What have you learned lately? I don't mean "learned" in the sense of coming to the conclusion that playing Powerball twice a week is a bad retirement planning
strategy. Nor do I mean "learned" in the sense of sitting cross-legged in an ashram meditating up an epiphany about your affection for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups or Steinbeck's Red Pony, or Serengeti sunsets. Or "learned" in the sense of "I went to a conference and saw an intriguing new way of doing a rapid reduction-in-force."
I mean "learned" as in mastering a difficult skill-set totally unrelated to your job, the work of your organization, or any avocation you regularly indulge. In other words, not simply velcroing a new twist to something you already know or can do with a decent level of proficiency, but going where you are as green as green can be and learning something new, from the ground up.
If you haven't done that lately, you really oughta wanna. Robert F. Mager, he of Preparing Instructional Objectives, Measuring Instructional Intent, and Analyzing Performance Problems, one of the founders of the ispi and one of the early pioneers of the "system's approach," that which we refer to today as hpt, human performance technology, put that idea in my head more than a decade ago.
Mager set a personal goal of learning one completely new set of skills every year or so. He has learned to ride a unicycle, taken up juggling and ventriloquism, and become a licensed locksmith, to mention just a few of his self-assigned, skill-mastery accomplishments. It is an endeavor I've tried to emulate, and one I recommend highly to you as well.
Beyond keeping oneself entertained and staving off senility, a regular trip down the learner path is an elegant, yet dirt-simple and practical way of staying in touch with the panoply of emotions and challenges your trainees experience for real, in real time, every time they walk into a classroom, log on to an e-learning program, or simply turn the pages of an operations manual explaining in eye-crossing engineerese some new software or manufacturing process that headquarters or operations—someone someplace where they can't be got at—expects to see operational in the next 10 days.
The frustration, boredom, discomfort and fear as well as the joy of accomplishments and the exhilaration of mastery are as real for you and I learning to juggle a trio of bean bags, fold a decent Origami swan, ride a one-wheel bike, pick a lock, or repair a dripping faucet, as they are for any one of our trainees. It is in the mastering of the unmastered, the conquering of the unknown, the facing of the possibility of failure—and the succeeding—that we are reawakened and reconnected with a world we usually stand above but regularly assign our charges to.
Through the eyes of the learner we reconnect with the value of the great teacher, the importance of learning structure and the remarkable ability of the human learning machine to succeed despite—as much as because of—our professional efforts.
For the record: So far this year I've been humbled trying to keep three tennis balls in the air for longer than a microsecond. But I have learned how to make my spouse disappear—having primarily to do with the way I express my frustration with those bloody bouncing balls.
As importantly, taking off the expert's cloak and exposing ourselves to the risk and to others' critical, curious eyes, is irreplaceable role modeling for the organization. A solid-gold, practice-what-you-preach example. A favorite encomium of mine comes from Will Rogers, a 1930s entertainer, who mused that, "People learn more from observation than from conversation." It is apt. If we expect others to be open and welcoming of change and learning, we need to enthusiastically embrace that ethic on our own behalf.