new context, new work; new day, new river.

Reshan Richards is the same way. In my many presentations with him, I have found that he is almost allergic to cutting and pasting, to using old slides, to anything that is even remotely canned or expired. We make almost everything by changing the old, by revising, or by simply starting over with a blank canvas or by pressing record anew on some device.

I realize that some of the things in my work — right now, today — are feeling a little stale because I haven’t reinvented them lately. I haven’t started from scratch. I’ve pulled out the old slides or the old lesson instead of starting from scratch, and I realize how dangerous that is, how it dishonors the teachings of some of my greatest mentors and friends.

Bring what you’ve got, what you’ve learned, who you are — right now — to the moment’s task. Urge it into existence. Wrestle with it the way you’ve been taught. Resist forms, formulas, PDFs, and well worn grooves. If you’re lucky enough to work in service of others, spend yourself fully and wildly.

And then, have faith — the tank will refill, will even spill, and you’ll be back at it and brand new.

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