Yesterday I finished my 22nd marathon.
The 4:12 time was neither my best nor my worst, but finishing it was an ordeal. My calves were cramping and I was out of gas. Most marathoners experience adversity during the race. For beginners, finishing 26.2 miles is the ordeal. For experienced runners, a finishing time goal usually generates an ordeal when an internal voice says “Relax, why don’t you walk for a while, what does it matter?”
Today, I am hobbling around, using the handrail to go up and down the stairs. But the ordeal is over and I know each day I will feel better as if reverse-aging. I marvel at my body’s resiliency. In about a week, my attitude shifts from “that was tough” to “I can do better next year.”
Planners don’t face physical ordeals, of course, except if we consider interminable late night meetings as ordeals. They can be. But we face other types of ordeals in the political, economic, and social context in which we work. Perhaps that’s why APA gave a “Hard-Won Victory” award in its national award program for many years.
Planners have varied ordeals. They may relate to political and stakeholder issues, intergovernmental relationships, technical issues, ethical dilemmas, and interpersonal conflict. To simplify matters, let’s consider three types of ordeals:
Marching in Quicksand
Planners moving a plan or program forward find that those around them are uninterested in change or actively thwarting it. As idea people, planners often push for change that affects those with operational responsibilities. Those folks are attuned to risk and may not be interested in trying something new. Implementation can be an ordeal, with backsliding and frustration.
New planning ideas push the boundaries of what we know; it can be challenging to improve the knowledge base of planning. For instance, transportation planners know that the traditional four-step transportation model doesn’t deal well with today’s multimodal, priced transportation ideas. Activity-based transportation models address key issues in travel behavior but are less proven in practice. Extensive data demands and complex computations can make a shift to activity-based models an ordeal.
Planners may be disappointed in others or in themselves. A community group may be narrowly self-interested or a planning organization may resist innovation. Ideals of good government might be frustrated by “pay to play” practices in government. Planners may also be disappointed in themselves if they do not live up to their internal ethical code or that of the American Institute of Certified Planners. Continuing forward when disappointed is an ordeal.
Distance running has taught me some things that help with planning ordeals:
First, I Understand the Value of Preparation
My idea might not prevail, but it surely won’t if I’m not prepared. One can’t finish a marathon without the training and realistic anticipation of conditions.
Second, Doing Anything Significant Requires Effort and an Ability to Deal With Discomfort
Marathons teach that physical discomfort is bearable. I can’t prove it, but I think my capacity to endure psychological discomfort has grown with running experience. I’m more willing to suffer to achieve a goal.
Third, I Don’t Expect Victory After Victory
I have yet to win a marathon and never will. I don’t run to win, and I don’t expect to prevail on every planning issue either. The work isn’t just a means to the end, it is partly the end in itself.
Having reality-based expectations about marathon times helps me create reality-based expectations of how much change I can effect as a planner.
Lastly, Every Marathon Is a Journey Into the Unknown
Failure is possible and, when it occurs, it is public. Advancing an innovative planning approach is similarly a journey into the unknown.
Marathons aren’t for everybody, but my point is that there is a fruitful interaction between one’s personal development and growth as a planning professional. Be on the lookout for personal experiences that can help you be a more effective, more resilient planning professional.
Top image: Getty Images photo.
About the Author
Richard Willson, FAICP
Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy. His book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career, amplifies the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (Island Press, 2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.