Sunday, April 26, 2009

What is learning?

I just came back from the International Association of Facilitators conference in Vancouver (British Columbia) full of new ideas and renewed motivation. In a way, facilitation is about enabling learning in groups. Facilitators help groups achieve their objectives by guiding them through a process that allows them to learn from each other and get new insights about their organization in order to move forward in a new direction.

Learning requires an open mind which means that in order to learn you have to remind yourself that your view of the world, what you think you know, is not necessarily so. Learning requires humility. An admission to yourself that you need to create with others a new understanding.

I started reading Brida the new book by Paulo Coehlo (author of the book The Alchemist)and these words struck me

"Learning something means coming into contact with a world of which you know nothing. In order to learn, you must be humble." (p.42)

I think that there is a misconception out there about learning. Attending a training workshop or completing a university or college course does not necessarily equal learning. In that training or course you may have been exposed to new ways of looking at things. If you chose to have an open mind to what the teacher (and other students) would teach you then you registered that the new perceptions would enhance what you already knew about this topic and adopted it. When you integrate new notions in your repertory of knowledge then learning has begun. But the true test of learning is evidenced by a change of behavior. Real learning has taken place when you have changed your way of acting as a result of the new knowledge. New thoughts lead to new ways of behaving in the world.

If I had to summarize my purpose in life in two words it would be teaching and learning. To me learning is a priviledge. It is our purpose as human beings.

Someone once said that we are not human beings on a spiritual quest but spiritual beings having a human experience. I like that...

To learn more about Paulo Coehlo, a wonderful and philosophical author here is his website:

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The future belongs to "right-brain" people

I was thrilled to read in Daniel Pink's latest book A Whole New Mind that creative people like me, the right-brain people, will rule the future. Finally someone who recognizes that us "artsy" folks have something valuable to contribute the world!

Our parents advised us to get the right kind of education to get the right kind of jobs in law, accounting, informatics, etc. But times are changing and many of the left-brain type of jobs can now be automated or farmed out to developing countries for a lot less money. Left-brain reasoning is no longer enough to gain the advantage in this shift from the Information Age to what Pink calls a Conceptual Age.

Daniel Pink says that "right brain" qualities like inventiveness, empathy, and searching for meaning are critical to get ahead in this new age. He outlines six fundamental human abilities that are essential for professional success and fulfillment.

The right-brain directed aptitudes are as follows:

1. DESIGN: It is no longer enough for something to be functional. Things need to have an esthetics quality that tugs at your emotions.

2. STORY: People will remember the story long after the facts, the data or the theory. A story engages both your head and your heart.

3. SYMPHONY: The ability to see the big picture and put all the pieces of the puzzle together.

4. EMPATHY: The capacity to go beyond the logical thought and to truly connect with people by trying to understand how it would feel to walk a mile in their shoes.

5. PLAY: Play is a bridge to creativity. We need play to achieve balance both at work and at home.

6. MEANING: We live in a world of abundance. For a great many of us our material needs are met. This frees us up to consider more important things like our life purpose and our passions.

I just watched the movie Bedtimes Stories with my family this weekend and enjoyed it very much. It was a light and playful movie with an important message. The only thing that stands between you and the life that you would like to lead is your imagination and the courage to believe and to act on your dreams.

To learn more about Daniel Pink check out his website:

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Excellence: a lesson in mastery

Psychologist Anders Ericsson has devoted much of his academic life to understanding why some individuals are better at certain tasks than others. Are people born with the abilities to achieve excellence and elite status in their field? Is excellence encripted in our DNA?

His research has demonstrated that in fact, physical or mental prowess is not a genetic gift but rather a function of knowing how to enhance your skills through deliberate PRACTICE. For example Ericsson describes how figure skaters practice differently on the ice: Olympic hopefuls work on skills they have not yet mastered but club skaters tend to focus on skills they have already mastered.The master of any sport or game is generally the master of practice.

In his most recent book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell also explores the keys to success. "I'm interested in people who are outliers—in men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us" He cites as examples Bill Gates and Wayne Greztky. Part of the reason for outstanding success is what he calls the 10,000-Hour Rule. Research has shown that the path to excellence in any field has nothing to do with talent. It's simply practice, 10,000 hours of it — 20 hours a week for 10 years.

George Leonard offers a philosophical explanation for mastery in his book entitled Mastery - The Keys to Long Term Fulfillment, George Leonard offers a philosophical explanation for mastery. Leonard says "Perhaps the best you can hope for on the master's journey - whether your art be management or marriage, badminton or ballet - is to cultivate the mind and the heart of the beginning at every stage along the way. For the master, surrender means there are no experts. There are only learners." (p. 88)

Do you remember the scene in the movie Karate Kid where the master asks the young student to wash the car over and over in a prescribed way? "Wax on, wax off." The student is frustrated but he persists because he respects his master and is determined to excel in Karate. The Zen master would say that for a "would be" master satisfaction is gained in the discovery of an infinite richness in the subtle variations on a same theme. Practice requires an ability to take pleasure in the endless repetition of ordinary acts.

We all want to be special. It is tempting to call ourselves masters in our field especially in this day and age where we seem to have a fixation on "experts".

A friend of mine, Bob Chartier, tells this story about the poet John Keats who invites a young man to his house for tea. The man proudly declares to Keats that he is a poet. Keats cautions him on calling himself a poet. The young man may be someone who writes rhyming verses and expresses sentiments through words but that does not necessarily make him a poet. According to Keats, it takes someone else to read what you have written and declare that you are a poet before you can call yourself a poet. "Poet" is a gift word. "Poet" is a word that you bestow upon someone who represents the essence of what is a poet to you. I would suggest that "master" is also a gift word. You cannot call yourself a master until someone else has watched you working at your craft and declare you a master.

What is it that matters so much to you that you are willing to practice it over and over for the simple pleasure of learning? Practice may lead you to excellence and who knows, maybe someday someone will say that you are a master at your craft.

For more information on Malcolm Gladwell you can visit his website:

Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-term Fulfillment by George Leonard

Friday, April 10, 2009

This week I attended a workshop with Otto Scharmer, author of Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges. It was a life changing experience.

Otto explains that there are four levels of listening:

1. Downloading: We only pay attention to information that confirms what we already know. We listen selectively and register only what we already believe is true.

2. Open Mind: We suspend our judgment and we consider other points of view and perspectives. We believe that we can learn from others.

3. Open Heart: We listen from outside of ourselves, stepping in other people's shoes so to speak. We pay attention to both the factual information and the emotional context.

4. Open Will: This is the deepest level of listening. It is a listening that connects with the source and attends to an emergent future. It is only from this type of listening that we can truly innovate.

Someone in our group likened the "open will" type of listening to a gardening metaphor and that image really resonated with me.

In the spring, when the snow has melted, the gardener contemplates the patch of dark earth that is his garden in becoming. The earth is moist and soft but it is bare. The seeds and the bulbs are beneath the surface preparing to germinate. The gardener knows that in this fertile ground some green shoots will soon emerge the earth. He anticipates with pleasure the lush and colorful plants that will be in full bloom in just a few weeks.

Listening from the "open will" is like being a gardener and trusting the potential growth of his garden in the Spring.

What are some dreams, hopes, wishes that are still dormant within you? What old patterns to you need to let go of in order to let come a new reality?

Will you be a gardener of your own future potential?

Check out Otto Scharmer's website below for more information on Theory U:

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Humanity in the workplace

At a leadership training session last week I boldly declared to all forty participants that my mission in life was to bring humanity back into the workplace. Pretty lofty goal huh? What does it mean anyway?

To me it is crystal clear but, as I have made this declaration over and over in the last eight years or so, more often than not I have gotten blank stares or puzzled looks from my colleagues and friends. So let me explain...

I believe it is in the book Gung Ho written by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles that I came across the best description of what it means to me to have humanity in the workplace. In a humane organization "people do not leave their spirit at the door of their workplace".

Humanity in the workplace means that as an employee, I proudly bring my whole self to work: my strengths, my weaknesses, my passions and my dreams. There is no need for me to develop a split personality: a work persona and a "at home" persona.

How often have you bumped into a colleague out there, in the real world, doing something "unexpected" like volunteering for a charity or running a marathon or coaching their kid's hockey team. Would you have guessed that your quiet cubicle neighbor had those interests? Why is that?

There seems to be an unwritten rule that says that the only relevant contribution we can make in the workplace is directly related to the skills and knowledge we learned during our formal training. In our current workplace culture, a competent worker is someone who is doing exactly what is expected of them according to their job description… period. Like they say in my workplace, you may think you are indispensable but you would be surprised at how easily you can be replaced. I can accept that the functions I perform can be done by someone else. But what does it say about the human being who was responsible for those functions - what does it say about me and everything that makes me unique? Does it not count for something?

It is unfortunate that we are not tapping into the vast resources of our human workforce within our organization. What treasures we could have access to if we encouraged every employee to bring their spirit, their enthusiasm, their zest for life into the workplace!

As part of the leadership sessions that I lead we build in many relationship building activities like interactive icebreakers, speed networking, storytelling circles, coaching exercises, etc. I am always amazed at how much we find out about each other if we just take the time to ask and to remain curious. At every one of those training sessions people come up to me at breaks and confide that even though they have worked with such and such a person for years they never knew that he or she was... a watercolor artist, an avid butterfly collector, a classicaly trained pianist, a professional photographer, or a mountain climber who reached the top of Mount Everest (you fill in the blanks).

What could a pianist possibly contribute to the workplace you ask? Well my friend André Beaudoin, an accomplished pianist, produced a multi-media show on leadership that features splendid photographs he has taken during his mountain climbing days with thought provoking captions on leadership and a breath taking live rendition of classical piano pieces. As a scientist, André's job description does not allow him to showcase his artistic abilities. The strength of his passion and the gentle encouragement of some friends gave him the impetus to find his own unique way to put to use his many talents as a powerful medium to start a meaningful dialogue on leadership in his organization.

My challenge to you this week is to ask yourself if there are any parts of your identity that you are not allowing yourself to express in your workplace. And if so, how can you bring those many aspects of who you are into what you do at work?

Gung Ho!
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Pub. Date: October 1997
ISBN-13: 9780688154288

Ken Blanchard