What is visionary? What is vision?

Stephen K. Hayes posted an interesting challenge to me for my blog.

“I would enjoy seeing your take on “visionary” and why you feel that the term is used so frequently by others to describe your work.”

To me, vision is being able to see where you’re going, to see what’s up the road ahead, in both literal and figurative senses. It’s being able to see the potholes before you drive the car into them, being able to skillfully navigate.

The problem facing most businesses, to continue the car analogy, is that most people are driving using the rear window to navigate. They’re steering based on where they’ve been, and maybe, just maybe they catch a glimpse out the side windows for what’s happening to them right now. They don’t know where they’re driving, they can’t see the sharp turn in the road ahead, and they believe that past is prologue, that biography is destiny.

Most important, vision is about knowing where you’re going, so that you know if you’re there, and even more vital, knowing if you’re off course and not any closer to your goal.

Take a look at any of the problems facing America today. The mortgage crisis is entirely due to lack of vision, a willful ignorance of the future and the consequences for tomorrow of what you do today. Thousands of Americans bought houses they couldn’t afford, plain and simple. Some were duped, some were scammed, and some were simply desire overriding rational common sense. Thousands of financial experts who should have known better opted to ignore fundamentals, basics, and laws of economics, believing that something really could come out of nothing, and that there would be no consequences.

Really. There’s no mathematically sound way for a clerk making $30,000/year to be able to afford a $900,000 mortgage, but an awful lot of people wanted to believe that lie, wanted to blind themselves from the truth that they could not afford their purchase under any sustainable terms.

That’s lack of vision. Lack of knowing what will happen because you’re in violation of the basics, because you have no idea of where you’re going or how you’re going to get there, you just want it now.

Take a look at China. As much as people rail about China and its human rights policies, the ugly truth is that the United States consumers made China the powerhouse it is today through lack of vision. Through ever greater demands for more stuff, cheaper stuff, stuff at any cost as long as it’s the lowest price, we’ve shipped our manufacturing overseas, exposed consumers to dangerous products, and made a nation-state that isn’t on the friendliest terms with the United States into an economic powerhouse that rivals us. All for want of a cheaper plastic bowl and other consumer goods, and a lack of vision.

Another example is Brian Conley’s arrest and deportation from China. I admire Brian’s work and willingness to speak his mind. However, his arrest in China, while brave, deprived him of his most powerful weapon, the ability to build a network of people locally to create content. By traveling and documenting a Tibetan protest group during China’s Olympics, he was able to highlight the lack of freedom of the press and speech in China… but cut himself off from greater opportunities.

What would a visionary strategy, a sneaky ninja strategy, have been? As distasteful on the surface as it might have been, if a ninja were tasked with trying to highlight the plight of Tibet, they would have made some astonishingly positive and complimentary videos of China, of the progress they’ve made, helping the government showcase its achievements for the Olympics. They would have made sure to promote a positive message that would have gotten them on the right guest lists, invitations to events with Communist Party members… and greater access to the country.

Over a period of years, the sneaky ninja would have created more positive video, building a reputation among Chinese party officials that they were a video blogger worth having around, and even being allowed into “sensitive” areas… like the Tibetan plateau. Over time, they would have developed a small, very quiet network of people to shoot video, as Brian has done in Alive in Baghdad, and then one day down the road, revealed all of the work done at once in what the tabloids would have called “a shocking turn of events”, showing hours of video clandestinely shot in Tibet and other contested areas.

Vision is ultimately about knowing the result you want and being willing to make difficult choices to achieve that result. It means compromising on choices, masking your ideals, exerting inhuman levels of patience, and being able to see what’s in your path so that you can tell the difference between a choice that feels right and a choice that gets you the long term results that you want.

How you develop and cultivate those skills… that’s a post I’ll leave to Stephen K. Hayes.


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