Andrew Spector and Jake Lerner wanted to make differnce in education. Neither went to college to become teachers. Both are. They signed up with Teach for America, a program to recruit high-performing college graduates to teach in rural and urban communities in dire need of teachers.
They received their assignments to move from the northeast to Tulsa, Oklahoma. They soon realized they were in the presence of exceptional young students who just needed a little extra in order to excel. In this episode of The Spirit of Leading we hear their story of how they launched a wild idea to develop middle school and high school students into changemakers who could identify and help solve problems in their schools and communities.
Ignorance is not bliss
“Will this be on the test?” Students would ask me, during my days as a university assistant professor. My stock answer was that if it was important enough to include in my lessons, it could be on the test. It was definitely worth learning.
We do live in a world of just in time learning. We want to know when we need to know. That approach also means we are in a state of stress (a.k.a. internal conflict) when we realize something is in jeopardy because of our ignorance. OMG!! I DON’T KNOW HOW. PLEASE, SOMEONE SHOW ME HOW!!!!!
Just in time learning–really now
Most of the training I have done in my career has been that kind–just in time before things get out of hand, and just enough–but no more–than absolutely necessary. I’ve lost count of how many times a company asked me to change a lifetime of employee bad habits in a two hour block. Sorry. Won’t happen. But I’ve tried.
There’s another problem with that.
When we are in stress, our ability to think and learn is inhibited. The stress hormones pulsing through our bodies get in the way of rational thinking. Taking time to learn ahead of the need is more effective, and the learning has time to find its way into our long term memory. That’s also why studying a little every day is more effective than cramming the night before an exam.
Why take time to learn when you can just Google it?
He didn’t have time to Google how to crash land a jetliner when both engines go out. All those passengers walked away because Sully had spent hundreds of hours learning how to handle that situation just in case. He wanted to know so that if, and when, he needed to know, he would not have to deal with the added stress of learning and applying a new skill in the moment of crisis.
A positive stress
When you want to know, you might put yourself in uncomfortable situations. The difference is that you choose to do so on your terms. The life-long learner does just that. They seek new information and new experiences to satisfy their own curiosity and to prepare themselves for the unpredictable. There is actually joy in that experience, and it fosters self-confidence. Who knows; it might show up as heroic someday.
The French philosopher Rene Descartes said, “I think; therefore I am.” I have a slightly different take on that.
I exist because I can experience my life. It’s visceral before it’s intellectual. My body speaks to me from the inside out before I reason anything about myself.
I feel joy, pain, happiness, disappointment, anxiety, relief, anger, or love.
I don’t have to know anything to feel everything.
Eventually, I learn what to call those feelings so I can talk about them or seek to ruminate about them to interpret what they mean to me.
How I think about those feelings is what they mean to me. I think; therefore, it is as I interpret it.
In that duality I become a complete self: emotional and intellectual.
Perspective is your physical relationship to information. You cannot have multiple perspectives by sitting in the comfort of your office, or your home, or in the company of your closest friends and ruminating about the world out there. You must go out there and get in the middle of the action.
Perspective is vantage point
The vantage point from which you experience a situation is your perspective. If you are a new employee in a large company, you cannot have the same vantage point as the CEO or even your immediate supervisor because you are not in their position.
The converse also is true. Just because you were once a new employee does not mean you fully understand what it’s like to be a new employee now. Your experience once upon a time is not exactly the same as that experience today.
Perspectives are experienced
You cannot have the perspective of what it’s like to be a person of color living in a white dominated society if you are not a person of color, and vice versa.
You cannot understand the terror of being told you have cancer unless you have experienced that conversation.
If you are financially secure, you cannot understand the gut-wrenching feeling of knowing you have a mortgage or a rent to pay and you have just lost your job and have no savings.
You cannot understand the world of affluence and high society if you do not have the wealth that gives you access to it.
You cannot understand what it’s like to be me because you are not me. And vice versa.
You don’t understand
A friend told me, “You don’t understand what it’s like to be a teacher these days.” They were right. I had never experienced it, so I became a substitute teacher to get a different perspective. It wasn’t the same as, but it helped.
The point is, you cannot have a perspective that you have not experienced. So before you say, “I understand what it’s like,” stop and consider how your experiences compare.
Sympathy is lip service; empathy is a shared experience.
Get up close and personal
I cannot be a person of color, but I can befriend people of color and hang out with them in their places. I can become friends with their friends and try to understand as closely as possible their circumstances.
The television series Undercover Boss showed the mismatch of perspectives and mutual understanding by placing the boss in the employee’s daily environment. The results were amusing and eye opening.
A CEO client once told me how he stayed close to his employees by walking through his plant every day. The problem was, he didn’t spend any time with any one person. Consequently, his employees perceived him as too busy to stop and understand what was going on. I wonder if it would have been more effective to spend an hour a day in one work area interacting more personally with the workers who spent full-time there? And what if he brought one employee a week to shadow him for a couple of days as CEO? Perhaps they would take a different story back to their co-workers from the experience.
I’m not high on critics, because most critics sit in judgement of things they have not done themselves.
I recommend opening yourself to as many experiences as possible. Expand the borders of your comfort world by experiencing, as much as you can, the world in which others live every day.
What happens when a personal belief meets an irrefutable fact? The belief wins every time–facts be damned.
Human nature is such that we believe what we want to believe, and we don’t believe anything we don’t want to believe regardless of the verifiable facts. That’s the entire premise of an ideology, which is a set of shared beliefs that any group uses to explain its existence and way of life.
I am as I believe
What you believe is central to your identity. So if someone presents you a verifiable, irrefutable fact that negates a core principle of your belief system (who you believe yourself to be), you will simply say, “I don’t believe it,” and that’s that.
And if someone can distill that belief into a few words for you, so much the better. Try these on:
- America is the greatest nation on earth.
- The system is rigged.
- Democracy is the best form of government.
- Live fast, love hard, die young. (Oops, sorry. That is a country song, but a belief system none the less.)
- The white race is superior to all others.
- Black lives matter.
- All men are created equal.
- Might makes right.
- It’s every man for himself.
- We’re all in this together.
- Get a good education, work hard, and you’ll be successful.
- You can become anything in life you want.
- Winning is the only thing that counts.
- There is only one true God.
- God is dead.
You get the point.
A true believer, or a believer in truth?
A true believer accepts the party line no matter what. Every bit of information is cast in light of the underlying beliefs. All information contrary to the core belief must be explained and reexplained and reconfigured until it fits the belief.
On the other hand, a believer in truth will seek out information, verify it, consider that information in context of the situation in which it is presented and then arrive at a belief based on it. A believer in truth has no qualms about saying they used to believe one thing, and now they believe something different because they learned new facts.
I would rather be liberated by facts than enslaved by my beliefs. The most liberating phrase I know is, “I might have been wrong about that.” So, why is that not as easy as it sounds?
Psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explain, “The brain is designed with blind spots, optical and psychological, and one of its cleverest tricks is to confer on us the comforting delusion that we, personally, do not have any,” (Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me, 2007).
It’s not that we can’t see the truth, it’s that we won’t see the truth.
Simply put, we lie to ourselves and believe we are being truthful at the same time. Why? It makes us feel good about ourselves–that we are right.
The paradox of the lie
We want to believe the lie because we believe we will benefit from it, even though it’s a lie.
Because we define ourselves by our beliefs and values, we flock with those most like us. We confirm our beliefs to each other. Then, we tell each other how good we all are and that those not like us are not as good as we are. Us versus them.
Yeah, we would rather believe the lie because we like the lie better than the truth.
The apostle Paul had it right when he warned Timothy, his younger protege, to be diligent about teaching, “sound doctrine.” He wrote that the time would come when people, “will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear,” to suit their own desires (2 Timothy 4:3).
The case for faith
Where does this lead us?
For me, it leads to fact checking and allowing the facts to shape my beliefs. I also must admit that there are some things that are not explained by the empirical facts that I know or have available to me. Therefore, I do accept some things on faith, my belief through personal experience that some things are true, but I don’t know why exactly.
And I will keep that faith, until I have facts that would compel me to believe otherwise. See how that works?
I do believe in the fundamental goodness of people, that we sincerely want to do the right thing as we believe it to be.
I’ve decided to devote my time and effort primarily to helping others become more effective thinkers. When we don’t think critically and creatively for ourselves, we are at the mercy of those who can benefit from intentionally misleading us.
Here is an earlier podcast that speaks to the power of A-Ha. [podcast: The power of A-Ha]
This earlier podcast makes the case for INPowering leaders also being advocates of creative thinking and self-discovery.
Listen and seek to apply this thought provoking podcast.