Learning and Unlearning

Paintings

 

People have started asking me what my new book The Art of Communication is about, and I flounder: “Well, whatever my last book The Art of Conversation was about, this one’s about … not that.”

Great. That’s clear then. It’s about what your last book isn’t about. Have I got that right?

Uhh, yes. The last book was about how to become better at conversation. This one’s about the next stage after that. The only thing is that the next stage reverses almost everything you learned before, which can feel counter-intuitive at times. For instance:

At first, you learn how to be able to keep up a flow of conversation. Later, you learn that communication is often about keeping silent and just listening, even sometimes through an awkward pause.

At first, you learn how to focus on what’s being said. Later, you learn how to focus on what’s not being said.

At first you pick up new tools that are effective and satisfying. Later, techniques fall away and you just are, transparent you – which is a much more vulnerable place to be.

At first, you learn that body movement and tone of voice make a big difference. Later, you learn that the most important signs and sources of connection are invisible.

At first, you delight in building your confidence and knowing what you are doing. Later, you find out that communication is also about knowing nothing at all.

Counter-intuitive perhaps, but that’s the wonder of it. It shows you how to breathe life into your relationships and produce powerful new thinking. You may even find that new insights, ideas and creative thoughts emerge from your daily conversations.

From Do to Be (doo bee doo bee)

Moreover, this counter-intuitive reversal applies to more than communication. Let’s say you become very good at something – it might be mathematics, medicine, playing the violin, archery or motorcycle maintenance. Then, when you have mastered everything you can, if you are blessed you break through to the next lever, which is something new – an intuition, a “feel for” – where knowledge and ability are no longer primary.

At this point, it becomes difficult to give expression to what has changed. Ask a true expert in anything how they achieve what they achieve, and they’ll struggle to explain beyond the basics. “I don’t know, I just know…” (a nice phrase in itself). Or they explain in riddles: “I just become my instrument.” “The answer reveals itself.”

Often a child has a natural instinct for some activity, and seems to achieve what a master could work a lifetime to achieve. In art for instance, how confusing it is for adults when a child paints a picture that is mistaken for a great master by experts! But that is the journey. We start with a natural instinct; then we lose the instinct as we learn more, and spend the rest of our lives learning how to recapture “the first fine careless rapture” within the wisdom of experience.

Innocence and experience

I mention in my book how struck I was by a short film of the artist Henri Matisse in old age, too frail to paint, cutting shapes to make his famous collages – scissors in one hand, painted paper held precariously mid-air in the other. Regarding his collage work, he wrote that your instinct needs to be kept fresh like a child, but with all the wealth of your experience behind you.

Finally, after a lifetime of learning, we arrive back at the same place we were at as a child but – as described by T S Eliot – now we know what we are doing. The Master and the child both achieve “the first fine careless rapture”, but the Master knows how it is done.

It is true that the odd child’s painting has deceived art experts. But when a controlled experiment was set up pitting the work of established artists against that of preschool children (as well as elephants, chimps etc.), a majority of people could tell the difference between the art of the child and the art of the recognised artist. (One comparison is pictured above.) They might struggle to explain in detail why they rated the artist’s painting higher, but they found a greater sense of intention or purpose in it.

Is any of this relevant for leadership?

Here are three thoughts:

  1. Don’t assume the spontaneous ease of good leadership is easy (music, art, communication and relationship likewise). Flow and sure instinct emerge from much experience.
  2. Until you reach true mastery, the best decisions can sometimes feel counter-intuitive. Always look beyond your first assessment of a situation to the bigger picture with its multiple threads leading backwards and forwards. (Topical tip: if you want to be a leader of nations, at the very least learn to play chess or Go – i.e. study systems).
  3. Don’t be always “out there”. Allow space for silence and not knowing. Find frequent times to come back in stillness to yourself.

By the way, the phrase “first fine careless rapture” comes from Robert Browning’s Home Thoughts From Abroad, and his “wise thrush” knows how it’s done. 

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!

A quote to herald the spring …

Go well,

Judy

The Art of Communication

is available for pre-order here. To be released in the next few days – can’t wait!

Coaching

In coaching you find a vital thinking space where you come back to yourself. A few simple conversations with a coach can be life changing and worth the investment many times over. Email me or call me on 01306 886114 if you want an initial conversation about what coaching might do for you.

Ease in Public Speaking

As a first step, download my E-course, 10 Secrets for Overcoming Performance Anxiety

The Surrey Earthquake

My colleague Neil Scotton wrote a powerful piece the night of our local earth tremor a couple of weeks ago. Find it here.

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