This post is a reflection on how our attitude to learning is profoundly influenced by our emotions, and how they both prevent and fire-up up our hunger to know and do things. This might seem insultingly obvious but I do think it’s worth keep reminding ourselves, considering that a) many of us have a “yearning for learning” and b) continuous learning and adaptation are integral to high-performing work systems.
I’ve just got back from a couple of heavy days driving, with my husband and I taking turns at the wheel on an out-one-day and back-the-next trip from France to Switzerland. You couldn’t possibly imagine what that means to me.
Driving a car is such a commonplace, everyday thing to do for most adults. But I only learned to drive two years ago, in my mid-50s – for various reasons (excuses). I now love driving and cannot believe that I denied myself this pleasure for so long.
As we reached the final lap of our marathon 1,000 kilometre outward leg of the drive to Switzerland, my husband insisted that I was going to drive the last two hours. This would mean driving around Basel, then Zurich, heading towards Luzern and on to Zug, our final destination. He loves driving through the Swiss tunnels and he wanted me to experience it too – plus he wanted to expose me to different kinds of driving.
As I’ve already said, I enjoy driving but I’m also very comfortable with my routine journeys, around French country roads and up and down the N10 between the two nearest cities – Angouleme and Poitiers. But busy ring roads around unfamiliar major cities, with traffic constantly feeding in at volume and speed? And having to get into the correct lane?
Panic was my immediate reaction. I whined. I pleaded. I pouted. But when it became clear that none of this was having any effect, I decided that I’d better get on with it. We changed places and I took the wheel while we were still in France. Driving around the town of Mulhouse gave me good practice for The Big One, Basel, over the border in Switzerland.
What a buzz!
Mulhouse wasn’t so bad and as we approached Basel and the traffic increased, I was doing just fine. As we got ready to go into one of the tunnels under Basel, I saw looking down the road that the traffic was all in the left hand lane. My husband insisted we were staying in the right-hand lane. I was right (of course) and some kind soul let me in.
The tunnel isn’t just cars go in one end and out the other – traffic joins the flow in the tunnel via feeder roads. Having got into the right lanes and dealing with merging traffic, and managing to feed into the traffic, I realised that not only was I coping – I was having a ball. The evening sun was glorious and everyone on the road was thankfully behaving. I was tired but elated by the time we reached our destination.
If my husband had taken pity on me and given in to my protestations, I would have missed an exhilarating experience. It reminds me of abseiling for the first time years ago, going over the edge petrified and being high as a kite when I got to the bottom – wanting to go back and do it all over again. Achievement’s like a drug.
Confidence is contagious
The first thing that I’ve been thinking following this experience is that confidence is contagious. My husband had no doubts at all that I could do it. His complete confidence in my abilities was reflected in how relaxed he was and this in turn relaxed me. Could I have done it if he had not been in the car? Probably – but it was helpful being able to talk afterwards about decisions I had made as we continued on our journey.
And there’s something else I’ve noticed since we got back from our trip – not only is confidence contagious, it can create step changes in performance. The few bits of my familiar routes that I was wary of? I’m still rightfully wary but I now navigate them with assurance. I can do it.
Learning at and through work
Why should learning at work be any different? It’s not. The other thing I’ve been thinking about since the trip is how limiting lack of self-confidence, fear and desire to stay within comfort zones can be at work.
I’ve written before about two specific groups of people I worked with in the past, who were doing practical, work-based learning projects at post-graduate level. One group was senior nurse practitioners taking on additional medical and management responsibilities. The other group was Royal Airforce Officers.
The majority of the nurse practitioners lacked confidence in their abilities and luckily did not suffer in silence. After a bit of reassuring hand-holding at the start, they all discovered their confidence in their abilities and off they went, staying in touch but largely self-sufficient. The RAF Officers were different and, to my shame, I was fooled by their apparent confidence and ability to give slick, polished presentations. It wasn’t until the final stages of their projects and leading up to submission of their dissertations and their oral exams that I saw anxiety. Had they been suffering in silence? It seems likely. I learned a huge lesson from that.
Emotional impact of learning
The emotional impact of learning at and through work is likely to intensify as work becomes more socially, technically and politically complex. This all got me thinking about the crucial roles mentors and provocateurs play in prodding us into action in the first place, especially if we think we can’t do something. We learn as individual people but others can influence how we feel about ourselves and our abilities.
It might be that our hunger to learn – to do something different or for the first time and learn from it – is so strong that it overcomes our fears or inertia. But even then, learning can be a really unnerving experience – as well as being a huge buzz. Besides mentors and provocateurs being critical in keeping us going, so are our peers – we’re all in this together. We can share, support and encourage each other. That’s why our networks are our learning life-support systems.
Can you feel it?
There’s an old song for every occasion!