"I always thought great storytellers were born that way.
Now I see telling my story is more than telling my story.
It’s me designing my life."
I. LEARNING UNASKED
Wherever we were in our respective storylines at the year’s start 2020 has been a disrupter.
VUCA (volatility/uncertainty/complexity/ambiguity) times require self leadership or we can be set off course. Sheltering in place highlights how adept we are at spending time with ourselves. Social justice unveils the power of the story beneath the given story. More than ever, human to human interaction depends on the competence to self-modulate.
Coaching communication in the domain of design I teach how our speaking, listening, leading or collaborating is generative. We ask about any conversation: what next action, mood or experience is it catalyzing? And for who? A design strategist learns to embody this kind of inquiry.
When it comes to self development the difference between learning asked and learning unasked is helpful. Baking your first cake or taking a course are examples of the former. Here you foresee the outcome and won't necessarily be changed by the experience.
Current unprecedented uncertainties and challenges position us as the later. We have been thrown into a state of learning unasked; we didn't choose to be the learners we find ourselves to be. And yet.
When my sister passed away too early, after awhile, in clear outline I saw the difference between choosing to learn something and having learning thrust upon you. I thought of the latter as "learning unasked." Without recourse to our usual conversations and everyday sign posts, I chose to see myself in a learning curve. She would have liked that.
Challenges present forks in the road: we choose whether to become learners or not. Unless we take the reins in our lives, the world makes decisions for us. While this has always been so, in sobering times we are called to set intentions more deliberately.
Intentions crystallize out of needs, interests and our picture of the future.
The thing about intentions is we are not always mindful we have them. Let
alone possess an awareness of their resonance on others – or on ourselves.
II. THE MAIN CHARACTER
The protagonist is the main character in a story who faces conflict and seeks resolution. Presented with a blank page a protagonist grapples with a meaning making process, having several possible outcomes.
When I first heard the word protagonist I was a high school student in Brooklyn. The concept, like much of traditional pedagogy, didn’t click. Years later in a different language, school and landscape it felt right. I was a visiting educator to Reggio Children in Northern Italy. Their use of the protaganista persona comes to mind given the odyssey we have set global sail on.
Newsweek called Reggio Children one of the top ten learning systems in the world. Given their young learners are not text reliant a learning system integrating visual design has arisen. Teaching in a design context, I've seen how visualizing ideas evokes “We are in this together” thinking.
The Reggio educators view each child as a protaganista on a learning journey. They claim even young children have the right to be at the center pf their learning. Children are agents - not just consumers but producers of meaning and culture. Children are seen as capable of hypothesizing, researching and interpreting the world.
Their students were three months to six years of age; I coach grown-ups. Yet their learning model knocked my socks off in its relevancy for adults keen on creative agency. Their "pedagogistas", as they call teachers, had curated a safe environment to develop an "atelier/studio" frame of mind. I so appreciate returning fortified by their systemic integration of strategy and caring - a model of the world working.
As a coach and educator my ethos runs parallel to the one for the bambini.
As learners we each have an ethical right to interpret the world alongside others.
And, as creative agents, to articulate authentic voice and choices on our respective paths.
" To begin with, I worship at the altar of intention and obstacle.
Somebody wants the money, the person, to get to Philadelphia.
The obstacle has to be formidable and the tactics they use to
overcome that obstacle are what show us character."
- Screenwriter Adam Sorkin
If only it were a straight shot.
As a founding member of an MBA in Design Strategy, over 12 years this discipline has matured globally. Yet when new students ask about the program’s start, I stand quietly in front of class. I stretch out my arm as if feeling for our next steps in the darkness. Inventing the curriculum alongside peers made the adventure worth it.
Design is a change methodology predisposed to favor the possibility within constraints. It assumes going in you don't have the answers but provides structures and discipline to uncover their construction.
"My intention is to learn to spend time by myself."
Setting intentions at the outset a protagonist does not fully know how the story unfolds. Whether aware or not, they immerse in a vector towards a vision. They iterate their way forward - testing, judging, discarding, refining and repeating. If the trajectory nurtures what matters to them, they come to caring, coasting and cherishing the path.
Forks in the road are not always clear; they may remain hidden yet still compel action. Coaching those keen on the freedom to invent they come to trust, as one client said, an intuition to simply "make a situation different”. Turning points can be easier to identify after the fact.
" Along with simplicity and sincerity
immaturity is taken as a virtue in this country."
So what is the silver lining in this unasked for collective crossroads? When my niece Eliza was five, if you asked her about something she didn't know she would say "I cannot know that". Maturing provides the potential to author our lives in ways not possible when little. Working with young professionals I know gravitas has less to do with age than our stage of understanding.
"Growing up the external world did not make much sense.
With maturity I see I was always held by my own creative force".
It’s as if we have collectively been sent to our rooms to assess what works and what requires revision. However uncomfortable at first, updating trajectories, conversations, relationships by design is a sign of health.
" Mirroring is something so many creative people do,
this idea of shadow dancing – we’re touching the exterior world,
but ultimately we’re defining the contours of our own interiority."
In developing an internal locus of control, however paradoxical it seems, we become kinder witnesses of someone else’s experience. As a client put it - "It makes you nicer to be around and brings integrity to leadership." In this global reset an ethos of equivalency, listening and healing surface as leading edge markers.
A neighbor walking her dog shared she felt lost and unmoored. I thought of a friend who’d sailed from San Francisco to Tahiti with his brother. “It’s like sailing when you hit the doldrums in the Pacific” I replied.
In this moment of learning unasked we puzzle through framing the challenge in ways to suggest alternate routes.