Touchstones and Wayfinding

Photo by Марьян Блан | @marjanblan on Unsplash

There’s a scene in the movie “Terms of Endearment” when Patsy says to her best friend who is dying of cancer, “You’re my touchstone, Emma.” It’s an interesting moment because to the outward world, Patsy is the one who looks like she has it all and has it all together. Emma on the other hand is a bit of a mess. Three kids, husband she loves who’s having an affair, and a complicated relationship with her Mom, her life is not portrayed as enviable. It’s not immediately obvious why she might be something for Patsy to measure herself against.

This quote came to mind when I started thinking about this week’s newsletter. Where I started was with the idea that it was time to write about strategy. My next thought was that readers might disagree with that as most of you are still trying to cope with the emergencies and constant changes that are the hallmark of this semester. And yet, I still think I’m correct. Not that you should start a new strategic planning process, but more that you should pull out your strategic plan about now. Or if you don’t have a current one, pull up your mission and vision statements.

In turbulent times, it’s easy to lose our way, isn’t it? The idea of accomplishing something bigger than solving the immediate problem seems laughable. But this is one of the times that strategy, mission, vision, values, and purpose matter most. Unfortunately, it’s also true the action plans you have developed may no longer be useful to you. The plans and ideas you had for the coming year may no longer make sense. In which case you are now engaged in finding your way without some of the benchmarks and guidelines you have become accustomed to. Which may mean it’s time to look deeper at those documents. In the midst of all the challenges, as we are tossed by the many conflicting needs of students, family, and organizations, we need touchstones. We need something that helps us know what is important, that is unchanging in the midst of it all. If we can’t implement the idea we had planned for, what was it really for and what is another way to get there.

Merriam-Webster online lists these synonyms for touchstone:  barometer, benchmark, criterion, gold standard, grade, mark, measure, metric, standard, and yardstick. It describes touchstone as an example against which other things are measured. These examples give us something steady in the turbulence, something to remind us of what is important. As you find yourself making decisions without all of the information you’d like to have, going back to your mission and vision can help you find your footing. What decision can you make that stays true to your purpose and values? In some cases, you may be implementing policies you don’t agree with, does your institutional mission help you shape the implementation in ways that flow from that mission? When there really is no good answer to the problem before you, the touchstone of your strategic thinking might help chose between difficult options. Those statements, ideals and documents may also help you let go of plans that no longer work, of great ideas that can’t be funded right now, of projects that have to be postponed.

Many people are wondering, and writing about, the future of higher education and the future of the kinds of programs and services many of us have spent our careers developing, improving, and administering. In “Apollo 13” (a movie that has no connection to “Terms of Endearment” except they both start in Houston, Texas and have an astronaut in them), one NASA administrator says that Apollo 13 could be NASA’s worst disaster. Gene Krantz, mission director, contradicts him, saying, “I believe this will be our finest hour.”

Given the level of support college students, families, and colleagues need right now, I believe the touchstones over time are more important than ever. Remembering core purposes, living deeply held values, and holding on to ideals that are larger than day-to-day problems will help each of you find your way to creating a ‘finest hour’ for yourselves and the people around you.

Take care,


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