Thursday, February 10, 2022

Getting Better at Getting Better: Thoughts on How We Approach Professional Development

This post is a reflection on my recent efforts to be part of building a learning community in my network of Coach/Performance Analyst friends.

If you have a car and you drive places in it, then you've likely felt the frustration of being stuck in traffic. When you're stuck in traffic, have you ever noticed how everyone around you looks like they're in the same situation? One person sitting in one car, simultaneously lost and trapped in one tiny world. And yet, alternatives exist. Carpools and public transit exist. But, the alternatives feel like they're not meant for us, that they don't fit who we are and where we're going. They feel inconvenient. They feel like they take too much time, which we already feel like we don't have enough of.

Work can feel like that. We all have moments when we feel alone in our work, like no one else is working on the same thing we are. We compound that when we feel both stuck and alone, when we feel uncertain of what we're doing and that we're the only one working on this exact thing. One person sitting in one work-shaped car. And yet, alternatives exist. But, even before I describe those alternatives, our first instincts are the same. We have difficulty believing that the alternatives will feel anything other than incongruent and inconvenient.

As coaches, teachers, mentors, team members, and learners, we know that's usually where the good stuff is, somewhere in the discomfort. I want to complicate our understanding of that discomfort. America holds rugged individualism as one of its core characteristics. Americans are immersed in a sense of needing to go it alone, no matter what it is that we're giving a go. We drive that way and we work that way, even when we work "together". You have your car and I have mine; you have your toolbox and I have mine. We default to "I'll meet you there" rather than "I'll pick you up". If I have to ask you if I can borrow a tool, it means that I'm not adequately prepared to do my job. This is to say that we're comfortable doing it all by ourselves. If we aren't sure of how to do it, we will try to figure it out alone rather than discomfit ourselves to learn with and from another. We even explain that choice by saying that we don't want to inconvenience others, "I don't want to bother them." (There is the exception of just offloading a task altogether, when we ask another to do it for us so we can each stay in our comfort zones.) We've developed a very narrow concept of discomfort and we've grown very comfortable with it.

We think, then, that getting "comfortable being uncomfortable" is an individual endeavor. We view being uncomfortable as another thing to do alone. I want to challenge that. We can make our own learning and, by extension, the learning of those we work with, better if we change what it means to be uncomfortable. Let's be uncomfortable together instead of alone. Let's talk about discomfort as a shared experience because we're uncomfortable together instead of just empathizing with another's discomfort.

This is not to say that empathy isn't necessary or important but, in the context of what I'm proposing, it is only a beginning. Sharing travails is a valuable experience, for both sharer and listener. Sharing progress brings joy to both sharer and listener. I'll use the words of Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun and author.

"And the third [jewel of the Buddha] is the sangha, the community of people who are also committed to awakening...Sangha is...a place where we refrain from competition and one-upping each other...[People] are helping each other with kindness and compassion...By sharing your experiences on the path, you might be helping another person - not from an up-down position, but from friend to friend. And sangha members do not have to live in the same place. You can pen pal with a fellow practitioner or you talk on the phone. It is hard to go at this practice alone. And participating in a community of practitioners can make a big difference, especially when we hit those bumps in the road when our practice isn't smooth sailing." 
Chödrön, Pema (2008). How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind.

But being in a community of coaches or teachers is hard. It's hard because of the structure of our professions. We work in our own classrooms, within our own teams. We work alone, even when we are in plain sight of others in our community. We are caught up in our own things to such an extent that we struggle to find time and bandwidth to share our experiences with others. And then there's that rugged individualism that tells us that we shouldn't want to share. Rugged individualism also goes together with imposter syndrome to make us even more hesitant to work together. We all have our private battles with imposter syndrome and yet we have difficulty accepting that others really do feel that same weight. So we often learn and work alone, from a place of fear. We believe that we aren't enough so we drive ourselves in isolation in hopes that eventually we'll close that imagined gap. Chödrön reminds us that sharing is an act of compassion, in which we struggle together. She reminds us that sharing and compassion put us on equal footing, that being in community doesn't have to include titles and ranks and doesn't have to make us feel less than. When each of us is striving to be our best, we appreciate the commitment present in each person. This is what that trendy namaste word we've seen everywhere should really be about. We believe in one another, acknowledge one another, and support one another. We honor one another’s struggles by showing our own.

But, I challenge, being in community with others requires more than just cheering from the sidelines. When I say this, I use "community" in a slightly different way than we might be used to. In the literature on learning theory, we find the concept of situated learning which holds that learning is a feature of people, activities, and the communities in which they are found. Being in community means interacting with others and learning is part of those interactions. This is different from our usual views of learning via transmission and acquisition, which allow for passive engagement. According to situated learning, people change by changing how they participate in their communities, not by simply knowing something. Think of how we contrast learning in a classroom versus learning in sport. In a classroom, we assume that after teachers speak and write and students hear and write, that learning has taken place. But in sport, we are more likely to look for changes in participation. In sport, we tend to value doing over knowing what to do. This is situated learning, changing participation in changing communities. In this view of community, the only way to be part of it is to participate, there is no passive engagement. There is also no working alone because what we do relies on interactions. Our participation is always shared, as is our learning. We don't so much learn from others as we learn with others. It can be said that we learn from others by watching what they do or hearing them explain their actions, but, ultimately, our learning comes when we have the opportunities to act as we have seen and change our participation when those opportunities arise.

How, then, do we learn with others in a community? This has two parts, opportunities for changing participation and actual participation. While opportunities regularly appear, if we don't know how to act when they do, then those opportunities come and go without any change, without any learning. To avoid missing these opportunities, we would benefit from the presence of mentors and companions. We are familiar with mentorship as being a relationship in which a mentor gives advice when the need or moment arises. But what if we realized that needs and moments can be created as well as just arising? We can work together to shape the activities in our communities so those activities better fit the learning we wish to do. This is something that we do every day as coaches and teachers, we scaffold opportunities for learners. We plan activities that give learners chances to change how they participate, that give them chances to do things that they have not done before. And yet we fail to do the same in our own learning.

We can and should create opportunities to foster our own changing participation in our communities. To paraphrase Jean Lave, a principal researcher in situated learning, we are already apprentices to ourselves, always trying to learn what we are already doing. We are reflecting on our practices and, occasionally, trying to change as a result. What if we gave ourselves the scaffolding that we offer to our learners? How much richer could our own learning be? This is where our community plays a vital role. Both formal education and organized sport are built on the principle that having help in structuring learning is better than going it alone. Engaging others in learning gives us access to learning that isn't available to us when we work alone because our learning is situated in the interactions between us.

Getting better at our jobs, then, should be something that we plan to do and that we do with others. While it can be done alone, it is far better when done together. It is better because of the community, the sangha, we create. It is better because of how important interaction is to learning and changing. Getting better doesn't have to be the lonely grind that we're comfortable with. It can, and should, be an adventure that we share.

Time constraints and social standing are real and consequential factors that make it feel harder for us to work together. It is challenging to overcome them but we don't have to slay these giants in a single battle. We can create opportunities to be just a little different, we can take smaller steps if we recognize that those steps are available to us. This is something that James Clear gets at in "Atomic Habits" and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein take advantage of in "Nudge". Setting aside time for a regular phone call might feel like an imposition but, what if that phone call meant moving a little bit towards being better? Not to mention that we get to share with another person... It's a small shift to make time for conversation and another small shift to make that conversation about helping one another do and be different instead of only catching up with a friend. A Zoom call is no longer just another Zoom call when the purpose of the call is to make some progress on a shared project or to explore ways to improve. These are the interactions that nourish us as well as improve us.

This is how we get out of our cars and get out of traffic. So let's explore how we might take some small steps that might eventually lead to big things.

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