We hear a lot about vision today. Where do visions come from? Is a vision something you can conjure up in an afternoon, or is it something nurtured in the quiet recesses of heart and mind that gets released by the forces of time and opportunity?
I spend a lot of time helping people clarify a vision for themselves, their businesses and/or communities. It is a process that requires openness, lots of listening, reflection and the asking of questions. A vision is built upon values acquired over a life time of experience. It is a product of the successes we achieve and the failures that force us to become better people. A vision captures a picture of impact, of change, and/or of growth.
At a very young age, Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, began to develop a vision for the territory that lay west of his home of Monticello in Virginia. At that time, there was no US, only a continent being explored and settled by Spain, France, Britain and Russia. Over a period of time, Jefferson came to have the most extensive library of literature on the western side of the continent and be the most knowledgeable person in the country about what lay beyond the Allegheny mountains and Mississippi River. He had a vision of the expansion of the United States in that unknown region. And on several occasions he sought the help of others to explore the territory to determine if there was a suitable water route from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific.
For a variety of reasons, the timing and arrangements for one of these expeditions did not mature until he was elected President in 1900. With full authority and resources of the young republic behind him, he organized with his life-long neighbor, secretary and young protégé, Meriwether Lewis, to take an expedition party west to discover a land newly acquired from the French.
Jefferson’s vision was clear and explicit. It was expansive, ambitious and carefully organized. Our best description of this vision is captured in his letters. In particular, the confidential letter to Congress of January 18, 1803, and his instructions to Meriwether Lewis outlined in a letter dated June 20, 1803. These are important documents for showing Jefferson's thinking on the eve of this great adventure.
My experience with visioning projects shows me that Jefferson understood what a vision is intended to achieve.
A vision isn't a dream. It is a plan for action that is intended to make a difference. Jefferson had a vision for the future of the American continent. It was practical and realistic, even as it was visionary in its scope. Read these letters and you see both the clarity of his thinking, but also the grand reach of his aspirations.
A vision is to be shared. Jefferson is an excellent example of how most of us should be visionaries. Jefferson had a vision that he would never be able to achieve by himself. In fact, he never traveled further west than Montecello. Yet, Stephen Ambrose has said that Jefferson knew more about the west than any living person. It informed his vision that he shared with others, from Congress to Meriwether Lewis to his family.
A vision must be lived. Jefferson loved the rural country of his native Virginia. He imagined that the whole continent would be similar. So did most of the finest geographical minds of the day. Jefferson lived his vision through the Corps of Discovery, but he lived it none the less. They embodied the love of the west that became an American vision that continues to this day. Throughout his Jefferson looked to the west as the future of the American nation. Little did he know then that his vision would find fulfillment and exceed even his most grandious thought about the future.
A vision is a plan to be shared and lived to be fulfilled. True for Thomas Jefferson, true for Meriwether Lewis, and true for us today as well.