Julie Walker
Learning Unasked
Linda (Elle) Yaven

“I’m an overachiever learning to pump the breaks”.

- A client
An artist friend sweeps on the days when it’s not happening in the studio.

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.

In current gray zones, the pragmatist in me asks “What are we called to do differently from now on”?

When it comes to self-development the distinction 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.

The unprecedented uncertainties and challenges position us as the latter. 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.
Nathan Anderson

When my sister passed away too early, I saw in clear outline the difference between choosing to learn something and having learning thrust upon you. As time passed, I began to call this latter experience "learning unasked”.

As with so many sisters, we two butted heads like the best of them. Yet, in that last phase we were clearly so done with any sisterly drama. Her courage, in the face of what she knew might happen, changed me forever.

Her passing put me in free fall, for which I found no useful reference points. Suddenly, I was without recourse to our conversations, her nervy input and high standards. The values of transactional worlds - so central to daily doings - didn’t really apply. I waited for a handle to arise - for sense to resurface in this new terrain.

The nature of learning unasked is how visceral and mystifying it is. You are thrown back on yourself like nobody’s business. It drops us smack dab in the middle of ambiguity and simply walks away. For a year afterwards I listened to Mozart, Miles and The BeachBoys. I thought of Tim Gunn’s admonition on Project Runway to just “Make it work”.

A friend’s description of Covid applies to that time – though so different from this one.“ It’s as if we’ve all gotten into the car. We’re ready to be on our way, to foresee our destination. We are just waiting for the ignition to be turned on”.

II. The Beginner

Photo by Linda Yaven

As a beginning teacher I taught visual organization to art and design students. I designed the curriculum limiting our palette to black, white and gray. When I told my students we would be creating without color they all groaned. My promise was that by the close of the semester they would be able to distinguish increments of gray not currently visible to them. They would each become more discerning observers by slowing down their own perceptual experiences.

The cure for anything is saltwater:
sweat, tears or the sea.
- Isaac Dinesen, Author (1885- 1962)
The music conductor Seiji Ozawa once told this story about his life. When he was a child he knew one or two kinds of sadness. As a teen he became aware of perhaps four or five different kinds. In his 40"s he recognized 10 or 12 nuances of this feeling. His intention was to expand his range of emotional subtlety into his 90’s and beyond.

Fast forward: staying the course of ambiguity back then, informs my coach methodology. My storyline goes from teaching visual organization to coaching communicative self-organization. Working with those in accelerated, data driven business worlds, I provide clear council on strategic execution, streamlining conversations and empowering interpersonal dynamics.

Back then, lacking a roadmap making intuitive sense, I recognized I was in a learning curve. So I coach what I learned: the potential hidden in our unknowns – our personal grays. Not as a phenomenon to override, but as a doorway to your creative agency. These days we heed a call for both ends of the spectrum: clear action in tandem with heightened respect of our oh-so-human unknowns.

Becoming present to where you find yourself, is front end design at its most personal and powerful. Riding waves of uncertainty ultimately feeds finding footing in sync with what floats your boat. The exhilaration of creative agency happens by respecting your own rhythm and way of orientating.

Challenges present forks in the road: gleaning the learning is not a given, but a pro-active choice.

Like many teachers I see a beautiful range in our individual relationship to learning. Some people show up predisposed - already living in a state of learning willingness. Others arrive to sniff things out - if the vibe’s right they are onboard. Others - with gradual uptake - require a sweet while for their responses to coalesce. Then, there are the skeptics with their own special brand of kicking the tires.

As learners we possess, at minimum, two different personas - often at odds. First, there is our current coherency - a conservative character pressuring us to maintain the status quo. Then, there is the unknown, shape shifting persona we call “the emerging self”. This aspect, who’s open to testing out positive change, becomes our ally in transformation.

Give those with whom you find yourself
every consideration.

- Tea Master Rikyu (1520 -1591)

As a long time meditator I respect the Zen concept of “Beginner’s Mind”. This is a practice in recurrent release of already-in-place judgements so we may approach things in fresh ways. A gift of learning unasked is choosing to be where we happen to find ourselves.

We proactively choose to situate inside the humility and curiosity of a beginner. This often happens against a background of client or student expertise and hard-won proficiency. Working with young professionals I know gravitas has less to do with age than our stage of understanding.

Trying on a learner’s shoes is a practice within the domain of ethics. When someone trusts you with their “I don’t know” this is an honor. Calling it “a learning curve” brings dignity to declaring yourself a beginner in any domain of learning.

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 inhabit learning curves. Pre 2020 we may have lived in answers to questions we never really dwelled in.

III. The upside of DWELLing

Along with simplicity and sincerity,
immaturity is taken as a virtue in this country.

- James Baldwin, Author (1924 - 1987)

Baldwin, a sage, cautions us to befriend the stranger within as preventative care against “othering”.

Someone said maturity is being able to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. Now we are at a juncture where knee jerk insistence on quick answers may infantilize. This, in the context of the utter, utter urgency to resolve unprecedented challenges at lightening speed.

It’s as if we have collectively been sent to our rooms to figure out what works and what requires revision. However uncomfortable at first, updating trajectories, conversations, relationships - by design - is a sign of health.

The challenge of not having ready, easy or efficient answers is a creative force. Respecting ambiguity as a driver for creative action predisposes us to alternate solutions. The opportunity is to develop the grit to dwell in inquiries producing behavioral change. As the grown-ups in the room there is a deciphering to be done, on this road we’ve never taken.

" 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.”

- Kehinde Wiley, Artist
One day towards the close of her life, I sat with my sister in her bedroom. She told me how she had come to value “kindness” above all other emotions.

Developing a respectful relationship with the quality of our individual ambiguity -however paradoxical it seems – we become kinder witnesses of another's experience. A client said "This makes me nicer to be around and brings integrity to my 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.

Copyright 2020 All rights reserved Linda Yaven