How We Work: Asking the Right Questions—And Then Doggedly Pursuing the Answers

September 29, 2017

Don Bennett, a friend whose work and play has included making music and architectural models for a very long time, once suggested that we make the mistake of thinking that work and play are two different things.

“Man,” he suggested with an impish gleam in his eyes, “is never happier than when he is picking berries.”

Don Bennett

And although I don’t combine the work and play of picking berries nearly as often as I should, I was thinking of Don again this week when a colleague interested in expanding his writing and training efforts asked a series of questions about what leads some of us to the successes we have. The implicit short form of my answer was to share Don’s advice to make work and play as seamless as possible. The longer version took the two of us down a path of thinking about simple, yet essential, moments and actions that move us closer, ever closer, to the world of our dreams.

When I think about what has given me the moderate successes I’ve had using my writing and teaching-training-learning skills, I think about the unwavering long-term commitments I’ve made to and the decades of effort I’ve put into developing those skills—something Malcolm Gladwell captured so well in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Writing, for me, is something requiring a very serious, meticulous, dogged approach—yet it also involves a great deal of playfulness.

I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. I wrote daily news stories for the campus newspaper at UCLA, which was tremendously valuable experience in terms of learning how to write quickly, effectively, and engagingly (not that I always do that). Writing seems to be one of those passions embedded in my DNA: it gives me pleasure, drives me to continue working, and connects into virtually every other endeavor I pursue.

The same is true for me in my teaching-training-learning endeavors, the instructional-design work I do, the work I do as a social media strategist, and the consulting work that is fully integrated into nearly every moment of my days of work and play.

I also, as I told the colleague who was asking questions, benefit tremendously from ongoing, first-rate mentoring from very supportive colleagues. Without the support of those fabulous, generous, altruistic mentors—some who are peers, some who are much younger than I am, and some who have many more years of experience than I’ve managed to acquire—I wouldn’t have the breadth and scope of knowledge that I attempt to bring to work and play. With all of this goes a lifelong commitment to learning, accompanied by a rich, ever-expanding community of friends and colleagues who are there to support and encourage me on a daily basis.

This carries us quite a way down the road of responding to my colleague’s questions, and leads to the all-important question of how to identify topics that would be well-received by my (ever-changing) target audience. My own approach involves lots of reading (my friend/colleague/mentor Jill Hurst-Wahl consistently teases me about my inability to carry on a conversation without dropping titles of the numerous books I seem to always be devouring; I can hear her saying “See? See? What did I tell you?” as she gleefully points to my mention of Outliers earlier in this piece). Lots of listening. And, most importantly, close attention to the reactions my work produces (positive as well as negative). A simple process I follow involves identifying ideas that seem worth spreading (very TED of me, right? my influences are showing again), then researching them, discussing them face to face and online with colleagues, and writing about them. If an idea proves productive, I continue working on—and with—it; if it doesn’t, I put it on a back burner to see if something might come of it later in a different context or with a different approach.

A commitment to continue learning is obviously a key element of the approach I take. Every informal and formal learning experience has proved useful to me at some level. Earning a B.A. in Political Science nourished my passionate interest in politics, social movements, community, collaboration, history, and positive social change. My M.A. in Arts Administration (a degree for nonprofit arts organization administrators) gave me transferable business skills that continue to serve me to this day. My MLIS (Master of Library & Information Science) degree more closely connected me to what was and is happening in Library Land—one of the primary countries in which I travel. And the numerous workshops, webinars, online courses (including connectivist MOOCs), and conferences I attend reinvigorate me while also reminding me what it feels like (in the best and worst of learning situations) to be in the learner’s seat; this helps keep me from subjecting others to what has troubled me about how we approach training-teaching-learning-doing.

A final, essential element that seems to produce wonderful results is to be flexible, responsive, and attentive—to listen and then react. Many years ago, when I was looking for opportunities to write more book reviews than I was producing at that time, I unexpectedly met the editor of a monthly book review publication. We were at a conference and were chatting about the possibility of my submitting reviews to him. Without thinking, I blurted out the question, “What unfilled niche can I fill for you?” That led to a number of very interesting book review opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise sought, and taught me the importance of asking that question of any potential or current client. Very simple. Very effective. Very playful. And it produces enough work to leave me with time to go pick some berries if that’s where heart leads me.

N.B.—Thanks, Jeff Marson. for inspiring this piece through your wonderful questions.

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Connected Educator Month and #xplrpln: When Personal Learning Networks Collide

October 25, 2013

None of us expects what is about to happen.

A small group of us are just beginning our latest hour-long online exploration of personal learning networks (PLNs), with Twitter as our means of communication. For those on the west coast of the United States, it’s the Thursday morning version of the Wednesday night session scheduled during this third of five weeks in the Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) course that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are currently facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program. A few of us know each other from the time we spent online together earlier this year in #etmooc, the Educational Technology & Media massive open online course (MOOC) developed by Alec Couros and colleagues. A few more of us have become part of each other’s personal learning networks through our collaborations in this new personal learning network MOOC.

xplrpln_logoAnd then there’s the unexpected visitor: Coline Son Lee, one of my colleagues from the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD). She is a cherished part of my personal learning network but not—yet—part of the PLNs of colleagues in my #xplrpln community of learning. I first become aware of her presence in the chat when she retweets one of my comments. I respond with a tweet to everyone else in the session so they will know who she is and how she found us: “Another sign of personal learning networks in action: @pmtrainer, an ASTD colleague just joined us, meaning my PLN is in action.” Jeff, our session facilitator, seizes the learning moment with his response: “Cool! Welcome! One of the benefits of discussing ‘in the open.’”

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoColine, having stumbled (virtually) into the chat by seeing my comments in her own Twitter feed, steps up to the plate by asking what topic we’re pursuing. Jeff further draws her in—I’m no longer her sole conduit to the chat and to the group—and he provides an in-the-moment example of a connected educator in action by offering a response that includes a link to the page with information about our Week 3 goals and objectives, readings, and activities. At which point we have seen another example of exactly what we are studying: in less than 15 minutes, a piece of my personal learning network has collided with those of other course participants, and the two begin to seamlessly merge to the benefit of everyone involved. And even though Coline is not able to continue on with the discussion for the entire session—she inadvertently omits the tweet chat hashtag that would make her comments visible to the rest of us—the introductions have been made; the players have the seeds for new growth in our personal learning networks; and we all have a visceral understanding of how PLNs work by evolving naturally, serendipitously as well as through our intentional actions, as all of us engage in our roles as connected educators, connected learners, and participants in Connected Educator Month activities and celebrations.

We also see and note that even though this session is primarily relying on synchronous exchanges, there are also asynchronous participants in the sense that we are drawing upon and building upon comments made by colleagues who attended the Wednesday evening session: we have access to the transcript of that earlier session, a few of us paraphrase or include quotes from the earlier session, and there’s even a brief drop in during this Thursday morning session from one of our Wednesday evening colleagues. After the session ends, we’ll continue the discussion via exchanges in our Google+ community, various tweets back and forth, and blog postings that attract responses from other members of our connected leaning community—all helping to reinforce the idea that the more we explore and the more we learn, the more we find to learn and explore.

Gladwell--David_and_GoliathMy PLN and learning experience suddenly begin moving back in time as well as forward. I recall a moment that occurs two days earlier: the moment in which author Malcolm Gladwell suggests during an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show this week that Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, is the sort of book that raises more questions than it answers—and that’s OK, he adds. I think about the inevitable moments in the days and weeks to come when members of my personal learning networks continue to share resources on the question-raising questions with which we joyfully grappling. And I realize that Exploring Personal Learning Networks is very much the MOOC version of Gladwell’s latest book: we arrive with some basic assumptions; explore those assumptions while listening to other people’s assumptions; find that every potential answer takes us wonderfully deeper into the topic and, as a result raises additional questions; and we all leave with a greater appreciation for the nuances of what we are exploring, having learned experientially how wonderfully complex this and the rest of the world can be if we are not insistent on approaching learning as something to be initiated, completed, checked off a to-do list, then shelved or recalled fondly each time we look at a diploma or certificate of completion as if learning is ever finished.

And doesn’t all of that just leave us with the most inspiring questions, PLNs, communities of learning, and learning experiences of all?

N.B.: This is the sixth in a series of posts inspired by Connected Educator Month and participation in #xplrlrn (the Exploring Personal Learning Networks massive open online course).


Jonah Lehrer: Creatively Imagining Solutions

June 19, 2012

Imagine a book with an approach so creative and so playfully appealing that we run out and buy it, devour it, look for interviews with the author, and then dive into the promotional video as well as other videos because we discover depths in the work that we suspect we’ll never grow tired of exploring. Then realize you don’t have to imagine it, because Jonah Lehrer has written it.

Reading Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works pulls us onto familiar turf—the study of creativity, how the brain works, how we resolve the numerous challenges life tosses our way, and how we as trainer-teacher-learners can more effectively fulfill our potential. It also takes us down some intriguing paths by creatively using storytelling to help us understand how much effort is required to produce what so often appears to be an unearned flash of brilliant insight.

As Malcolm Gladwell so effectively does in Outliers: The Story of Success, Lehrer continually shows us that it’s practice that often can be found at the base of those divine moments of creativity we so admire.

“Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly,” he writes near the beginning of his book. “It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code. At any given moment, the brain is automatically forming new associations, continually connecting an everyday x to an unexpected y.

Drawing from research into the way the brain works, he helps us understand what we can do to nurture our own creative impulses.

“When our minds are at ease…we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere”—a practice we can foster in our students through the learning opportunities we provide. “In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve….It’s not until we’re being massaged by warm water, unable to check our e-mail, that we’re finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been there all along—we just weren’t listening” (pp. 31-32).

There’s plenty here for those steeped in adult learning theory as proposed by Malcolm Knowles in The Adult Learner and Robert Gagné in The Conditions of Learning.  In the same way that Knowles and Gagné encouraged us to recognize that learners progress by building upon what they already know, Lehrer looks into the way our brain functions and he reports that a newly created thought is “transmitted back to its source—those pleasure-hungry dopamine cells in the midbrain—so the neurons learn from the new idea. ‘We call that a recursive loop,’ [Earl] Miller says. ‘It allows the system to feed on itself, so that one idea leads naturally to the next. We can then build on these connections, so that they lead to other, richer connections’” (pp. 67-68).

Those steeped in the theory and reality of the way we approach change—ranging  from Everett Rogers and his seminal work Diffusion of Innovations to Dan Ariely and his Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions—will be equally intrigued by the insights Lehrer provides through his summaries of brain-based research. Taking something as simple as the transformations we undergo as a result of traveling to new places, he observes that “[w]hen we get home, home is still the same. But something in our minds has been changed, and that changes everything” (p. 130)—an observation that presciently captures what happens to us in the course of traveling with Lehrer through Imagine.

By the time we finish reading the book, we recognize that something in our minds has changed. Reading and trying to solve the brain teasers he provides early in the text makes us more aware of how we approach problem-solving. Reading about how Yo-Yo Ma, Bob Dylan, Milton Glaser, and many others diligently approach their craft helps change the way we approach our own. And reading how creative teams that aren’t completely inbred and, at the same time, are not completely composed of individuals who have never worked together before makes us more aware of the successful learning teams we have been lucky enough to join.

Yet even as he works to show us the magic behind what so often appears to be creative legerdemain, Lehrer is smart enough to know that even though we are making great strides in understanding the science behind our creative processes, there is still something innately human about retaining a sense of awe when we explore this subject: “Creativity is like that magic trick. For the first time, we can see the source of imagination, that massive network of electrical cells that lets us constantly form new connections between old ideas….There will always be something slightly miraculous about the imagination.” (p. 251).

N.B.: For a look at how Lehrer’s book can guide us in developing effective communities of practice, please see “Imagine, Creativity, and Communities of Practice” in ASTD’s Learning Circuits online publication. And for information about the publisher’s withdrawal of Imagine, please see this updated posting.


Art & Fear and Training & Learning

January 2, 2011

Those of us who more and more see each passing year as part of an overall continuum rather than discrete blocks of time to be catalogued, stored, and forgotten are taking comfort in a new year ritual: revisiting favorite books—and authors—for reminders of what most matters to us. For me, a wonderful new year starting point is Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by photographers David Bayles and Ted Orland.

Years before Malcolm Gladwell built a wonderfully compelling case for the critical importance of practice and opportunity in Outliers: The Story of Success, Bayles and Orland spent seven years producing their thin, lean, and absolutely inspiring work on how we can develop our own creative artistry through faith and perseverance.

“You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours” (p. 26), they write, and in the process do us all a favor by reminding us that creativity and learning flourish through what we absorb from failure as much as through success.

We’re working with the basics here, as we can see from chapter headings including  “Fears About Yourself,” “Fears About Others,” and “Finding Your Work.” The writers address the perils of trying to create work that pleases others rather than work that begins by pleasing ourselves—a theme of interest to anyone involved in creative endeavors, including any trainer-teacher-learner. They remind us that if we teach, we also need to set aside time for pursuing our craft—another comment that applies equally to those of us who are prone to not carving out the time to continue pursuing the learning opportunities that we need in order to maintain our effectiveness in workplace learning and performance.

Bayles and Orland conclude by suggesting that making art “is to sing with the human voice” and that if we are to persevere, we would do well to begin by developing our own unique voices and using those voices to explore our darkest chasms to produce the “revealing light” of our own minds” (p. 117). As we move into another year—or simply recognize that we are continuing to build off all we’ve done before—we could do much worse than to spend some time (again) with these two artist-writers. And work toward overcoming the fears that hold us back so we can better serve our learners and our muse.


Small Groups, Big Results: Malcolm Gladwell, Tipping Points, and Learning

February 3, 2010

In a world in which people face far more information than they can possibly absorb, the spread of innovation depends on simple, memorable, and trusted means of information, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Tipping Point a decade ago.

The fact that the book remains frequently discussed and extremely popular among users of libraries—there were 194 reserves on the 37 copies of the book owned by the Seattle Public Library, 84 reserves on the 27 copies of the book owned by the San Francisco Public Library, and several other libraries reporting all copies checked out yesterday—tells us that trainer-teacher-learners need to be paying attention as we attempt to support change within the organizations we support—which is, after all the point of training-teaching-learning.

What is tremendously encouraging from Gladwell is the confirmation that change doesn’t necessarily require large numbers of people in its initial stages. Nor does change and innovation require huge groups of people to be efficacious. The power of smaller rather than larger groups in the change process receives ample attention in his chapter “The Power of Context (Part Two).” Citing the work of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, Gladwell shows how groups ranging from baboons to hunter-gather tribes to religious groups including the Hutterites (pp. 177-181) work most effectively in smaller rather than larger conglomerations, with groups comprised of approximately 150 members being about the largest effective unit: “The Rule of 150 suggests that the size of a group is another one of those subtle contextual factors that can make a big difference” (p. 182). One repercussion of this proposal is explicitly addressed in an afterward to the 2002 edition of the book.

“We are about to enter the age of word of mouth,” Gladwell wrote shortly before Web 2.0 tools boosted the pervasiveness of word of mouth diffusion of ideas through the use of Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon.com book recommendations, and many other resources key players—what Gladwell calls “connectors,” “mavens,” and “salesmen”—use to expand their reach beyond the social and professional groups in which they are most intimately and personally involved.

LinkedIn itself demonstrates how easy it has become to build these ever-expanding groups of connections. As Gladwell notes, “Connectors…are people whom all of us can reach in only a few steps because, for one reason or another, they manage to occupy many different worlds and subcultures and niches” (p. 48). As LinkedIn makes the process easier, previously separated connectors become connected; ideas which would otherwise have been known to small numbers of people leap from person to person and social network to social network in a viral way.

The conclusion of Gladwell’s work returns readers to its beginning: “When people are overwhelmed with information and develop immunity to traditional forms of communication, they turn instead for advice and information to the people in their lives whom they respect, admire, and trust…Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen” (p. 275). And there’s every reason in the world for trainer-teacher-learners to recognize their role in that process—and use it to the advantage of those with whom they interact.


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