One fall morning, several years ago, I came across a piece of writing that had a profound impact on my world outlook and the way I operate in all aspects of life but mostly in school and work. It was not a book on philosophy of life nor was it a self-help manual. It was an academic journal article on public administration by Charles Lindblom. The article is entitled “The Science of Muddling Through”, and it is a seminal work in the field. It has been cited over 15,000 times.
I came across a mention of it in a popular urban planning book, Readings in Planning Theory, which was a text book for the planning theory course I was taking during my master’s studies. I looked up the article in the university’s library system and printed it out. (I prefer to read on physical paper. And yes, I do recycle!)
I still remember vividly the day, the time, and where I was when I read the article. It was in my office at the Heritage Research Center at the University of Waterloo. It was early fall and around 11:00AM, I could see through my window the leaves beginning to change colors. The article was on top of my white desk, which was behind a partition, giving me a very-well defined cozy work space in the high-ceiling, big office, which usually was occupied by me only. I picked up a marker from my collection made up of pink, blue, orange, and green colors and started reading. When I was done with the article was when I think the beginning of a change in me took root.
The article is about the limited policy analysis and theory in U.S. policy formulation. You will find here a good summary of it if you have no access to the full paper. But the takeaway that stood out for me was that there is not enough time and resource to do everything thoroughly. The presentation of this message in the article blew my mind!
In order to appreciate why it had a profound impact on me, let me tell you briefly how I had operated prior to that. I gave 200% effort to the things I did, I mean everything! It didn’t matter whether it was an important part of a task or project or just a fringe element. It also didn’t matter how a particular project fit in the grand scheme of my education or career trajectory. Everything got the fullest extent of my resources and time. Nothing mattered other than a commitment of time, energy, and other resources to doing everything thoroughly. Surely, this was incredibly consuming, but I didn’t know any other way of operating.
Until of course, I came across the The Science of Muddling Through! Suddenly someone showed me an alternative world view in a manner that was spectacular. The author was not even talking about people and their education and careers; the paper was about public policy making! Surely, there is a reason why the article is seminal – it is a brilliant work for what it is intended for. But in my case for personal development as well.
I do, sometimes, think, its tremendous impact on me might have been because I was ready for a change in my modes operandi. I once made a speech about it at my Toastmasters club. Especially around the time I came across it, I talked about it at any opportunity I got and recommended it to those who were not familiar with it. When I visited my sister overseas, I took with me a print out of the article as a gift for her. Sure, sure, it is was a little obsessive, but I truly appreciate the article and recommend, highly recommend, that you read it if you haven’t.
As for me, I haven’t come across anything that had the same impact since then. I suspect there will be more in the future, especially as I do more planning theory work in my research as well as teaching in my new position as faculty at York University’s Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.