Inspiration Takes Perspiration

I’m sharing my process for preparing the keynote talk I’ll be presenting at the 2016 HighEdWeb New England regional conference on March 18. This is Part Three; if you prefer chronological order, start with Part One and Part Two.

If you ever find yourself in need of a social conversation starter, here’s one of my favorite questions to ask:

Where do ideas come from?

That question has been on my mind this week as I thought about the developing my talk for HighEdWeb NE, because it gets to what I struggle with most when creating a presentation: how to focus in on exactly what it is I want to share that I feel is unique to me.

The way I see it, whenever I’m given the opportunity to speak to an audience—and even more so if I’m being invited specifically to inspire others—I need figure out exactly what key insight or point of view it is I think I have to share about a topic. I can’t just coast in and deliver the repackaged ideas of others; I want to make sure that when I leave people at the end with a tote bag of ideas, I know that those ideas and perspectives are my own.

So where do those ideas come from? I think they come from scraps and slivers of the ideas and voices of others that we absorb everyday, often without us even being conscious of it. In fact, I doubt real insight or direction can ever be traced completely to a single source or experience.

Continue reading →

Make (Up) No Little Plans

There’s something about the arrival of spring that brings with it a desire to throw out the clutter and the noise of the old and to start anew. I’m filled with a desire to get organized, build something lean and bold; something simple, smart, and effective.

I first came across this quote years ago, but only recently has it spoken to me in a way that feels inspiring:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.

It’s attributed to the architect Daniel H. Burnham, who is most famous for his 1909 plan for the City of Chicago. But “attributed to” and “a quote from” are not the same thing, and it turns out it’s really difficult to find a contemporary source for this quote in anything written or spoken publicly by Burnham himself. In fact, it’s almost easier to find blog posts and magazine stories pointing out this misattribution than it is to find where the quote actually did come from.

In an era when it’s easy to assume that the source of every famous quote is available at our fingertips, I was surprised at how enigmatic this particular quote seems to be, and yet also how often it has been used as a source of inspiration and even as a rationale for desicions.

As a college-educated person who learned the difference between primary and secondary source material a long time ago, I’ve always tried to take attribution seriously. Even when it’s just a blog post, I think it’s important to provide links to the orignal source of where a quote or image or idea is coming from if it’s not my own. So in that spirit, here is the closest I’ve come to figuring out the true origin of this quote, as summarized in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, edited by Suzy Platt, which attributes the quote as follows:

While Burnham expressed these thoughts in a paper he read before the Town Planning Conference, London, 1910, the exact words were reconstructed by Willis Polk, Burnham’s San Francisco partner. Polk used the paragraph on Christmas cards in 1912 after Burnham’s death in June of that year.—Henry H. Saylor, ”Make No Little Plans,” Journal of the American Institute of Architects, March 1957, pp. 95–99.

While I discovered it is possible to find a record of that historic 1910 Town Planning Conference which includes transcripts of remarks and papers shared by the guests, I was not able to get my hands on a copy from any local library, nor do I have the disposable outcome to order or even “rent” an e-book version of the full volume just so I could look for this quote.

Because ultimately, what does it matter? Our history and culture are chockablok with misattributed quotes and untruths we take for granted. What matters is what we take away from it ourselves, and what it may inspire us to do.

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger says as much in his 2009 piece in The New Yorker marking the centennial of Burnhams’s Chicago plan,

“Burnham is famous for the line ‘Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.’ There is little evidence that he really said this, but everything he did suggests that he believed it. If Theodore Roosevelt had been an architect, he would have been Daniel Burnham.”

I think that sums it up perfectly. In the end it doesn’t matter. This quote will live on regardless of who said it, and just like any good writing, if it speaks to you, than that means it’s worth appreciating line by line.

Make no little plans.
They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.
Make big plans;
aim high in hope and work, 
remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.
Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us.
Let your watchword be order
and your beacon beauty.

Think big.