Today is March 16 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you tilt at windmills?" The phrase derives from an episode in the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes wherein protagonist Don Quixote fights windmills that he imagines are giants. Tilting at windmills is an English idiom which means attacking imaginary enemies. The word "tilt", in this context, comes from jousting. The phrase is sometimes used to describe confrontations where adversaries are incorrectly perceived, or courses of action that are based on misinterpreted or misapplied heroic, romantic, or idealistic justifications. As Cervantes wrote:
“Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, ‘Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.’ ‘What giants?’ asked Sancho Panza ‘Those you see over there, replied his master, ‘with their long arms. Some of them have arms well-nigh two leagues in length.’ ‘Take care, sir,’ cried Sancho. ‘Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.’”
Mark Twain noted “I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” As you navigate the chaos remember to work at differentiating between real and perceived concerns. There is no need to torture yourself. The more time you spend attacking perceived enemies the less time you have for those tasks that require your attention.
It takes a disciplined mind, a dedicated spirit, and an untiring heart to navigate the chaos and to overcome the real difficulties. As former telephone industrialist Theodore N. Vail observed: “Real difficulties can be overcome. It is only the imaginary ones that are unconquerable." Vail was one of AT&T's most far-sighted presidents. Vail’s presidential essays in AT&T annual reports are like nothing else in American business literature, before or since.
They are personal, revealing, discursive, and sometimes pontifical. As Vail wrote "If we don’t tell the truth about ourselves, someone else will.” This level of self-awareness helped shape Vail’s business decisions as he oversaw the building of the first American coast to coast telephone system and it was his dedication to basic science that initiated AT&T’s research arm Bell Labs.
How often do you tilt at windmills? How often does a fight with an imaginary enemy distract you from moving forward?