Executive Perspective

Is Possible?

by Paul D. Houston

In traveling to other countries I have been struck by how different Americans are from other nationalities. We stick out like a tall building in a swamp. We seem to be louder, more confident, often bigger and sometimes less self-aware than others. While not everything we do is admirable, the way we handle the unknown is different and something I find laudatory.

When I was traveling in Russia, each time someone in our group wanted to do something that wasn't on the itinerary, our guide's response was the same: "Not possible." Whether it was to stay somewhere a little longer or leave a little sooner or deviate a block, it was always the same response: "Not possible."

Two incidents stand out in my memory. One came after a week of eating mystery meat and beets. We all felt we just couldn't face another meal spent turning over the meat to see whether we could identify it or noticing the overcooked beets and cabbage. We were getting desperate. We spotted a Pizza Hut downtown. We approached the guide about taking us there for dinner. Not possible. We asked the question, which seems to be uniquely American, "Why not?" "Driver is off duty."

"How about if we paid the driver extra for taking us there?" "Not possible." "Why not?" "Guide is off duty." "How about if we paid the guide extra for taking us there?" Long pause. "Maybe." "How much?" "Twenty dollars each." (At the time we didn't realize that was a month's pay for each of them.) Suddenly the impossible became possible. We left with our stomachs full of American-style pizza, and our guide and driver went home with their pockets full and a new appreciation for problem solving.

Hidden Options
Another day we wanted to go to the Moscow flea market. By this time our guide was learning the possible. Our bus was broken. It would run, but if it stopped, it wouldn't start. The bus carrying the second group was fine. But the party poopers on the other bus wanted to return to the hotel to rest. Most of our bus wanted to go to the Moscow flea market. What to do? No problem. We'll just switch busses and let the folks return to the hotel in the bus that would run, but not restart. No problem since it was already running. We would take the sound bus to the flea market. Our guide thought this was possible. She approached the other bus, but they wouldn't trade. Ugly Americans!

By this time we had Americanized the guide. She suggested that our bus could let us off at the Moscow subway, and we could take it to the market and back to the hotel. And we did. And by doing so we also got a tour of the Moscow subway, which is amazing. Hope that other bus group had a good nap!

On a more recent trip to Ireland our guide was going to offer us several options for dinner. But she laid out only one option and then asked how many of us wanted to do that. Of course, almost in unison, everyone shouted, "What are the other options?" Here we had another clash of cultures. Options aren't really options if you do not know all of them. Then you choose. In Ireland apparently, they take things sequentially one at a time, accepting or eliminating one thing before moving on.

The profound difference between how Americans process the world came home to me with two recent news stories. One incident concerned a young man who had figured out he could outsource his own job to India. He would pay the gentleman in India to do his work for a fraction of what the American was making, and the young American would pocket the difference. No strain and lots of gain. It worked so well he was considering taking a second job and doing the same thing to double his income. The point here isn't so much the ethics of what he was doing (which are questionable), but the creativity he showed in taking an issue that is driving many Americans crazy — outsourcing — and making it work for him through some creative thinking.

The other story concerned a mother who was collecting cans of "crazy string" to send to her son and his fellow soldiers in Iraq. It seems the soldiers had figured out they could use the "crazy string" as a way to locate booby-trap tripwires in buildings they had to enter. By spraying the string in a room, previously undetected wires would catch the string and the soldiers could disarm the bomb — a very clever way of avoiding injury.

American Enterprise
The point of all this is that America is and has been a country where finding a creative solution is often the first response to a problem. There is always another way of doing something. Lay out the options, pick the best. If one thing doesn't work, try another.

As the minister of education in Singapore explained to Newsweek magazine, the reason many Americans outperform Singaporeans in the real world, even though the Singaporeans had better test scores, is that Americans are creative and innovative and they challenge authority.

As we endure these educational Dark Ages of high-stakes tests, a narrowed curriculum and the search for a single right answer, let's not forget what we do better than others in the world. We turn crazy string into zones of safety and hunger pangs into win/win situations. That is pretty powerful stuff and worthy of being preserved. It is what has made us great as a nation and what will keep us great if we can get the misguided reformers to see there are other options to be considered and other ways of getting to the flea market. Staying dominant in the world is possible if we don't forget how we got there.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.