“Let’s Climb Out of the Bucket” (My reflections on ‘Kony 2012’)

kony 2012My dad often tells a story about what it means to be a crabber (someone who catches crabs).  The crabbers place their catches, one by one, into a bucket.  Eventually, the bucket is full enough for some crabs to have the opportunity to stretch their claws to the rim of the bucket, and escape.  But when they try, the other crabs reach up and pull the climbers back down.

And no one leaves the bucket.  Instead, they end up in fryers and on dinner plates.

My friends, it seems to me that we live in a society full of crabs, and the instant that our crab-colleagues appear to achieve greatness, we reach up, and yank them back into our bucket.

Which begs the question: what does “greatness” mean?

Does it mean perfection?  Are only perfect-people capable of achieving great things?  Said another way, do only perfect-people have the right to pursue greatness?

My personal answer to this is a resounding NO.

On Tuesday, I will be a panelist at a discussion of all that has transpired as a result of the Invisible Children viral video.  The panel will be presented in the fantastic facilities of my elite school.

Last night (at 12:40am today more precisely), I flew out of Entebbe, Uganda, leaving behind a very productive trip, but also a new trail of mistakes and errors; evidence of my imperfection.

Evidence of my learning.

Last week, I sat in a seminar led by the brilliant Dr. Bob Goodman—a workshop just for my staff and myself—on the shores of the tranquil Lake Nabugabo, a satellite-lake of the great Lake Victoria. As I think of us seated in that humble little room in rural Uganda, I am confident that if you would ask my team about my “perfection,” they would offer a sort of guffaw.  Perfect, I am not.  And so we might all [honestly] say of each other, I suppose.

So does that mean that we should all stop trying?  Should we stop offering compassion in the best (though still imperfect) ways that we know?  Or may we allow compassion to create beauty out of our ashes?  Can we not allow the most exquisite pieces of this human experience to coexist with those places of failure?

Now, let me be clear: I believe we must strive for excellence, we must be accountable for our failures, and we must never, EVER use our cause as an excuse.  My team and I messed up this past week (in a minor way), and we are owning it, being accountable, and working on how to “fix” it.  But shouldn’t we have the opportunity to do so?  Or must we be thrown under the bus and crushed—and stopped?

And I must add a comment about the fact that much of the backlash to the video has to do with accusations of colonialism and race.  I find it untenable to even suggest that compassion must be limited by economic or racial borders and constructs.  Nicholas Kristof said something similar, calling the notion “repugnant.”

Stay in the bucket with the rest of the trapped-crabs if you want.  But the next time you see some imperfect crab reaching for the top, I beg of you to at least stand up against our bucket-society’s terrible calls to yank the climber back down.

As for me, I’m getting out of that bucket at all costs.  I shall dwell in a sea of imperfect people doing great things.

Things that matter.

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8 Responses to “Let’s Climb Out of the Bucket” (My reflections on ‘Kony 2012’)

  1. Marilyn Brandfass
    March 19, 2012 at 9:31 am

    I dislike the terms perfection and greatness. As defined by whom? I hope my actions are driven by neither of those things but then again, I am an imperfect being. (Do you like the way I did that N?)

    • March 19, 2012 at 10:13 am

      I do like what you did there, M? I like greatness in terms of doing good things and doing them well. I do not like greatness in terms of prestige and ego. Is that what you mean? –N

  2. Tiki Inacay
    March 19, 2012 at 10:08 am

    Nathaniel, you so eloquently spoke to the gift of imperfection. I once heard a guru ask, “Who suffers most, good people or bad people…good people suffer often.”

    At the age of fourteen, I was placed in foster care. As one of nineteen daughters to a minister and his wife, I felt invisible, broken, and insignificant. By the age of fourteen, I had suffered loss, want, trauma, hunger, and much sorrow. I remember feeling ever so small.

    I did not feel so gifted. Many of my sisters were gifted. Some played the piano, others sang in the choir, or could bake. At such an awkward age, I thought the only thing I have of any value is my heart. I remember thinking, if that is all I have, that is what I will give, merely for the sake of giving itself. It was as if I looked within my soul and thought, “But what can one as broken as I do?”

    All of us have pain. In the years to come, I learned that much love and compassion can come from hearts that have little to offer, even my own. I discovered that miracles come from humble beginnings. In so much some that do much good, will also suffer much. Does this mean that they are bad? No, it means that they endure pain. All of us bare scars. It is just that some have scars that others can see.

    • March 19, 2012 at 10:14 am

      “It is just that some have scars that others can see.” Selah. Thank you, Tiki.

  3. Phoebe
    March 19, 2012 at 10:38 am

    This may be the best thing you’ve ever written. (And I don’t say that lightly — I’ve been reading things you’ve written for almost 10 years now!)

    My most favorite part of all: “Stay in the bucket with the rest of the trapped-crabs if you want. But the next time you see some imperfect crab reaching for the top, I beg of you to at least stand up against our bucket-society’s terrible calls to yank the climber back down.

    As for me, I’m getting out of that bucket at all costs. I shall dwell in a sea of imperfect people doing great things.”

    Amen and amen.

    • March 19, 2012 at 11:25 am

      Thank you, Phoebe. I know you make the distinction between perfection and purpose, and I thank you for it. Best, –N

  4. March 20, 2012 at 8:12 am

    thanks Nathaniel for taking the time to offer such a grace-filled response. May your tribe increase!

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Nathaniel is CEO of AidChild.org. He holds a Master's Degree in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University where he was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship, and winner of the 2010 Harvard HDP Marshal Award. He also holds a PhD in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego where he was the Dammeyer Fellow in Global Education Leadership, and a Cordes Fellow at Opportunity Collaboration. Nathaniel is author of "We Are Not Mahogany: Three stories about the male African life." Prior to his move to Uganda in 2000, Nathaniel was Deputy Director of the Office of the Governor of Arizona, and Director of Education at Leadership, Inc.

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