Learning is inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be insular

It was like our little secret, but I wished it didn’t have to be.

I sat with a colleague just a few weeks prior talking about the learning experiences we both had over the summer. I spent it researching and writing a book about “Gathering”, and he rode his bike across the United States.

“So, what did you learn?”, I asked him on a walk in search of a cool drink on a sweltering New York City day. He talked about his growth, and who he was becoming because of his adventure. He asked me the same. I talked about a deeper sense of purpose, a revived confidence, and a clarity of my future.

We both concluded, each of our experiences were just tools for a similar outcome. It wasn’t the bike ride or the number of miles or pages written that was most significant, it was what it led us each towards. “Do you think anyone will understand that?”, we wondered. We surmised that when we returned to our normal life, this would be hard to explain.

Though well-intentioned, I was met back at work with a repeated question, “so… did you finish the book?”.

In many moments of defensiveness I answered with “no, but that wasn’t the goal!”. I went on to share the number of pages or chapters I’d written, literary agents I had sent it to, or hours logged. It was as if I felt the need to prove that I did ‘something’ worthwhile.

The truth was, I really wanted to talk about my summer – I could talk for hours about it. But, in that moment, I wanted to be asked different types of questions.

Transitions, whether it be at the end of a learning experience, a promotion, or a change of any kind are when we are all at our most vulnerable. It’s when learning can be cemented or siphoned.

So when we, or our colleagues, or friends have a new experience, especially one that takes them out of their comfort zone, we can support them by carefully choosing the questions we ask. We can also educate others about what we want to share or be asked.

Learning is personal, but it doesn’t have to be private.

It’s ultimately a choice. We can choose to keep learning private, singular, and isolated to one moment or one event. In this check-the-box mentality, learning is either something you did or didn’t.

Or, we can view learning as a process instead of a task.

The act of consistently learning, in that messy and undefined and wonderful way that isn’t always tied to clear-cut results is one that doesn’t often get talked about.

To help others, we can start by adjusting our questions.

Learning that sticks with us is personal, and therefore emotional. One way to invite this is by asking questions and framing experiences as ones that connect to our identity – who we are now and who we want to be in the future – and not just an isolated experience. These questions, like “how do you see yourself after this?”, “what do you now see as possible?”, aren’t limiting, they are limitless.

Does learning in your organization feel like you’re putting on more armor, or shedding layers to reveal who you are and who you want to be?

While we can’t assume every learning experience will provide such clarity or layer shedding, these different questions pull at our intrinsic motivation and can connect the dots between what we do and the deeper meaning behind it. This is deep transformational learning at its best. Multiply this by each person in your organization and we can only imagine what it unlocks.

Learning is inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be insular.

Destroy the Distance

No matter our upbringing, beliefs, culture, or daily routines, we’re never completely alone. Throughout the course of our days, years, and lifetime, we all find ourselves in various forms of gathering.

We gather at our workplaces to achieve a common mission. We gather into classrooms, lecture halls, and institutions to be inspired, enlightened, and provoked. We gather in a theater to share a piece of art with people we might not know. And, if we’re lucky, we gather together a set of individuals to achieve something spectacular.

Whether we gather in an office, a classroom, or a theater, we look to others to lead us somewhere, from point A to point B.

This experience brings with it all sorts of familiar dynamics and expectations between an audience, and those on a proverbial stage.

After all, a leader needs a follower. An educator needs a student. A comedian needs an audience.

Though both roles need each other to be successful, we tend to assume one has higher status than the other. With this assumption comes certain choices about how we lead a gathering. For example, we often over index on our expertise, or our content.

This becomes the speech that doesn’t land. The lesson that doesn’t stick. The song that doesn’t connect. Messages without meaning make the audience seem even further away.

When we gather others, we can instead make deliberate choices that destroy the distance between the gatherer and the audience.

We can do this by focusing not just on the material, but on how we deliver it. It starts by changing our assumption about who our audience is and what they are gathered for.

When we consider that our audience, whether it’s our followers, students, etc, is of higher status than us, we work to more directly connect our work with their intentions instead of ours.

Though we need an audience, it is too easy to view them as replaceable or invisible. The best gatherings know that not only is the audience of high importance, they are the hero.

If our gatherings are meant to move people from A to B, they require more consideration than slides, a syllabus, or a set list.

We choose to gather in-person rather than another medium to see and feel the impact of our message. If this is true, our focus need to take the needs of our audience into account. We can make them feel needed and nurtured, so that they won’t just gather once, they’ll come back.

Can People Change?

“Can people change?”

A great learning experience, like a memorable play or an important book asks a central question.

And this is the question I’ve been mulling over for the past 15 years. Though this notion of ‘change’ has always been a central theme in my work, it has bobbed and weaved through several different creative pursuits: from the behavior of television characters to the behavior of organizations.

What propels someone or something to change either alone or with another? What magical forces of power, will, circumstance, emotion, or luck get us from A to B? (Hint: it’s not a gantt chart). Whether we write the experiences to propel change for others, or face it head on ourselves, change is constant but never comfortable.

Having just led a major change initiative in my organization I was reminded of what it takes to hurl yourself into the middle of a ‘change’ tornado and the high-stakes risks you face when you take the lead. When you’re no longer just the writer behind the scenes, but the writer, producer, director, actor, and editor too… how can we ensure a fairytale ending?

We all want to belong

Groups are powerful players in the change game, often much stronger forces than individuals alone. At the end of the day, we crave belonging. A sense of belonging and of not being alone is often overlooked in why we do or don’t change. Yes you can pull on someone’s heart-strings, but a pull towards being a part of the in-group is often an even more powerful motivator. Relatedness is your friend, not your foe.

Make it universal

There’s a reason why we remember fables and the morals of our favorite films – they are relatable, digestible, and universal. How can we lower the risk of change or translate jargon into something meaningful? Use a metaphor, analogy, or a story. Like attracts like, and our brains attach to what we already know.

Be wary of the resistance

Who said change was easy? Change that truly transforms a company (or a person) demands that people give up something they care about (habits, ways of working or thinking, etc). Movies have villains (or the change resistors that will get in the way), but at work we have equilibrium to go up against. It’s natural for people to resist change – this reaction keeps us safe, whereas the new invites discomfort. Thwarting tactics may appear, but it’s only done out of aversion for the new, loss of the old, and a desire to maintain what’s familiar. As the saying goes, it’s (usually) not you…it’s them.

But just like the classic Hero’s Journey there will be someone who comes along at your low point to remind you why you’re doing what you’re doing (Thank you Adam Grant).

Use your voice

As a writer it was easy to hide behind a laptop and let my characters say the hard things. But when you’re leading change the risks don’t disappear – instead, you learn to say the hard thing and to be alright (over time) with others not wanting to hear it. The more visible we are, the more we open ourselves up for unwanted feedback or projections. If leadership is about taking risks, bolder choices come with the territory. So does criticism.

Being able to understand change for what it is, with all of its intricacies and dynamics allows us to be both observers and participants at the same time.

Change can be incredibly rewarding. Whether you’re the one going through it or helping facilitate behind-the-scenes, it is a process of asking people to move to a place they are often frightened to go. But, there is a more promising future on the other side and it is that hope that reminds me that yes, people can and do change with the right amount of support and challenge.

The Beauty of the Blank Page

Resistance to change shows up in many different ways. Many want to know the steps it’s going to take, the path we should expect, the guarantees of success.

It’s often when we’re the most nervous, impatient, or feel like we have the most to lose that we want to flip to the end of the book or the last few minutes of the movie, and skip the muddling middle to know with certainty, was everything “ok”, did things go as planned, did this work. Tell me now.

We’ll do the “tough thing” if we’re sure it will go alright, we’ll say how we feel if we know the person will respond well, we’ll… you get the point.

But we know, life is hardly this certain and stable, this linear, and this accepting of our desire to control.

If we look back at our most important experiences, and look to favorite stories or improv scenes, they are the ones highlighted by change.

The best improvisers, and often some of our best leaders look for opportunities to be changed every day and in every interaction. They find a few pillars to keep them stable (read: values, principles), but also find comfort in the certainty of knowing that change is constant. And, by being open to it themselves they allow space for others to enter the scene or the story, and for that change to trickle, to transform a person, a group, a company.

In times of transition or when something is new (read: uncertain), the default is often to hold on tighter. 

When we transition to a managerial role we have to learn to let go of much of the work of the past to make room for others to learn. The easier choice is to retreat back to the familiar for the quick fix and hit of certainty and safety.

We can also choose to let go of our status, or our desire for someone else to change instead. Because, deep down we know that other person has their own story to tell and uncover.

The truth is control narrows our focus and could keep us and those we lead from greater adventures, bigger stories, and profound and lasting change.

Because learning and change are synonymous, this letting go of old habits, frames, and ways of working are what deep, transformational learning looks and feels like. Change is rarely about taking on more – we can instead view it as letting go of what we no longer need.  

Letting yourself be changed doesn’t mean letting go of caring about what the change produces or who it affects. It just means not being afraid of the blank page and the story that has yet to be told.

On Choosing to “Go First”

I’ll go first.

As kids, we watch our parents for cues as to what’s safe, what’s off-limits, and what we should stay away from. They go first, so we don’t have to.

They’ll test the food to make sure it isn’t too warm. They’ll look for the monsters under the bed.

As we get older, those cues change or disappear, and the instinct or idea that something is safe, un-scary, or worthy of taking a risk on is not a sure bet…especially in our professional lives.

Leadership and risk

As we grow up and into Leaders, there is a moment when we discover that the very thing we crave…is what we need to create for others.

You say you want safety? Well, work to make things safe for someone else. Want a more joyful work environment? Lead from a place of joy.

We make a conscious decision to complain less about what we don’t see, and create more of what we want to see.

I’ll Go first.

We feel safe when we see others take the risk for us. This sacrifice goes beyond “acting the way you want to feel”. It’s taking responsibility…so that others can succeed. Instead of relying on someone else to go ahead or grant permission, take the stage.

This is not an easy transition. But it starts with a choice. You go first.

Learning with the Head and the Heart

In my previous life as a screenwriter, there was a note a writer would see quite often on their screenplays: “Make your character more like-able”.

Why like-able?

Well, a protagonist (the main character, often the hero) had to be at least a teeny bit likable (yet flawed) so that the audience would stay invested in the character’s journey. A like-able character means we’ll likely root for them and care about what happens.

An audience wants to be emotionally invested.

This is normal and natural, whether your audience is in the theater, a movie, or in the classroom. The audience want a reason to care beyond a rational, logical reason to. In the example of screenwriting, working to make our character a little more likable increases the chances that we as an audience will find something in ourselves that bonds us with this person on-screen. When we’re emotionally invested, we pay attention and don’t fast-forward or tune-out. Hopefully we’re changed by this character’s journey as well.

Turns out, this note extends beyond screenplays and creative projects. But in learning and development we’re focused on the learners journey, not the characters.

In my experience it’s common to see learning or change initiatives that stay at the rational-only level. We may assume participants will pay attention because they are there physically. Too often though, students, employees, and stakeholders often lack that emotional connection to the material. Sometimes it’s because they aren’t invited to, or this isn’t given nearly enough thought in the design process.

This often happens when we teach classes or put forth plans that teach the logical steps, but lack the mental or emotional thinking behind it. 

I’m not necessarily advocating to make our work more like-able. But, we can’t assume our students have a reason to pay attention, even if they signed up (or the equivalent of buying a ticket to a movie).

More than just paying attention we want our learning and change programs to stick, to spread, and for our students to be changed by the experience. That rarely happens on a rational/logical-only level.

They need a reason to care, a personal one that ideally comes from intrinsic motivation and a personal connection to the material.

Encourage them to use their experiences, share them, connect to the material and to each other. Then you’ve got a room full of editors, writers, directors, producers who are taking the material and making it their own because they believe in it.

The who, the what, the where, and the why…

Who, What, and Where.

Whether we are launching into a meeting, a training class, or an Improv scene, we are taught to verbalize or acknowledge the “who”, the  “what” and the “where” at the beginning.

Who are we, where are we, and what are we trying to accomplish forms a platform – so that we have something to fall back on when ambiguity arises (and it surely will).

For obvious and practical reasons, these basic details establish a baseline, and provide clarity and alignment.

In an Improv scene we are also taught to establish the “why”. We’re taught to figure out our characters motivation or objective and to let every action or lack thereof be in service of that motivation.

Think back to your last training or learning class at work – especially if it was a mandatory one.

Why were you there? What the was the larger objective and goal? Was the “why” even established?

Sometimes we get so focused on the basic, repetitive nature of the who/what/where that we forget the importance of the “why” in many aspects of organizational life.  We’re not looking for the “why” to be a pain or to whine, but to be curious and to tap into our own motivations.

What if we asked a different question:

What are we trying to accomplish versus why are we trying to accomplish this?

Kicking off a meeting or a class without a why, or neglecting to leave room for the learner to marinate on their own why can keep us on this basic cognitive-only level. Tapping into the “why” brings us closer to an emotional or personal learning experience that fuels relevancy, meaning, and perhaps a more intrinsic motivation.

How to surprise and delight learners with one simple tool

Imagine experiencing surprise and delight the moment you walk into a professional development workshop, a meeting, or a brainstorming session.

Imagine this surprise and delight didn’t come from something visual like bright colors, or exciting wall art but from something tactile and kinesthetic used to enhance adult learning.

Imagine it came from… silly putty?

I was turned on to a wonderful tool this past summer in a class taught by Dr. Julia Sloan and Dr. Debra France on Learning to Think Strategically, and I immediately implemented this tool in a learning experience I designed later that summer.

Upon arrival in our classroom, we found “table toys” (think brain noodles, slinkys, silly putty and the like) scattered around our tables.

By the end of the training I found myself practically addicted to having a toy to play with, push, meld, bend, or break during the 4 day learning experience.

While it may not be right for every type of learning or learner, here’s where we can put this tool to use:

  • creates and signals a relaxed, even fun, learning environment
  • helps adult learners focus – especially with complex or new content
  • improves retention
  • creates an element of surprise
  • creates an atmosphere or curiosity, fun, and even conversation
  • supports kinesthetic learners– those of us who like to fiddle and doodle
  • expands multi-sensor engagement

The point here is not to signal that learning is child’s play – far from it. Learning can be fun, can bring back that element of surprise and delight and can be individualized and personalized to cater to learners who crave (i.e. need) a tactile learning experience.

Thank you to Dr. Sloan for the idea, and for the research on the benefits of these tools.