Slingshot Round the Moon
From Howard's Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life's Work
One day not long after I first started working at Harvard, Howard and I were walking across the campus toward the Charles River. It was the kind of early April day that, while still chilly, held the promise of frostless mornings and slowly budding trees. The weather seemed to be hanging on a pinpoint, waiting for a nudge that would push it from winter to spring.
I loved these "walking meetings," which we had begun when I was a grad student and continued through our years of working together at the university. While we sometimes had a specific piece of business to discuss, more often we had no agenda. We just talked about whatever was on our minds, from the psychological to the philosophical to the entrepreneurial. It became an escape from the everyday; a bit of intellectual therapy for both of us. Since Howard was then one of the most senior administrators at Harvard, I never had to explain to colleagues or bosses why I regularly took time to meet with him.
On this particular morning I was telling Howard about my friend Michelle, whose boss had unexpectedly announced her retirement. Michelle is an extraordinarily creative and hard¬working woman who was a few years behind me at college. Her boss, the head of their department, had been a mentor and champion throughout Michelle's time at the company. Michelle had worked for this boss for almost ten years and credited the woman's support and wise counsel for her own continuous career progress.
Despite Michelle's success, she felt that her future was uncertain now that her professional champion was departing. It was unclear whether her boss had retired of her own volition or had been forced out—or something in between. All Michelle knew was that on an otherwise unremarkable Friday morning, she had been told that her boss was leaving in a few weeks and that the company was "reconsidering the entire department's role and structure."
Normally decisive and confident, Michelle was caught off guard. She felt frozen, with no idea how long the organization's review process would take, how extensive it might be, or what it might lead to for her. For the first time in her career, she didn't know what to do.
As I shared the story with Howard, a bewildered look crept over his face.
Michelle's plan, I explained to him, was to keep her head down and wait to see how the department might be reshaped. After she learned what opportunities would be presented to her as part of the potential reorganization, she would decide what to do next. After all, at this point she didn't know if she'd be "downsized," "realigned" into a job with less authority, "morphed" into a different professional path at the company—or even "supersized" with a promotion. What she did know was that the economy was weak and she had invested ten years at the company, so she was hoping for the best.
When I finished the story, Howard shook his head, kicked a pinecone out of his path, and grumbled, "Wasting a good opportunity."
"Her problem is that no one has clarified what her options might be," I explained.
Howard stopped and gently poked me in the chest, "No. Her problem is that she doesn't recognize the opportunity staring her in the face."
It was classic Howard, looking at the world from a unique perspective: where almost everyone else would see a problem, he sensed an opportunity; where most people might have en¬dorsed Michelle's "sit tight" approach, he saw reason for thoughtful action.
"She's waiting for someone to decide her fate for her," Howard remarked. "She doesn't realize that she's being given a gift."
"What kind of gift?"
"An inflection point," he said. "In Michelle's case, it's coming at a moment in time when the structures are removed and the rules are suspended. A moment in which she can reflect in¬wardly about what she wants, and then act to redefine the situation in such a way as to help her accomplish it."
Howard motioned for me to sit on a bench with him under a huge oak tree.
"Inflection points change the way we think about things. They present an opportunity that only occurs periodically. And they possess a kind of latent motivational en¬ergy, which, when recognized and harnessed, can unleash potential that one wouldn't seize otherwise."
"'Latent motivational energy'?" I'd teased Howard for years that he had a language all his own—"Howard-speak"—that people didn't always understand. "Latent motivational energy" was quintessential Howard-speak, and when I called him on it, he laughed.
"All right, all right," he said. "How's this? Latent motivational energy is another way of describing a situation's potential to spur you into action, when you wouldn't have acted before."
"In even plainer English," I suggested, "it's a much-needed kick in the ass."
Howard chuckled and said, "A kick that can provide a boost of career momentum."
He paused, then gave me a wink as he thought of just the right way to illustrate his point. "You're too young to remember this," he began, "but in the early 1970s the Apollo 13 spacecraft was midway between Earth and the moon when an air tank exploded and almost wrecked the command module. There wasn't enough fuel to stop its momentum and turn back for Earth. So the crew decided to let the moon's gravity do the work for them. Moving faster and faster, they orbited the moon once, used a single powerful burst of the engine to add to the momentum gravity provided, and, like a stone in a slingshot, zoomed back to Earth. They got home because they used the lunar orbit as an inflection point to change their trajectory and add the energy boost they needed."
"I remember that scene in the movie Apollo 13," I said. "It was riveting because you knew the slightest mistake would send them out into deep space."
Howard smiled. "Here on Earth, the opportunity provided by an inflection point is a lot easier to overlook or ignore—until the window for action passes. As a result, most people are like Michelle: they won't realize they're at an inflection point until it has passed. And if they do realize it, they'll often just react to it without constructive thought. They see inflection points as something that happens to them, something they can only respond to defensively. Like passive observers in their own lives.
"Very few people see inflection points as the opportunities they often are: catalysts for changing their lives; moments when a person can modify the trajectory he or she is on and redirect it in a more desirable direction," he continued. "Whether it's a new job, a change in a relationship, or something else, an inflection point is one of those periodic windows of opportunity when a person can pause, reflect, and ask: 'Self, do I want to continue on this path or is now the moment to change direction?'"