A close friend has been interviewing. The owner of the company said he wanted one last chat. It seemed like the cherry on top. “I’m feeling nervous,” she told me. “Why?” I asked. She had been wanting to increase her salary and move to a more dynamic organization. “I’m scared I won’t be able to do the job,” she confessed.
How did learning become so scary? We are taught by the dominant culture that our safety – financial success, social status – is dependent on being in the driver’s seat. From the culture’s standpoint, to be a learner is to be in the junior, the subservient position. We see all exchanges in a zero-sum way: Winner, loser. Teacher, learner. One’s more is always to the other’s less.
But the word “learn” used to be a transitive verb – “She learned me how to ___.” The verbal equivalent of saloon doors, swinging open either way. The origin of the word is related to Old English words for “the sole of the foot” and “track” or “path.” Here at the word root is this dual concept – to walk a path or to explore is also to leave a path or to show the way. Somehow, a linguistic distinction has grown between teaching and learning that once didn’t exist.
I became a Learner when the universe dumped a cold bucket of water on me. I was guest-lecturing a class at the local University Business School. This was spring 2016. Donald Trump had not yet been elected, but he was making noise. In my presentation, some of the ads I shared were for a Miller High Life campaign that I had worked on back at the beginning of my career. It was the kind of project that an agency dreams of. Errol Morris shot the campaign in a bleached-vintage patina. On The Late Show, David Letterman wandered through the audience asking people if they were a “High Life Man.” Adam Sandler was seen wearing a MHL t-shirt. Miller was even able to raise the case price of the beer (unheard of!) due to the popularity. The ad world was enraptured. To this day there are still ad geeks who will track me down on LinkedIn to ask what the brief was for the campaign.
I breezed through a few High Life ads and, with all the ease of my vaunted position, called on a raised hand.
The question was, “Did you take gender equity into account with this campaign?”
Slightly off-balance, I answered lightly that the target wasn’t women.
Another raised hand declared more pointedly that they felt offended at the vision of masculinity presented in the work. They worked at a LGBTQ suicide hotline. The callers often felt pressured to emulate this type of masculinity.
At first, I tried weakly to defend the work – hey everyone, why so serious? Then I caught myself. I mean, once suicide enters a conversation, there is no contest.
I can see, I said, the light becoming clear, in a world where Donald Trump and an angry working class white America is becoming a real force, how this work could make people feel uncomfortable.
And now, I was uncomfortable about it too.
I sat. I listened. I was humbled. In the span of two comments, I was transformed. I had become a Learner.
Over the next few weeks, I tried to prostrate myself to this event, to bow to it, and take my lesson. Initially, my head was spinning with shame. I was a feminist, I had many queer friends – how had this never occurred to me? I saw how caught in time my relationship had been to this creative. For days, I wriggled; I had been knocked off a high horse but was still tied up in the reins. Finally, I succumbed to the ground.
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There were many lessons for me in this moment, but the biggest was in relation to my own posture and energy. The reason I didn’t stop and make space for the initial question, posed gently, like a pat on the hand, was that I was caught up in the masculine energy of authority and completing the objective. The dominant paradigm says we must have the answer. I’ve heard about corporate interviews where points are docked for applicants not claiming enough “I” (vs “we”). I was once interviewing someone who’s answer to the question “How would you collaborate” was that he’d love to teach what he knew. The dominant masculine says, no, I’m teaching the class here.
The empowered feminine says collaboration is essential, and the process is queen – not the outcome. The feminine allows us to define ourselves not by what we do, but by the inherent value of who we are. Had I been teaching from my feminine, I would have been unattached to the outcome and able to keep my balance enough to engage in some deeper conversation. From the feminine, I would have had the awareness that I too was there to learn.
In many ways, this lesson has informed much of the coaching work I do. My practice is full of people who feel they are failing at work because they don’t have the answer. I show clients how to step out of the dominant culture of overbearing masculine energy and into an empowered feminine to work from. After all, learning is our prime existential pursuit, connected to the universe – learning how to live on the planet, how to be with others, how to die.
So how to become a Learner at work? Stop identifying by our skill sets, for starters. It is our being – our perspective and creativity – that is most valuable. Free ourselves of the need to have an answer. Talk about where we are stuck or inspired. Trust the process to lead the way. Start to listen more – and see listening as an active and necessary pursuit. Don’t muscle anything into an inevitable conclusion. Allow. Invite. See what shows up. Have awareness of when our impulse is to control, reign in, correct, move along. Pause before we act and ask, “What’s really needed in this moment?” Finally, know that the ultimate learning is about connection – the sole of the foot on the path, meeting the earth.
We are inhabiting an intense cultural moment for learning. In the murky environment of COVID there is no clear answer for anything. In the George Floyd era, white America is learning how to see the whiteness more deeply, learning how to show up as anti-racist. As I was writing this piece, an old friend called. Her tween daughter had cut her hair and asserted her pronoun as they. This was all well and good, my friend was trying to be supportive and keep up. Then, they said they wanted to be called by a different name.
“All I could think of was holding her when she was born, knowing her name was Luz,” my friend said tearfully.
I knew I didn’t have anything in the specifics of her story to offer my friend. But I did have advice on being a Learner.
“Our children are here to help us evolve,” I offered to her. “The universe has literally expanded since we were born! And I’m not just talking about social media or gender fluidity – I mean literally the universe has grown. They are here to teach us.”
I suggested my friend start asking her child big questions.
“I have, I’ve said, help me understand your pronouns.”
“Yes, ask about pronouns. And also, ask about their knowing of who they are. Like, how long have you felt this way? Why this new name of all names? You are asking them, but you are really asking the universe. You’re asking for connection.”
We joke about her having aptly named her spiritual teacher Luz, “light”. My friend exhales.
I muse for a second. “Then ask yourself, why this now for ME?”