Five Lessons from my Nephew on Learning

I spent last week in Cincinnati with my sister, brother-in-law, and nephews, Elliott and Benjamin. I hadn’t seen them in a while, and I just wanted to spend some quality time with them. Despite the frigid cold, it was restful and wonderful. I spent a lot of time in particular hanging out with Elliott while I was there, sitting in on his second-grade class, watching him practice cello and hockey, and trash talking our way through a marathon game of Parcheesi.

Elliott’s a sweet, goofy, playful eight-year old, easily distracted by the world and its many pleasures, but full of beautiful insights. I suppose it’s not surprising how creative and thoughtful he is, given his two musician parents, but he often astonishes me with his observations. A few years ago, I was reading him a bedtime story about a tree dying in the forest (why are children’s books so depressing?!). Midway through, he suddenly stopped me, and asked me to repeat a line. “That’s so beautiful,” he said after listening to the line again. And it was! But I wouldn’t have expected someone his age to pick up on that. Heck, I hadn’t picked up on it.

Elliott’s in the enrichment program in his class, and his teachers rave about him, but he’s not book smart in the way my sisters and I were growing up. We were Class-A nerds, perfect at spelling and math. We picked things up in the classroom easily, and we loved to read and study on our own. Elliott’s good, but not great at those things. His mind clearly works in different ways. I’ve been able to watch his learning process in a punctuated way over time, and on this trip, I saw a lot of things that both surprised me and reinforced some of my thoughts on learning and pedagogy. Here are five things I learned.

1. You can practice falling.

I grew up loving sports, and Elliott took to sports at an early age as well. I loved sharing that with him, and I bought him his first glove and basketball. But then he took an unexpected turn. He decided that hockey was his favorite sport.

I’m from L.A. I didn’t watch or play hockey growing up, even when Gretzky joined the Kings. Even though I went to school in the northeast, where they have silly events with vaguely insidious names like “Beanpot,” I never took to the sport. I didn’t know a puck from a crease.

When Elliott became a hockey nut, our relationship was suddenly reversed. Now he was the one sharing with me something that he loved, something that I knew nothing about, but that I wanted to learn because of him. My friend, Eugene, was telling me recently about a similar experience he was going through with his son, and how much he was enjoying it. It’s a special experience.

As part of my ongoing immersion, I watched my very first hockey practice last week, and I saw something that blew my mind. In hockey, you practice falling.

Elliott Falls on the Ice

How brilliant is that? We were not meant to move our bodies at breakneck speeds on hard, frictionless surfaces, especially with other bodies simultaneously trying to bodycheck us off the ice. Even the most skilled skater is going to fall many times throughout the course of a game. And so rather than put their blind faith in the athleticism of their players, coaches teach players how to fall, and they have them practice it over and over again. It made me wonder what the equivalent of falling (not failing) was in my work, and how I could practice it more intentionally.

2. Improvement can take time to see.

My brother-in-law is a cellist, and Elliott started taking cello lessons when he was three. Both my sister and brother-in-law are steeped in the Suzuki method, which emphasizes learning by listening, playing in groups, and space. (More on space below.)

Elliott has always had a natural sense of rhythm and an affinity to music, but I’m not sure he’s passionate about cello. Maybe that will come over time. I know for certain that he doesn’t like to practice it, which makes him like just about every other little boy in the world.

Elliott at Orchestra Practice Elliott and Ms. Nadine

Nevertheless, he’s been playing for five (!) years now. I’ve gotten to watch him practice every time I’ve visited. He’s not any more enthused than he was when he started, but he’s definitely better. I can see that viscerally. I doubt that he can, and I wish that he could.

Incremental improvement takes time to see. You notice it immediately when you’ve been away from it, but it’s just about impossible to see when you’re living it every day. Elliott sometimes got frustrated by his “lack of progress,” both with the cello and with hockey, but he simply wasn’t able to see the amazing amount of progress he has made.

It reminded me of my own frustrations with Groupaya last year, when I felt like we weren’t learning fast enough. When I was able to step back, look at the actual data, and take a long view, I could see how mistaken I was. Learning takes time, and progress is not always immediately visible.

3. Space matters.

Elliott’s cello teacher, Ms. Nadine, is a master of space. She knew that I would be sitting in on his lesson, and when I walked into her practice room, she already had a chair ready for me… behind Elliott, so that he couldn’t look at me during the lesson. Her room was designed to eliminate distractions so that her students could focus on two things: their instruments and their teacher.

I was similarly impressed by Elliott’s school. (More on this below.) His classroom was designed in really smart ways, redefining what most people understand “classroom-style” to mean.

Elliott's Second Grade Class

The class was split up into small groups, facing each other rather than the teacher. (His teacher later told me that she would rather divide the class into even smaller groups, but couldn’t due to space constraints.) There were folder pouches on the back of each chair, allowing the students to have whatever they needed closely on-hand, so they wouldn’t be distracted by large bags lying around all over the place. Everything on the walls and on the floor had meaning behind their placement.

As I said earlier, Elliott is easily distracted, yet it was amazing how much of an impact environment had on his ability to focus. I have long believed in the importance of this, and yet, my experience in Cincinnati has me wanting to reassess my workspace for ways that it can help me perform better.

4. We could learn a lot from existing schools.

I think there are a lot of problems with our school system. I’ve worked in education, both formally as part of my consulting practice and informally as a volunteer. Everyone has horror stories to share, many from personal experience. And yet, it always makes me cringe a little when I hear categorical rejections of our current ways of learning.

What I’ve known from my previous work and what I got to see firsthand last week is that there are a lot of good things happening in today’s schools, stuff that folks in other fields could learn a lot from. It wasn’t just the space (although the classrooms at Elliott’s school were designed more thoughtfully than most office spaces I’ve seen). It was also the teaching, the curriculum, the pedagogy, and the work practices.

I’ve spent so much of the past 10 years thinking about how groups learn, playing with different ideas and looking for models that work. One place I haven’t spent much time examining is our current school system, probably because I carry the same biases that I described above. I’m reconsidering that. I think there’s a whole lot more I could learn about learning simply by spending more time in schools, especially at the elementary level.

5. Learning should be joyful.

I’ve been doing a lot of culture change work with groups over the past few years. Something that’s come up repeatedly in different places has been the desire to reintroduce joy as a cultural goal. There is something primal and important about joy, and it’s a little bit sad how often we as adults need to be reminded (or worse, persuaded) of this.

Whenever I see both of my nephews, they give me a refresher course on this. This is their nature. They derive joy from connection, from achievement, from play, from learning, from love. It is a beautiful thing to watch and experience, and I’m lucky to have such wonderful teachers.


Breakfast at Tucker’s

Last month, I decided to fly out to Cincinnati to surprise my older sister on her most recent “milestone birthday.” I hadn’t visited in a while, and in the interim, she had given birth to her second son, Benjamin.

As a present, I wanted to give my sister space. Those of you with kids know that parents of young children — especially babies — basically have negative amounts of time.

My plan was to hang out, take care of the kids, and do what I could to create some space for both her and her husband so that they could have some time for themselves. My only agenda was to get to know my newest nephew, Benjamin, while wreaking (quiet, manageable) havoc with my eldest, Elliott. I had no plans to spend much time outside of their apartment, much less explore Cincinnati.

As it happened, my trip coincided with a large snowstorm and bitter cold. While that sounded terrifying to this native Californian, it had an unexpected silver lining: snow days! School was cancelled for both my nephew and my brother-in-law, Isaac, a teacher. I had come to create some space for my sister’s family, and the weather ended up creating space for all of us.

We put that time to good use. I went sledding for the first time with Elliott and Isaac. As you can imagine, I handled my inaugural trip hurtling down a hill on a frictionless surface with skill, comportment, and aplomb.

The following day, we had breakfast at Tucker’s, a small neighborhood eatery that’s been serving down home food for over 60 years. To understand the significance of the place and our meal, you need to understand the story of the neighborhood.

My sister and brother-in-law are musicians and teachers. They live humble lives in a part of town known as Over-the-Rhine (“OTR” for short). As with many artist enclaves, OTR is very affordable, which loosely translates into “bad neighborhood.” It’s the poorest, most violent neighborhood in the city.

My sister lives across the street from Washington Park, which is a haven for drug dealers and miscreants. In 2001, a white cop shot and killed a young, African-American male in OTR, igniting city-wide racial tensions that had been building for years and resulting in the worst urban disorder since the L.A. riots in 1992, which I had had the misfortune of experiencing first-hand.

OTR is a challenging place, but there is something special about it. For starters, if you look past the poverty and pain, you can see that the neighborhood is beautiful. The brick buildings evoke an old elegance, dotted with dilapidated storefronts and the occasional quirky gallery, perhaps foreshadowing the hipster gentrification that sometimes seems inevitable for these little enclaves of starving artists. The hipsters come because of the artists, but the artists come because of the beauty, the charm, the essence.

The essence of OTR — indeed, of Cincinnati and perhaps of the Midwest as a whole — seems to be community. Unlike my adopted hometown of San Francisco, people who live here tend to come from here. They are tied to their neighborhoods, their churches, their local haunts, their people. As Isaac, who comes from nearby Dayton, said to me the other day, he loves living in Cincinnati, because Cincinnati is home.

For many who live in OTR, Tucker’s has been a favorite eatery for generations. Down the street from Findlay Market, on a battered street under a nondescript sign, there are maybe six tables and a long counter inside of Tucker’s.

The service is wonderful… if you don’t mind waiting a very long time for your food. They greet everybody warmly, they keep your coffee cup filled, and they take their time cooking the food. And that’s fine. The food is good — healthy portions of rib-sticking, diner food, all made from scratch — but that’s not the main reason people come here.

People come for the people. They come to rub shoulders with their neighbors. Everyone from the community comes here — the owner of the store down the street, long-time residents, the pastor from the local church, local politicians, homeless people, young artists. Because the place is so small, people often share tables with strangers, and they walk away friends. Tucker’s is a haven, a melting pot in a neighborhood that has seen violent racial strife.

People come because they’ve always come there. Maynie “Ma” Tucker and her husband, Escom, started the restaurant in 1957. The place hasn’t changed much since. Their son, Joe, and his wife, Carla, run the place now. Escom died six years ago, but Ma Tucker, now 90, still works in the kitchen.

Earlier in the week, two gunmen had entered the diner and attacked a customer. The customer walked away unharmed, but two women were shot, including Carla. Both women were fortunately okay.

Tucker’s had shut down for a few days. Unbeknownst to us, it had just reopened the day we arrived. The place was packed, as it always is. People greeted each other warmly, as they always do. The service was good… and slow, as it always is. Ninety year old Ma Tucker popped her head out of the kitchen from time to time to check on things, as she had been doing for over 60 years.

You would not have known that anything had happened earlier that week if not for the journalist taking video, and even she melded seamlessly into the room. She just seemed like another local artist who had come to ply her craft and enjoy the morning at Tucker’s.

When we sat down, Isaac spotted the local pastor, Father Gregory, sitting at the counter, and went over to greet him. Father Gregory joined us for breakfast and filled us in on the history of Tucker’s and the meaning it had in the community. He himself had come here since he was a child. As people walked in and out, they stopped to greet Father Gregory, who smiled and chatted with everyone. Isaac knew several people there as well. They were colleagues, neighbors, fellow church-goers, and friends.

Of course, people were happy to see Elliott, who always seems to make people smile and laugh, and he greeted Isaac’s friends warmly as well. I watched my nephew interact with people comfortably, and thought about how — at six years old — he had already established roots here in the community.

Time always seems to slow down for me when I visit friends and family in the Midwest, regardless of how busy I actually am. People there are in love with their neighborhood, their community, their home.

I’ve lived in San Francisco for 15 years and in California for most of my life. I love it here. And I’m lucky to have friends all over the world, some of whom I’ve known since I was a child. I stay connected with them via technology that has been around for most of my adult life, and I even have opportunities to see them face-to-face on occasion. It’s a wonderful world of connection and community that, for many, is new and exciting.

For some, it’s scary. There’s a sense of loss, this notion that all of this virtual hyperconnectedness will disconnect us from place. I understand that feeling, because when I visit my sister and her family in Cincinnati, I feel what I’m missing.

But it doesn’t have to be a choice. Community is not a zero-sum game. For me, visiting my sister’s family in Cincinnati, becoming part of their community for even a few days, enjoying breakfast at a place like Tucker’s, all of this is a visceral reminder that, at the end of the day, behind all of the wires and waves and screens, it’s about people. It’s about connecting to other living, breathing human beings. How we do it and where we do it may evolve, but why we do it and how it feels when we do is fundamental and constant.

This is the wonderful video that Carrie Cochran, the journalist who was at Tucker’s that day, created: