Arbitrary Lines: Helpful & Harmful

by | Mar 28, 2019 | Change, Ideas, Learning |

New Year’s day could have been any day of the year, but January 1 was chosen, except if you are in China were it was February 5 or in Ethiopia where this year (2019) it is September 11. And why January 1st, not February 1st, or July 1st? The answer lies with a Pope back in 1582 a year that skipped 11 days in October going from October 4th one day to October 15th the next. So calendars and dates help us organise ourselves and our societies when they are used by many people, but they are, in many ways, arbitrary. Today can be new year’s day for you if you want it to be; it is the same distance from the same date next year as January 1 is from January 1, so if this helps you start or make a change, go for it.

Lines in the sand like dates can be helpful and harmful; it depends on the importance and the power we give to the line. Years ago, I was in Banda Aceh working with communities after the 2004 Tsunami that destroyed so many lives. At one point, I sat in the office of a large government institutional donor discussing funding to build houses for families who had lost theirs. The frustration in the room was palpable as, according to the policy of the respective government, building houses was considered something done in ‘long-term development’ work, not in humanitarian work and because the humanitarian funding was the only funding available we could not use it to build houses. We both knew this was ridiculous and did not find the operational context but the line had been drawn and could not be moved.

Sometimes though, we agonise over where to put the line, where does red become orange or blue, green or when does someone move from surviving to thriving. Sometimes this agonising stops us from moving forward; it is another way of hiding. When you catch yourself or your team doing this, grab a pencil, put a line somewhere, anywhere and start moving. The line can be moved later (it’s in pencil) but you’ll know if this is needed by doing not by theorising.


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