Work in Progress

Growing up, there was one sentence that my grandfather said more than any other. In fact, if you ask my kids what his catch phrase is, they could quote it. He still says it: I learn something new every day.

As a child, he was the smartest, most successful, oldest person I knew. I was convinced that he was making that up, because he couldn’t possibly mean it — what the heck did he have to learn? When he said it in response to some new-fangled innovation we kids would show him, he was clearly just being polite. When he said it as a precursor to a story, it must be just to set tone. When he said it to encourage us academically, he was helping us build academic passion, sometimes in the face of adversity.

My cynicism ended when I realized no one could fake enthusiasm for that long.

By the time he watched my six-year old use an on-line application to play a complicated physics-based ball ramp game, I could have scripted his response. Cue the older man leaning in over the young girl at the computer. Cue the rapid fire questions:

  • How does it work?
  • What is the purpose?
  • Where did you find it?
  • What other things are available?
  • What more can you do?

Listen to him cap it off with his classic statement of learning wonder, “Well, I’ll be darned.”

Truth is, I’m a bit of a learning addict myself. This week, I had a moment of zen when I realized that my happiest moments are the ones where I learn something new — and specifically when I am able to rewire my brain around a complex cultural or value proposition. Sure, it’s fun to learn a new skill or a new fact, but for me when I am able to look at the world a different way, that is truly earth shattering.

When I was growing up, I arrogantly thought that I was the most sophisticated person I knew. I read constantly, I had traveled internationally and I knew I wanted to get out and explore. I was unaware of how little I actually knew about the world and my place in it. Thankfully, as I faced new situation after new situation that forced me to think about the world differently, I heard my grandfather’s voice in my head. “I learn something new every day.”

I thought about it. If he learned something new every day, maybe I should learn two somethings every day. If he was three times older than me and could still learn new things, what was my excuse for thinking I knew it all? Suddenly closing myself to learning seemed worse than arrogant, it seemed ignorant. And I’ve never liked being ignorant.

That mindset and openness gave me the foundation to grow, to mature my thinking about nearly every topic during my late teens and 20’s. I still value knowledge, but what I value more is the humility to be open to what you don’t know. In fact, if you need me to come up for air long enough to listen, here’s what you should say, “Mel, that’s pretty rigid thinking. I expected more from you.” Ouch.

That should be enough to get me to stop advocating my point of view. It should be enough to remind me that I have something to learn. I should slow down, back off and start asking questions of understanding. If I don’t, you’ve hit a topic that is hard-wired deeply into my brain and I need you to do me a favor. Take a breath. Let me soak in the silence. Hold onto your data, your evidence and your experts. Give me a moment to shut down my brain and bring my processors back online again.

And, once I’ve rebooted my hard drive I’ll be ready to add new data. And learn something.