Simple, but not Simplistic
Posted by Mark Bennett on July 20, 2009
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Whatever one’s feelings are about the expenditure involved in that endeavor, it stands as one of the most incredible feats accomplished in modern history. As we reflect on it, JFK’s speech to Congress on May 25, 1961 setting forth the challenge always comes to mind:
“…I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
As “Made to Stick” and several other books have pointed out, that sentence is an excellent example of expressing a compelling vision in a very simple way that can be easily remembered for both what it is setting out to accomplish as well as how. In fact, it conveys a little story in just a few words in a concrete way. Those attributes have made it a long enduring message and well-remembered speech, albeit more just a fragment of a speech.
It also helped that the goal was achieved, which was not a foregone conclusion by any means. Through the lens of history and hindsight, it’s easy to get carried away by the events that actually occurred and think that it was all inevitable. The speech and the landing make fine bookends to an amazing story in our minds because our minds are attuned to stories; we like to find meaning and reason for why things happen, particularly when it resonates with our emotions such as fear, tragedy, bravery, joy, and hope, which all played significant roles in the history of the moon landing. But the history as we know it was not a foregone conclusion.
JFK’s full speech reflects that. Yes, he captured the vision quite well in a way that would serve to help keep a huge number of people, agencies, companies, and a whole nation at least somewhat connected to a unified purpose. But if you look over the rest of the speech, you see that unlike the snippet we see, where it sounds like a leader is saying, “This is what we should do – now make it so!” it’s a leader basically saying, “Here’s what’s been going on lately. We’ve had some shocks to our confidence with the Soviets’ accomplishments. Well, we’ve shown we can put a man in space too, and if we are willing to put our energies wholeheartedly into it, I think we can accomplish this pretty amazing feat and it will show the world what a free nation can do. However, it will be hard and it will cost a huge amount of money and if this nation isn’t willing to commit itself completely, then we shouldn’t waste our time or resources on half-measures.”
Yes, there was a simple message there, but it in no way was simplistic. In a world awash as it were in, to use the cliché, “sound bites” and easy answers, it’s important to remember that.