What is up with our fixation on finding a silver lining? Every dark place must have one, an up-lifting promise that everything will be okay, that things are not so bad as they seem. We are a people who must make lemonade out of lemons, damn it.
Why am I thinking about dark places and silver linings? Last week I spent a couple of days with colleagues at another university looking at evaluation data for a project I manage. I care deeply about this project, I’ve invested almost a decade of my professional life in it, and I desperately want it to improve health. To work. Unfortunately the data were looking a bit grim. Some things worked, some things didn’t, and some things were just plain confusing. There was no obviously cheery story line.
There were a few sparkling indicators, though, and a way of looking at one of them (if you just defined the denominator differently…) that were promising. Why not follow that story line?
(Let me digress. I read a fabulous book recently called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler, who happens to be living with and dying of cancer. She is a theologian, and studies Christian prosperity-gospel churches, which believe that God rewards faith with wealth and health. She was struck by how some churches don’t celebrate the darkest day of the liturgical year, Good Friday, the day Jesus was killed and his followers’ faith was crushed, but hurry on past the darkness to the silver-lining day, Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead. Bowler’s whole memoir is an unexpectedly light meditation on living in that dark place where there is no promise that everything will be okay.)
Back to data. So, there was no obviously cheery story line in the results of these studies – the intervention sites were doing no better than the control for the primary outcome – but there were spots that could be silver linings, if we chose to focus there. The interesting part of those two days, though, was not the time we spent trying to find positive messages and happy news, but the time we spent sitting in the murk of the data, trying to understand what it all meant. I struggled not to hurry through the unpleasant, dark bits in order to get to the happy ending. I didn’t like the data much, and I think I frowned a lot.
The bad data, the failed intervention, the interactions that went down hill – these things are vital at work. Of course we want to avert our eyes and rush on past because we have donors to please, objectives to meet, targets to hit. But acknowledging the existence of the bad stuff and wallowing around in it a little bit does not mean we will be forced to tell a story of failure to the donor or the boss (or ourselves). The story, the meaning-making, comes later. First comes acknowledgement of what is. And at some point in almost every project what is is disappointment.
What does this mean for my project and its data? Well, I’m not sure yet. The main indicator we are trying to change moved a bit for one demographic, but not for others. It could be that the intervention wasn’t intense enough, or that the intervention is no longer the right intervention, or that the environment is changing so quickly that the effect of our intervention is swamped by forces outside our control. If I let fear and ego rule, I will want my team to tell the story of the silver lining, the indicators that went the way we want them to go. But if we tell that story, what next? We’ll want to follow the silver lining, heading off like a child trying to find the imaginary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But if we spend time with the darker side, the unpleasant side, we just may figure out which of those hypothesis is correct. And if we do that? Bingo. Not a silver lining, but the whole pot of gold.