Twenty-five years ago I was in grad school. One of my best new pals was a guy named John. John and I immediately hit it off. He was a person who was able to challenge assumptions. It meant that conversation and learning with him was always easy because he was good at clarifying assumptions, and in many cases, willing to leave things unresolved. Everything from some of the school assignments to grand philosophies of life. This was refreshing and essential for me.
In those days our program had our own separate lounge. It was a place to meet. Study. Leave a few things that you didn’t want to carry with you during the day. It was a place to just hang out too. Our program had 40 people in it.
John was known for hanging out in the lounge. We all did, but he was the person who seemed to always be there. I remember being in the lounge, needing to leave for a class, then returning after class to find John still there on the couch but now talking with different people. By the way, John was a top student — definitely top third in GPA.
John was famous for asking “what does it all mean” questions. We spent many hours and days over those years pondering meaning. One day he asked me, a bit playfully, “Tenneson, if you could sum it up in one sentence, one truth, what would that be?” I laughed. Then spit out, “choice exists.” It’s the best that I could come up with. I wanted to play the game with John.
I suppose I feel kind of proud having lived with “choice exists” now for 25 years. Choice exists. Choice in action (the blue or the red). Choice in thought (to be curious or judging). Choice in assumption (cultural story A or B). Even choice in emotion (frustrated or accepting). Choice, more than this “or” that, a fundamentally liberating principle and reminder. This later became a key root of parenting for me. “There is always another way,” I told my kids often, who are now 20, 18, and 10. Over the last many years they have rolled their eyes at me a time or two as I’ve shared this with them. They’ve also used it back at me a time or two, with particular satisfaction when they’ve been trying to do stuff that I don’t necessarily agree with.
In working with clients and teams professionally, I realize I’m looking for the most basic of reference points so as to ground our work. I say it a bit differently now. “We have choices.” How do we create a culture of trust and learning? We have choices. Even, “You have choices.” Is it possible to change the format of a large conference to something more participative? I can answer yes, which I do. But even more often, I reference choices. We have choices.
“We have choices,” breaks a spell, the trance that tells us we can’t do. That’s it’s not possible. “We have choices” is not a rah, rah speech. I suppose it could feel like that. It’s a reminder of something that many of us once knew, or that we occasionally forget.
Ah, an ode to John, my buddy from so long ago who by just being him, sparked a lifetime of thought for me.