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April 25, 2013 » 12:02 pm

Beginner’s Mind and the Pace of Learning

Earlier this week, I was watching videos of some of Groupaya’s strategy meetings last year. I was looking for video clips of interesting group dynamics that I could share at Changemaker Bootcamp, but I found myself instead reliving some challenging moments from last year.

Rebecca had set the tone of that meeting by having us celebrate our highlights. This was a good thing, because I spent most of the rest of the meeting talking about what I thought we were doing wrong.

In the midst of my meeting-long, blistering critique, I emerged from my agitation to express a momentary, but authentic feeling of self-compassion and perspective. I said, “I’m not actually unhappy about where we are right now. I think we’ve accomplished some amazing things. I just have to keep reminding myself that this is marathon, not a sprint. If we have to adjust some of our expectations accordingly, then let’s do it.”

Kristin let out a visceral sigh in reaction to this, so much so that I was taken aback at first. “Thank you for saying that,” she said when I looked at her questioningly. “That is so true.”

As it turns out, she had been carrying the same weight that I had, already heavy from her own expectations and exacerbated by what I was adding. “When you run a marathon, you take water from the water station, and you take a moment to replenish yourself,” she said. “You can’t finish otherwise. When you sprint, you don’t have time for that, but you don’t need it either.”

Starting Groupaya made me a much better consultant, largely because of moments like these. It’s easy to say stuff like this to others, but it’s incredibly hard to do in practice. When you are a doer who feels urgency — self-imposed or otherwise — you pressure yourself to go, go, go. Sometimes it’s merited, often it’s not. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to maintain a sense of perspective, to manage your expectations accordingly, to push yourself without killing yourself, and to take the moments you need to replenish.

Now, I find myself at an interesting confluence where I’m needing to take these lessons to heart and where I’m relearning them all over again.

My one leftover project from Groupaya has been helping the Hawaii Community Foundation with a culture change process. I often complain about how foundations don’t move fast enough, and so I find myself in an unusual position of constantly reminding the great folks there to slow down. It’s been a new challenge for me to think about designing water stations as part of my process, giving my client a chance to replenish while reminding them that there’s 20 miles still to go.

Similarly, Changemaker Bootcamp has been a revelation for me. It’s really helped me understand what I know that is valuable, and what I’d like to help others learn. Figuring out how to stage that has been a huge challenge.

What’s unexpectedly helped me throughout all of this has been my photography class. Our teacher, Lauren Crew, runs a very loose class, focusing on immersion and discussion. I love to learn this way. It plays to a lot of my strengths, but it can easily get overwhelming. Every assignment feels like a huge stretch, and you become viscerally aware of what you don’t know and what you can’t do.

Despite everything I know about learning and pacing, despite the confidence I have in my ability to learn, and despite the joy I get from being immersed in a learning process, I have felt a lot of doubt and self-consciousness throughout this whole process (and it’s only been two weeks). What the heck?! I’m a beginner taking an extension school class with a bunch of other incredibly nice beginners with a great, supportive teacher. Why am I getting frustrated at not taking Pulitzer Prize-caliber photos every time I click on the shutter?

Our assignment this past week was about fear. Lauren has encouraged us to start each assignment by being literal, but because of my outsized expectations, I’ve had a lot of difficulty doing that. It’s required a lot of discipline to stop conceptualizing and to start shooting, to recognize that being iterative will work much better than obsessing about perfection on the first try.

I wanted to capture my fear of being placed in a box, of being artificially labelled and constrained. (This explains a lot about my career choices.) A visual that came to mind was the fountain in front of the Embarcadero Center, which consists of lots of boxy tunnels contorting in all sorts of directions. I had wanted to recruit a friend to be a model, but my limited schedule was going to make that very difficult. Besides, it made more sense for me to be in the picture, since this was about my fear, so I decided to do a self-portrait.

I shot for about 20 minutes, and I felt anxious the entire time. I had wanted to come on a foggy morning, but the best opportunity I had was in the middle of the afternoon when the light can be challenging. There were waterfalls everywhere, which limited where I could place my GorillaPod and compose my shot.

The absolute worst part of that whole experience was being my own model. I wasn’t just posing for a cheesy headshot. I was contorting my body in ways that are not flattering, and I was doing it repeatedly, since I had to check the shot and set it up anew each time. To make matters worse, there were several people there taking photos of the fountain, and it seemed like every one of them stopped what they were doing to stare at me.

I’ve been intentionally learning in public, posting my photos on Flickr for all to see. I got a shot that was fine for classroom purposes, but I felt incredibly self-conscious about sharing this particular one publicly, something that hasn’t generally been an issue for me. Part of it was that I didn’t feel like I had successfully executed my vision, but the bigger part was simply not like to see myself in this picture.

Still, I forced myself to push through the discomfort and share. On Facebook, my friends (as usual) expressed support, but my friend, Justin, also asked me to go into more detail about what I was unhappy about. In response to my critique, he decided to play with the image on his own to see if he could get it closer to my original vision.

My original picture is on the left, Justin’s version is on the right. You can see how he manipulated the photo to create a much greater sense of being boxed in while also drawing out the details in my face. He also shared the exact Lightroom settings he used, so that I could replicate his changes and build on them.

Despite all my anxiety, here’s what I loved about this whole ordeal:

  • I loved the feeling of making progress, to know that I’m getting better. To even be at the point where I have a vision for a photograph is huge progress. Furthermore, I understood how to manipulate my camera in ways that I didn’t even a few months ago.
  • I loved the feeling of challenging myself, of living in my discomfort. This process of stretching myself and of being uncomfortable is what’s going to make me better.
  • I loved how learning in public brought much needed support, but more importantly, new insights and a better product. Ward Cunningham often describes the essence of wikis as putting something out there and coming back to it later and discovering that someone has made it better. This experience is not just limited to wikis, and if you’ve ever experienced this firsthand, you know how wonderful and addictive it is.

Learning can be a joyful process, but it can also be a brutal one. My photography class has reminded me of both of these things, and it’s made me much more conscious about how better to support learning, both for others and for myself.

Photo (top) by Dominik Golenia. CC BY-ND 2.0.

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2 Responses to “Beginner’s Mind and the Pace of Learning”

  1. Ira Glass talks about this:

  2. I'm going to make this video required watching for Changemaker Bootcamp.

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