What Must I Learn?

“Through learning, we re-create ourselves.”1 For as long as I can remember, I have subscribed to what is now the commonly accepted concept of life-long learning. I love to learn and I’m learning to learn in new ways. For me, having a mental map for my learning journey is important. In so doing, I become more intentional about what I seek to learn. Reading, writing, presenting, and group discussions have long been my preferred ways to learning.

The current “phase” of my learning is comprised of four related elements.

    1. Physical wellness – while I’m descended from a long line of rail thin family, the full presence of health is only partially connected to the absence of extra body weight. Endurance and physical strength naturally lessen as one ages, so it becomes something for which I must make more time and effort. Married to an avid distance runner, I’m routinely shown a deep appreciation for the physical and mental benefits of getting my heart rate up with my running shoes on. Mirroring the national dialogue on health insurance and affordability, I find myself taking more responsibility for my own wellness and avoiding behaviors that cause illness. We all have these inner conversations, but once the light switch goes on, commitment deepens and the rationalizing and procrastinating stops. Time to get moving!
    2. Systems thinking – Another learning from transitioning into my 2nd half century of life is that purely technical prowess is not enough if I truly want to understand how to have a greater impact on the world I care about. Many years ago I was introduced to the language of systems thinking but it seemed a distant and obtuse idea until beginning to work more closely with my brother, Ken Hubbell, in 2006. Ken’s continuing search for a better understanding of systems has sparked my further study and practice. I have come to accept and appreciate the interconnectedness of all things. Therefore, any of my previous attempts to produce good were unintentionally narrow and limited and, worst yet, possibly creating other problems as a result.In his book by the same name, Peter Senge defines the fifth discipline—systems thinking—as…a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots.” It is a set of general principles — distilled over the course of the twentieth century, spanning fields as diverse as the physical and social sciences, engineering, and management….During the last thirty years, these tools have been applied to understand a wide range of corporate, urban, regional, economic, political, ecological, and even psychological systems. And systems thinking is a sensibility — for the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character.”2

      Other great systems thinkers, Margaret Wheatley and Donnella Meadows, share equally helpful learnings about systems. Wheatley reminds us that systems are unknowable by themselves; they are irreducible.3 Meadows adds,

      “Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them. We can’t impose our will upon a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone. We can’t control systems or figure them out, but we can dance with them.”4
       
    3. Bigger questions – the key to intervening on any situation or system is to know the questions to ask that will produce the most leverage. Bigger questions will be tougher to answer, no doubt, yet they are the ones that more likely get to greater understanding of causality. In many organizational situations where I work, I see many passionate, well-intentioned professionals working feverishly to figure out what to do and how to do it. Too often missing from their perspective is a bone deep understanding of why something is being done. They work tirelessly in a myopic way, often only focused on their stated priorities and targets. This is like pushing rope uphill if their work is not imbued with an awareness and appreciation of the balancing reactions their efforts trigger in their environment (whether elsewhere in their own department, in another unit of the organization, or externally in their constituency). Systems thinking familiarity will help me be better able to advise these clients on how to navigate these situations.
    4. Spiritual journey – While I will continue to have—and feed—a strong desire for acquiring new knowledge, I recognize a growing desire to develop deeper wisdom, which I equate to being on a spiritual journey. For me, this is a journey of discovery and practice. I am nearing a place where I will be able to articulate my true purpose. Kevin Cashman reminds us that “purpose is spirit seeking expression; awareness of it allows us to see our lives more clearly from the inside-out.”5

1Peter M. Senge (1990, 2006). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Currency-Doubleday, p. 13.
2Ibid, pp. 68-69.
3Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers (1999). A Simpler Way, Berrett-Koehler Publishers: San Francisco, p. 72.
4Donnella Meadows (2001). Dancing With Systems. The Systems Thinker, Pegasus Communications, Vol. 13, No. 2, March 2002, p. 2.
5Kevin Cashman (2008). Leadership From the Inside Out. Berrett-Koehler Publishers: San Francisco, p. 75.

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