You’ve heard the old adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? Current research on traumatic head injury seems to undermine that assumption.
Several recent studies have argued that repetitive sub-concussive blows can lead to degenerative brain functioning, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE has often been associated with those whose livelihood requires repetitive moderate head trauma. In fact, CTE was formerly known as dimentia pugilistica for the boxers, or pugilists, who suffered from the disease. If you’ve seen “the greatest of all time”, Mohammed Ali anytime over the past 15 years you understand the impact of CTE. Even the most graceful, athletic, and articulate performers can find their quality of life dramatically deteriorated at an early age due to the effect of repetitive moderate (e.g.., sub-concussive) blows.
The challenge of addressing this tragedy is that CTE is a cumulative effect of numerous (or perhaps innumerable) mild-to-moderate traumatic incidents. There is no single event to avoid or be on guard for. Rather, it is the litany of impacts that occur during the course of a career that lead to long-term, irrecoverable loss of function, vitality, and ability.
That is why the NFL is facing such a challenge in handling the “helmet-to-helmet” collisions. They have to change the social and economic incentives of their business so players rank long-term health above the short-term rewards of being featured on the ESPN “hit-reel”.
What does all of this have to do with business, technology, & higher ed?
I believe many of us in higher ed and technology are suffering the effects of chronic sub-concussive blows accumulated during the past 50-years of rapid growth, infrastructure expansion, and tuition increases. Are any of these impacts familiar to your experience?
- At the time, the additional debt required to complete a “needed” renovation of our facilities seemed like a necessary cost of doing business. Now that cash is tight those debt payments keep us focused on infrastructure and support costs rather than strategic initiatives.
- Market forces have lead many to believe that enrollment growth is a “natural” end that can lead to ever-increasing revenues and sustainable double-digit growth. These assumptions have left us with unrealistic expectations that may cause us to choose between quantity and quality.
- Poor IT governance through the boom years left many firms facing the daunting task of choosing which rogue systems to eliminate, which to incorporate into enterprise systems, and which to pray continue working without creating additional costs.
None of these impacts by alone are concussive. That is… alone they can not knock us “out of the game” for any length of time. Sure, we may need a little breather here or there, but alone they are just a part of the game. Like the college linebacker who continues to make tackles head-first without regard to the impact of repetitive minor blows, we have lumbered straight ahead through these minor challenges.
Perhaps now is a good time for an audit… what are some of the sub-concussive blows that are affecting you today? What choices of the past 5-10 years had a relatively minor impact at the time, but are now creating a cumulative degenerative effect on your ability to put points on the board? Where are you beginning to feel shackled by choices of the past that seem to prohibit your effectiveness today?
Once you’ve identified a few of these issues, take a few hours for contingency planning. What can you do today to release some of the pressure these choices have created? How can you lay the foundation for a better future?
It may be true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger… but only if you learn from it and stop doing it before it DOES kill you!