I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship. – Louisa May Alcott
There is a saying about learning which I think is used quite a lot by surgeons.
I think it goes something like “See one, do one, teach one.”
I think this approach works in lots of cases – where you’re learning what is effectively a craft skill.
A surgeon might not think of what they do in that way, but what they’re doing is training for specific eventualities – complex ones, carried out on a live person – but it has a lot to do with craft, with technique, nonetheless.
A surgeon who knows how to remove an appendix is not then qualified to carry out a knee replacement or brain surgery.
Then there are other situations which are less well defined – things that need to be improved in organisational and social situations, creative work where what is good and what is bad depends on who perceives it and how.
In these cases learning is different – and I was wondering how you might approach your own learning if you do that kind of work.
For example, let’s say you’re a management consultant and help companies improve aspects of their business.
One approach you might take is the one that is in every business textbook.
You start by having the company define its mission and vision and goals, and then you create a strategy, which is followed by detailed plans, which then requires a forecast of resources and time which you take to decision makers, and then a projects gets approved and then you do it as planned and it’s successful and comes in on time and on budget and everyone is happy.
You were probably with me until the point where it goes as planned and is successful.
If you’ve done many real world projects, that’s the point at which your memory of what happens next doesn’t quite match the rhetoric that came before.
You will see variants of this approach with almost every consultant you come across.
There seems to be a need by service providers to codify – to create a method that can be repeated and scaled – that you can put a name to and own.
But I think there is a problem.
Method works well when your task is to take out an appendix.
It works less well when you want to create art or improve the way a business works.
And I wondered how the learning approach I started this post with might cope with bubbles.
If you have kids you must have, at some point, had to get them to blow soap bubbles.
You probably showed them how to hold the wire loop and dip it into the soap solution and blow.
Your bubbles came out perfect and soared with the wind – and you were pleased.
You showed them how to do it.
Then, you let them try and they had a go.
Maybe they struggled and maybe they got it – and they made the bubbles fly.
Now, the thing is that no two bubbles are going to be the same.
This is not something where you come out with the same product – with bubbles that meet a specification for size, quality, reflectivity, translucence.
It’s all about process – about the experience of doing it.
For example, as I stood in the kitchen today making dinner, bubbles started to fill the room.
A small person had decided this was the right time to try out the process.
And I think with the type of uncertain, complex situations I’m talking about process is something that gets recreated and developed by each person that acts in the situation.
You might learn a method from a teacher or from a book – but then as you practice it and learn from the results you start to make the method your own.
There is a limited amount of discretion a surgeon has when working on your appendix.
It would probably not be a good idea to start the incision near your ear – however novel that might be.
With a complex problem, on the other hand, the entry point that was used the last time doesn’t have to be the same one you use this time.
It depends on what you’ve learned and the kind of situation you’re in now and how you apply that learning and how you then learn some more.
I think that if you’re doing creative work or improvement work then you should forget the idea that you’re a master of anything.
Being a master implies that you know all there is to know.
And you have nothing more to learn – you now only teach.
But what you teach is from another time, another place – and the world has a unsettling habit of moving on.
And the only way to keep up is to get good at learning when that happens.