On being a novice learner


October 9th, 2014

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This week, I started driving in to work for the first time. I am 52, and have swum with sharks, dived in choppy cold waters and sailed across a stormy sea at night; I was also a war correspondent, climbed three sacred mountains in Asia, and have done more courses and workshops than I care to remember… So you couldn’t really say that I am averse to learning, challenging myself or risk-taking.

shutterstock_155227487Yet, there I was on Monday morning, setting off on my own in a car for the first time in ten years, and I was shaking like a leaf. It took all of my self-coaching and internal pep talks to remove the visions of car crashes, killed cyclists or run-over cats. I was finding excuses to postpone it just for a day, a week or a few hours. I wish I could say that everything turned fine once I set off, but it didn’t: I made two silly mistakes in the course of the day, luckily none of them fatal or seriously dangerous. It didn’t quite inspire me with confidence for Day 2 of the driving journey to work.

I set off on Day 2 – which mercifully was beautifully sunny – and I was still a nervous wreck, and still doing my damnedest to not follow excuses. My nerves and insecurity began to permeate the rest of my life: whereas normally I am quite confident and experienced in the work that I do, suddenly I was full of doubt and internal tension. Being a novice learner in one area of my life has somehow infused all the others: I felt like a teenager again, anxious, unloved and misunderstood!

And it made me think how often the managers we help to learn feel similar in one area of their management expertise: perhaps it’s something to do with giving difficult feedback, or firing people (never easy), or challenging an established authority. They might feel the nerves and feel unloved, unappreciated and misunderstood, and just because they’re adults – and wear suits or expensive watches – we don’t pick up the signals. Or we just teach them more models or hand out more books or introduce yet another role-play exercise.

One of the things that attracted me to Roffey Park is that this organisation does things differently. It does not just promote the latest management theories or HBR-sponsored articles, it allows people to be, feel and explore. It helps participants reconnect to their fears and insecurities, but also to their purpose and strengths, and helps them use the latter for dealing with the former. It does not pretend that adults don’t fear learning new things, but neither does it accept it as an excuse and a reason why nothing can be done to change cultures, personalities and organisations. It just ploughs away from practice to practice, through sessions and learning sets, chipping away at the mountain of insecurity, until all that is left is a pebble. That’s why there are so many pebbles in Roffey Park’s gardens.

As for me, yesterday was one of the stormiest thundery days in Sussex over the past month, with driving rain and “lakes” of water on the motorway. And I drove in, on day 3, with confidence and focus, and with joy and gratitude for having mastered a new skill.