October 4 – Learning by doing

October 4. “What I hear I forget. What I see I remember. What I do, I know.” (Chinese Proverb)

Back in the late 1990s I was in a group at work that did Process Improvement workshops. Two members of our team would go to departments and help them find a process that wasn’t working well. We would document the process, then put together a team of people who would spend a day doing a disciplined look at that process. We’d generate ideas, prioritize them and make action plans for improvement. At the end of the daylong session we’d have a strong set of plans to make improvements to the documented process.

As I was in the group for a while I was asked to become a trainer of the process, and on meeting facilitation. One of the things we talked about in the facilitation class was that there are different types of learners in the world. Some people (like myself), can see or hear something and learn a great deal about it. Others have to have their hands involved in the process. They are more tactile learners they learn best when they are in action. For these people we made sure that the workshops included things for people to do with their hands. I actually owned a box of “facilitator toys” to help them keep their hands busy. We also had people get up and walk around as part of the workshop. All of this, and other things, were intended to help them be engaged and contributing. Today’s quote is a reminder of those people in the world.

The fact is that at some level this quote is true for all of us. While I may remember dates, facts and figures about a wide variety of subjects just from hearing or reading about them, there are most definitely some things that can only be learned through experience. It’s said that you can’t learn to swim without getting wet. You can read about swimming, watch videos about swimming, and attend lecture halls filled with people hearing about swimming. But, until you plunge into the water, you will never know what it feels like to swim. You can only learn to swim by swimming.

A few days ago I was having a career discussion with a member of my team. We were talking about readiness to be a manager. This person was told 7 or 8 years ago that she was ready to be a manager. Since then she’s stayed at the same level, and she was telling me that today she knows that back then she wasn’t ready to be a manager. Today she knows far more about management, and about her job than she did then. We talked about that for a few minutes and I told her this analogy

Becoming a manager, in some small ways, is like becoming a parent. I can read all the books about being a parent, I can work as a baby sitter or nanny for other people’s children, I can immerse myself in the lives of my friends as they raise their children. I can do all these things to prepare, but the day that baby is born I realize that I know very little about being a parent. It’s my opinion that the most prepared first time parents are completely unprepared for what it means to be parents. That’s not a knock on them, it is a statement about how hard it is to be a parent, and how no other experience in the world could prepare you for it. It’s like swimming, until you feel like your head is below water as a parent, you haven’t really experienced it.

I told her that it’s similar for becoming a manager. You can observe many bosses and take notes of the good and the bad you see in them. You can take classes and read books about management. You can learn all of the company’s processes. But none of that fully prepares you to be a leader / manager. Until you have that job, and until you have people who rely on you for guidance and support, you don’t really know what it’s like.

In the month of September my wife and I engaged in a home improvement project. For the experienced do-it-your-selfer it was small potatoes. But we aren’t experienced, and for us we had to learn as we went. I have books on projects, and I watch youtube videos on projects. But I learned things like how to hang a door, and how to cut moldings by rolling up my sleeves and just doing it.

Today my reflection is on learning through experience. As a professed life long learner, I want always to be about learning and growing. And, that means I want always to be about experiencing life and all it has to offer.

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