Cleaning, Ta-Nehesi Coates, and Incremental vs Transformational Change

This past weekend, I decided to sort through and donate lots of books. I had no urgency around this. I wasn’t (intentionally) trying to make space for something else, and I’m not moving. I simply have a bunch of books that I haven’t touched in years and that I didn’t need taking up space.

I ended up donating eight bags of books, enough to clear an entire small bookshelf and a few shelves from a big one. Once I got over the sentimental pain of giving these books up (which is why I had so many in the first place), I felt really good — literally and metaphorically lighter.

I would felt this way about getting rid of any number of books, even if it were only one bag. I’ll find something to do with those empty shelves on my big bookcase. But the fact that I was able to clear an entire small bookshelf meant that I suddenly had a big gap in my kitchen. It inspired me to get rid of even more stuff, and my kitchen is cleaner and more organized than it’s been in years.

More importantly, seeing that space made me realize that I could get a dishwasher, something that I never thought I had enough space for and that will have a much larger impact on my every day life than an empty bookshelf. It spoke, in a visceral way, to the difference between incremental and transformational change and how, past a certain threshold, incremental change can lead to transformational change.

If your goal is transformation, you have to have some sense of what that incremental threshold is — if that threshold even exists.

While I was cleaning, I also listened to the October 2017 episode of The Ezra Klein Show with Ta-Nehisi Coates. I had to stop several times so I could re-listen and take notes. This interview embodies the kind of thinking that we’re trying to encourage our leaders to do this year, and I’d strongly encourage all of you to listen to it as well (especially the second half between 00:28:00 and 01:07:41).

In particular, it draws the distinction between incremental progress and transformation. Do you believe that “things getting better” race-wise will ultimately lead to the dismantling of white supremacy in the United States? Coates does not. He suggests that historically, it is dire external factors that lead to larger change (e.g. the fate of the union in the case of the Civil War, the specter of World War II and the Cold War leading to the Civil Rights movement, etc.), not the inevitable march toward moral progress.

Coates also offers his North Star — eliminating the 20-to-1 wealth gap between black and white families in this country.

This is the kind of precise, honest thinking that is critical for our leaders to start doing if they’re going to achieve the things they want to achieve. We are not simply building relationships and finding low-bar ways for our leaders to collaborate. That’s the low bar that STP has already cleared. We can do better on this (and will), but this alone will not lead to the transformational collaboration and change our leaders seek. We need to get much, much clearer and specific about what transformation actually looks like.