I’m often asked the question “How do you apply x to your work?” and have long found the question strangely puzzling.  I think part of the puzzlement is the fact that, in the past, the question has teleported me back to school and immediately put me on the defensive as if a teacher is interrogating me and wants to see my ‘workings’. (Many action-learning sets and coaching sessions have helped to almost eliminate this habit!)

The bit that still puzzles me though is the idea that I apply something to my work in the same way that a decorator will apply paint to a wall.  Here are some recent questions:  “How do you apply your dissertation to your work?” “How do you apply complexity theory to your work?”  “How do you apply Improv to your work?”  Whilst it is wonderful that people are genuinely interested in my continued experiments and adventures these questions tap into and agitate a deep belief I have about my own learning and personal development.

For me, all learning takes place through paying attention to my current experience and noticing what that experience provokes in me and in others that is curious, different, bizarre, exciting, scary (etc).  Through being acutely aware, curious and reflexive in these experiences I am altered.  Often in unpredictable ways.

If I had to answer the question and summarise how I apply my dissertation/complexity experiments/improv practice to my work in one sentence I’d have to say:

They help me create different experiences that I take seriously

If I then had another sentence to elaborate further I’d probably say:

“Through drawing on the theories, philosophies, stories and ideas of others, as a lens to make more sense of that experience,  further insights can emerge.”

The point here is that be it my dissertation, complexity theory, improvisation techniques or even fatherhood, watching a film or a walk in the woods is that through taking my own experience seriously I am altered by my experience.  The ‘me’ before the experience is different to the ‘me’ that emerges after that experience.  I evolve and change and shift and get stuck and uncover strengths or personal stuck patterns with each bit of experiencing – all of which informs my ongoing process of ‘me-ing’.  The degree of altering is dependent on the nature and familiarity of the experience and how serious I take it.

Therefore, instead of applying the ‘things’ I learn or remember – I have no choice but to  ‘apply’ the altered me to my work.  The altered me may have subtly different beliefs, skills, behaviours, thought patterns, presence, feelings, values or physiology that may be barely perceptible but show up spontaneously in all I do.  Sure, I can talk of theories, experiences, books or stories that I have found helpful and help coach and teach others in those ‘things’ but the biggest shift in my personal development and why I find my continued adventures so exciting is the continual quest to find different experiences that will alter me in unpredictable ways.  I can’t help but think that if my teachers and I had approached school in this way then I would have found it a far more fruitful experience.

So do please do continue to ask me these questions about my learning.  Whilst I find them difficult to answer I also find that through taking the experience of trying to answer them seriously that they alter me in ways that you probably didn’t quite intend them to!

FOOTNOTE: The idea of taking our experience seriously comes from Ralph Stacey– a prolific writer on complexity and the perspective of viewing organisations as ongoing, complex social processes.
My favourite model of reflexive learning is the very simple but very helpful Learning Cycle model from David Kolb.   The ideas Kolb suggests in this model were the catalyst for me learning how I learn.