“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
So many of society’s ills today are attributed to the lack of education. The oft repeated cliché is this – if only we can influence the way education is done, then we can transform society.
Think about it – the second highest expense item (after defense) on a nation’s budget usually is allocated to education. The question to ask is this – does spending more on education necessarily improve the learning process? How is leadership linked with learning?
This year, I will be 47 years old and as I recollect on this journey called life, what are the lessons which have really impacted me on a personal and practical level?
As I reflect, I discover that my learning did not necessarily come from my education curriculum and related materials, it came from the consequences of experience.
While it is true that much of what I know today came from what was taught at home, in school and in church – however, what I learn (and still remember) is more caught than taught. For example, this is what I have caught from life:
Learning from life requires the classroom of life and where this is concerned, we can have multiple teachers – as for the student, there are only two requirements – humility and teachability.
Herein lies the paradox. While teachability is what it takes for one to learn from life, we are not wired to be humble. In fact, the opposite is generally true. It is easier for one to be proud than to be humble.
In other words, my natural disposition is one of pride rather than teachability. How then can one “unwire” himself from a state of self-directed attention to a condition of humble learning?
Unwiring #1: It’s OK to change your mind
There are those who may claim to have an open mind but once opened, they are unwilling to change it. When it comes to certain core values, I admit that there should be certain non-negotiable elements.
However, not all ideas are created equal, so when you encounter an idea that is better than yours, are you willing to change your mind with the nobler goal of accepting another perspective for the common good?
Along the road of life, we all make mistakes – both the wise and the foolish. However, when the wise makes a mistake or holds on to a way of thinking which is unproductive, they are quick to make the necessary changes.
They are quick to repent (I intentionally chose this word because the root meaning for repent is a change of mind).
The foolish may recognise his or her fault but still choose to hang on to their self-centred ways. In other words, those who are foolish are typically stubborn and unwilling to learn.
Unwiring #2: It’s not OK to disrespect
While one may have lots of ideas to share, it is equally important how you share those ideas. When working with those in authority and especially those who are older than you, it is critical that we demonstrate respect in the manner we converse with them.
They may not be as technically competent as you but their experience and life journey deserve respect. It is almost impossible for one to learn from life if there is an absence of respect. By learning from those who have gone before us, we can avoid the consequences of their mistakes and duplicate the content of their success.
From a practical standpoint, take a look at your phone contact list – are most of those in your network around the same age as you? What about those who are significantly older?
Your degree of interaction with those who are older and those who are in authority is a reflection of your commitment to learn from life.
Many young people are looking to take post-graduate programmes to learn and progress in their career – however, they could also learn life lessons over a cup of coffee with someone who has gone through the hard knocks of life.
I am not saying that formal advancement in education is not important but don’t miss out on the precious lessons we can learn by just reaching out respectfully to the more senior members in our network.
Unwiring #3: It’s OK to talk less
We live in a society that tends to recognise the loud and aggressive. It is important that one demonstrates the skill of self-expression. But think about it – if I am constantly expressing myself, what can I learn?
Is not life about expression and reflection? You can’t have one at the expense of the other. A person who is only hung up with expression will become an excellent communicator, but if balanced with a sense of reflection, he or she will become an authentic conversationalist.
A humble person is not one who thinks less of himself, he just thinks of himself less. More time can be apportioned to asking good questions, and showing genuine interest in the lives and contribution of others.
She realises that personal attention is a precious gift that can be bestowed on another fellow human being. He realises that when he talks less, he actually learns more.
Examine your conversation today – are you spending more time broadcasting your thoughts at the expense of reflecting on what the other person is saying? Practice using this line a little bit more:
“This is what I hear you are saying…”
The final wire
At the end of the day, how I am wired to learn from life depends more on the content of my character rather than on the content of my education curriculum.
The “one wire” to remember is this – we are all inter-connected in this web called “life” and in this world of wireless communication, it is easy to lose the wired connection with others through a neglect of cultivating conversational relationships.
To learn from life, experience triumphs over education.
Joseph Tan is the CEO of Leaderonomics Centre of Engagement Excellence. He is passionate about ensuring that all Malaysian employees are fully engaged in their work and with their organisation. If you would like to enhance the engagement levels at your organisation, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details. For more Be a Leader articles, click here.
Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 11 April 2015