Monday, March 16, 2009

Learning? Work?

Dave Ferguson is hosting a blog carnival today on the theme: work at learning: learning at work.

Have you ever listened to kids talk about what they want to be when they grow up? When they're really little, boys often dream of being cowboys, policemen and firefighters, while girls often dream of being princesses, ballet dancers and mothers.

Give them a few years and those ambitions begin to change. Listening to a bunch of teenagers talking about what their dream job would be can be fun. I remember hearing one girl (who obviously had at least one weakness in common with me) declare that she would like to be a taster in a chocolate factory.

I have a cousin whose passion in life was always (still is) nature conservation, wildlife and things of that ilk - particularly ornithology. However, he and I share an uncle who was the richest member of the family at that time. This uncle was an accountant. So Michael (not his real name) became an accountant, because he wanted to be rich, too. Michael (who will be 40 this year) is now far and away the richest member of our family. Far richer than our uncle. But work, to Michael, is a means to an end. He learns what he needs to know in order to do better financially. But when you see him with a pair of top of the range binoculars in his hand, focusing on some or other bird in flight, as he and his son have an animated discussion about it, you know where is heart still lies, and where learning (for both him and his son) is never a chore.

I never knew what I wanted to be. I liked the idea of teaching, but I didn't like the idea of working with children. This was borne out by the results of an aptitude test I completed at the age of 15. Nobody thought to tell me about what was then called staff training. I didn't even know that working people did any learning. I thought it was school, university, work. The end.

Somehow, when I had finished drama school and was waiting for Hollywood to call, I found myself working for one of those dreadful companies that send people touting goods door to door. Not encyclopaedia, but not far from it. I hated it, and I sucked at it. Oddly, though, I discovered I had a knack for training up others to do it.

Somehow, in every job I took after that, I wound up teaching someone to do something. No matter how much I hated the job, I really liked that part.

It wasn't long before I took a job where that wasn't a part of the job... that was the job. At a time when computers were migrating out of the cold back office to Everyman's desk, I began to run IT training courses. Often, I was only one step ahead of the learners myself. Countless times, I would be surrounded by the hubbub of a busy workshop and I would suddenly think, "Man, this is fun!"

In those days, the happy sheet was king and time after time, in the 'any additional comments' section, comments on my workshops included the word 'fun' or a simile thereof.

I hated school. But I loved learning. This was a revelation to me. It really was fun. And people who came on my workshops would pick up on that, and (sometimes in spite of themselves) they would catch themselves having fun, too. More than once, I had a visit from the trainer in the next room, asking me to keep the volume down, because people were trying to work next door.

Life is short and precious. Far too short and far too precious to spend it doing something that doesn't push your buttons.

For me, what pushes my buttons is learning. I love that I get to work at learning. That my job is learning. My own learning and that of others. I love that I get the chance to help people rediscover their own passion for what they do simply by being enthusiastic about it myself.

The point of learning at work is to get better at whatever it is you do. Or to learn a new way of doing whatever it is you do. If you never enjoyed that in the first place, you don't have much chance of enjoying learning about it.

Fortunately for me, I get to learn about learning. About learners. Which makes for a wonderfully self-fuelling cycle. People tease me about being a geek. But show me anyone who loves what they do as much as I do, and I'll show you a geek.

I genuinely wish that everyone could have a job which made them say "Can you believe I get paid to do this?!" Then learning more about it wouldn't be a chore. It would hardly seem like work at all. Those who work in regulated industries would have no trouble completing their 30 hours of CPD learning every two years (or whatever). In fact they would find it hard to draw the line between doing their job and learning about their job. Which, for my money, is how it should be. The learning should be so embedded into the work as to be indistinguishable. We're getting there. Slowly. But we are getting there!

I will encourage my sons to adopt the same approach. My elder son has recently realised (of his own volition, because I was blowed if I was going to tell him) that forensic science is not the field for him. He wants to do something related to sport/exercise and anatomy/physiology. You should just hear the lad talking about his pet topic! For me, it's like looking in the mirror. The eyes light up and the hands wave about... the passion is there. Learning about these things at school isn't like work at all. Fields like physiotherapy and sports therapy are horribly oversubscribed in the UK, but if that's what he wants to do, somehow we'll make it happen.

My younger son, since he was just three and watched two cooling towers being imploded outside Cape Town, has been adamant that he wants to do demolitions. One day, we were watching a movie together and one of the characters said the line that summed it up for him, "I get to blow sh*t up, and get paid for it!" Perhaps he will. Perhaps, like his older brother, his passion will shift in a couple of years time. But, if that's what he really wants to do, somehow, we'll figure it out.

Work at learning? I expend an incredible amount of energy on learning. But work? Nah! Learning at work? All the time. Thankfully.


Anonymous said...

"The learning should be so embedded into the work as to be indistinguishable." Yes! Absolutely! And that's what I've had during the happiest parts of my working life, and that's how I evaluate what jobs I want to take on now.

Anonymous said...

Your comment about aptitude test resonated with me. I took something called the Strong Vocational Interest Test when I was a teenager. One of the careers that did not correlate was "forest service agent." I'm not sure what they do, but I had a negative score for that one.

Thanks to Mr. Strunk, my sixth-grade teacher who sang "The MTA Song" and make us write 1500-word compositions, I joined Teacher Corps and taught in a rural Kansas high school. Like you, though, I eventually went in other directions.

I like learning behind-the-scenes stuff; I'm good at analogy, which I think means I'm good at translating principles to practice.

As Carl Sagan pointed out, the end result of the brain activity is higher levels of endorphins: learning is joyous.