Learning Not Returning

One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.

~Martin Luther King Jr.

As we move toward re-gathering, I’m trying to frame it as a learning process rather than as a return.

I’m struck by the relevance of Annie Murphy Paul’s work on “thinking outside the brain” in helping us. She highlights that we learn in our bodies, in our environments and in our social circles, not just in our heads. So let’s get out of our heads for a moment and consider how each of these arenas might help us navigate this next stage.

        1. There will be times where we are physically awkward with people (you may have heard Priya Parker refer to setting an expectation of “micromoments of rejection”) as we figure out if we can hug them, shake hands, stand close etc. Name the awkwardness and use it as a moment to build rapport even if you’re not yet willing to build physical connection.
        2. I’ve sorely missed using a variety of venues to add creativity to meetings. But Annie Murphy Paul reminds us that familiar spaces hold learning power for us too, with their personality and touch points to our history and preferences. As more environments become available to us and work arrangements are renegotiated, let’s savour having choice. But don’t jump too quickly to embrace [generic] shared workspaces which, in an effort to accommodate everyone, fail to inspire anyone.
        3. We’re coming through a period characterized by profound social isolation and powerful social collaboration simultaneously. We know that creativity is a social process, not primarily an individual one. We learn and remember things better when we attend to them with other people. Annie Murphy Paul argues for the learning power of being in close proximity to others in real time. Yet we have learned over the past 16 months how to enhance that sense of proximity digitally. Will we discover that our nostalgia for in-person collaboration is overblown? I think framing this as a learning process is particularly useful here, as it will be tempting to return to our former ways rather than experimenting with hybrid forms of social learning that amplify the best of various forms of collaboration.

    Small steps. Course corrections. Space for diverse perspectives. Lots of patience and grace.

    As we learn to re-gather, I’m grateful that we can look to our bodies, our environments and our people to supplement what Annie Murphy Paul would call our “brainbound” understanding. Let’s pay attention to them.

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