Receive, Participate and Share
|The year is 1999. The place, Mumbai. I am a nerdy teenager eager to study physics and astronomy, to follow my curiosities, and unravel the mysteries of the universe. Young people tend to either be underconfident or full of themselves. I was both. I walk into my first class of bachelor-level physics. The teacher, a grumpy woman in her mid-40s (God bless her) announces to the class, “You are here because you didn’t get into engineering or medicine, so I expect you to behave yourselves.”
The fire of curiosity burnt out, instantly.
"We don't need no education
Since then, I have hated most things about formal education. And they hated me. Hated that I asked too many questions, that I couldn’t think in neat silos, that I challenged authority, and I didn’t get good grades either.
And yet, I love learning.
Do you know that question, what makes you feel alive? For some people it’s nature, for others it is creating, and for me, it’s learning, with others. Over the last 20 years since I walked into that classroom, I’ve discovered many ways to do that, despite the system.
In this article, I offer you a map of where you can learn today, and some conditions to set yourself up for success. These are all legitimate ways in which we learn and grow.
The landscape of learning today. The more the engagement, the deeper the learning. We usually start with receiving, and it’s always good to throw ourselves into participating, and eventually sharing. Sharing is a good way to synthesize our learnings.
|We learn to meet needs.
That’s the premise I’m working on. Formal education helps us meet our need of economic survival and the system’s need for power and control. But as a human, I’m way more needy :) I need to learn how to nail belonging and connection, play and leisure, meaning making, peace and justice, resilient communities and a sustainable world. Without deliberate effort in these directions, I am just lost and uncomfortable.
So many amazing humans, like Abraham Maslow and Marshall Rosenberg, have researched the area of human needs, but I encourage you to discover your own through a simple exercise to understand your needs.
Open Mapping Mandala. Print this mandala on an A3 sheet of paper, or draw it out. Find a comfortable space and litter it with pens and post-its. Stick your driving needs in the eight central squares. Tune into your heart, head, hands, and kin to do this. Then duplicate them out into the outer eight boxes, and write what you can do to meet them in the white boxes. Prioritize a few of these to focus on, and voila, you now know what you need to learn!
|Now that you’ve mapped it out, is it realistic to expect that you can learn all this alone?
Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Overall, there seems to be a giant chasm between the resources we get for formal education and workplace training, and the support we get to learn to be and live together in the world. That’s my current area of interest: how can we see more initiatives or even the beast of formal education transform to help us struggle less and thrive more—personally, socially, and planetarily.In my search for answers, I offer a few conditions for learning that work, for young people, middle-aged people, and the elderly. When I say work, I mean help you achieve what you need. I offer these here to give you some agency, just in case you are stuck. These conditions hold true for me and I have applied the best of my critical thinking to understand if they hold true for others as well, and am testing them out with a new initiative I’ve started, We Learn, We Grow.
(1) Believe that learning is lifelong
It all starts with changing our beliefs. If we believe that learning is a lifelong process, not something that ends with formal education, the opportunities are endless. The helpful attitude here is to have a “growth mindset” as coined by Carol Dweck or a “beginners mind” as coined by Buddhist scholars.
(2) Have a voice in why, what, or how you learn
When I say voice, I want you to hear intrinsic motivation. Ever noticed that if an organization gets too big, it moves quite far from its original purpose? It looses its intrinsic motivation, and the employees within all start to feel purposeless. Voice is the opposite of purposeless. It’s not necessary that voice has to be in every stage of a learning journey, but when it’s missing altogether, that’s when the purpose is lost, and your intrinsic motivation takes a nosedive.
What makes a learning different from a happening or a doing? Ever been in the situation where you don’t learn from your mistakes? What happens if you spent some time reflecting on the mistake with self-compassion? Reflection, I’ve found, is that magical thing that lands the plane.
(4) Form trusting and supportive relationships with coaches and peers
I recently started seeing a leadership coach and one of the first things she said to me was “I consider you naturally creative, resourceful and whole.” Having her believe that I was naturally creative, resourceful and whole was a game changer. We often act how people see us. There are so many learning spaces in the world today that have shown that if you are trusted to find the way, seeking help when you need, you find it. There are roles to replace the word “coach”: mentor, teacher, advisor, elder sister, grandfather. The keywords are trust and support. These trusting-relationship-people are great to reflect with.
(5) Deliberately practice
I am allergic to the word discipline. But when I replaced the word discipline with deliberate practice, opportunities opened. As a rebel girl (this is a technical classification, see Rubin’s four tendencies), it’s hard for me to do things I don’t want to do, and it’s also hard for me to do things I do want to do. But I can’t argue my way out of deliberate practice if I wish to master something. It’s that small difference when you are making up your mind to learn something, if you wish to master it, throw in some deliberate practice.
(6) Find safe and challenging spaces to grow
Imagine yourself learning how to swim. What if you are thrown too deep? Chances are you’ll freak out and it will take you a long time to recover from that trauma before you try again. What if you are always in the shallow, chances are you’ll stop trying out of boredom. It’s a metaphor, but you get the idea. Finding that right challenge level is an art. And feeling safe in what Vygotsky calls the Zone of Proximal Development, that space in between what you can do independently and what you can’t do even if guided, is the key to overcome your doubts and fears.
I finally did study astronomy. About 6 years after completing my bachelor’s degree in physics, I went to Leiden University in the Netherlands. At first, they weren’t ready to let me in, citing that I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree in astronomy and my grades weren’t high enough, but I wrote to them to explain that I really wanted to do it. And then they did. They’re cool, the Dutch (My partner is Dutch so I am really biased). It was an amazing experience and I believe I learnt more from meeting so many new cultures than solving the mysteries of the universe. Once the floodgates of confidence were open, they stayed open. I do always seek out those good conditions, be it meditation retreats (safe yet challenging spaces), creating a festival with friends (trusting relationships), or listening to audiobooks with my partner (someone to reflect with).
The opportunities are endless! And I hope you find them too.