Saturday, July 23, 2011

Kayaking and Creating Self-Narratives

Joan Didion, in her White Album, once wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live...We interpret what we see, select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images..." I think, however, that we are all writers really--authors of our own self-narratives--and a couple of events lately have made me realize, once again, the truth of what Didion says.

Last month some friends of mine and my wife's brought their five grandchildren over to my parent's lake house. They all changed into bathing suits and rushed to the dock to jump in the water. However, one child in particular, ten-year old Sarah, spied something she had never seen before--kayaks--and wanted to know what they were and what they did. There was an eagerness in her eyes and the kind of freshness you recognize when you see something intriguing for the first time. The next hour was spent with Sarah climbing in and out of the bright yellow Wilderness Systems Ripper kayak, and her figuring out how to paddle and turn back and forth in different directions.

There is nothing unusual in this story except that watching her brought back a powerful memory of a time when, as I confirmed with my parents later, I was exactly the same age as Sarah and my family was driving cross-country. We stopped at a ranch of friends of theirs in Buffalo, Wyoming. Sherwood Smedley, I am told, was an iconoclastic Chemistry teacher who decided to wear bolo ties when faculty were suddenly required to sport neckwear, slept on the porch of his cabin all summer and each morning would reach down through a trap door next to his bed and pull out a cool beer. But what I remember most was that he had horses, and I got to ride them. I do not actually remember much conscious detail from that time, but I do retain such a strong feeling that it has become part of my working memory.

The feeling was one of awe at the size of the horses, but also of risk and danger once I was on them. And yet, I had a degree of control at the same time. The horse responded to what I did, but also had a mind of it own. There was a feeling of self-efficacy, but also of chance and mystery. The feeling was exhilarating and unforgettable. And I have always wondered why this feeling has captured my imagination for so long and with such precision and tenor.

At the time that Sarah and her family arrived at the lake I was reading a book by a social psychologist, Timothy Wilson, entitled Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. The assumption behind social psychology is that it is not the environment that influences people as much as their constructs of the world--the stories we tell themselves. But Wilson goes Didion one more level and studies what he calls the "adaptive unconscious." (This idea was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink.) Wilson writes, "we can define the adaptive unconscious as the mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgments, feelings, or behaviors. Our sense at any one time are taking in 11,000,000,000 pieces of information: this is the number of receptor cells in each sense organ and the nerves that go to the brain. Our eyes receive 10,000,000,000 signals a second. We consciously process only about 40 pieces of information per second, which suggest something is processing the rest of the data."

I think that my time riding horses on Sherwood Smedley's ranch in Wyoming in 1962 may well have been a feeling that is a powerful thread that underwrites my own story of who I am. The fact that I have done nothing since with horses, or Wyoming is irrelevant because it was the "feeling" that I remember so vividly, not the circumstances. Is it true then that Didion is right, we tell ourselves stories in order to live, but that Wilson is right too? There is another part, just as strong or stronger sometimes, that does not work in a narrative way, but works prior to us actually making choices, but is just as determining of who we think we are? Sometimes we just have feelings that aren't really fully formed stories, but the results of which are observable to ourselves and other people in our behavior.

I spent the next couple of hours kayaking with Sarah to different parts of the lake and watching her excitement as she found (and I consciously encouraged) new things to do at every stop--how to turn circles, how to surf waves, how jump on and off from different rafts we came upon. I confess it was a re-living of that time in Wyoming, but now something that I was facilitating in someone else. As I had been reading in Wilson's book, "We should let our adaptive unconscious do the job of forming reliable feelings and then trust those feelings, even if we cannot explain them entirely." Is it possible that Sarah could leave the lake that afternoon with a defining experience because she will incorporate the feeling of kayaking on Great East Lake into her own sense of her personality and her behavior and the story she tells herself about who she is?

So, after all of this, I am wondering, what are the other times in my life where I let my adaptive unconscious form reliable feelings, and then acted upon them in a way that made them part of the story of who I am? And how might I get better at recognizing those moments of Sarah kayaking, and act to help them along? Recognizing, and creating, those environments would be a level of "teaching" I could really learn from.

The Wizard of Oz and Experience-based Learning

A few weeks ago, I had to summarize "experience-based learning" in a few words. I found myself invoking the story of the Wizard of Oz as containing many of the elements that make a piece of learning "transformative." I am also now wondering the degree to which that story is an American story, and the degree to which it is universal. My old freshman dean in college (and the school's wrestling coach), Henry Littlefield, had written a piece that argued that L. Frank Baum's children's book was a "Parable on Populism" that told an allegorical tale of late nineteenth century political struggle. This makes some sense to me (as long as the ruby slippers are actually silver), but I wanted to unpack the mythic qualities more than the allegorical.

First, all "deep learning" (the kind of learning that is internalized and alters the way you see yourself or the world) contains expectation failure. As Satchel Paige once remarked, "It's not what you don't know that hurts you. It's what you know that just ain't so." Our own experience has taught us certain things to be true, but sometimes, in new situations, those things are shown to be inadequate. Or, as Dorothy puts it so succinctly, "Toto, I have the feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." You have entered the DKDK Zone (see earlier post)! Almost all experience-based learning has to start with this recognition.

Second, there is, in fact, almost always some form of recognition that takes place. We usually think of recognition as gaining plaudits or awards, but it is, more deeply, etymologically, from "recognize" which contains the root for "cognition." Re-cognition, then, is to perceive truth and usually with the idea that you are identifying something that you already know. This is why T.S. Eliot's remark from the Four Quartets, "And the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/And know it for the first time" is so a powerful mantra for experience-based learners. Experience-based learning, as the Romantic poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth understood, is always about "making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar." It is about understanding something you have always understood, but in a different way than you ever have before.

Lastly, experience-based learning works best as a form of creative collaboration. It is always helps to have a Scarecrow, a Tin Man and Cowardly Lion along with you on your exploration. And that part of what I was trying say at the Gala Fundraiser we had at CITYterm last month. Because when you are engaged with other people in experience-based learning the expectation failures don't seem so threatening and the recognitions seem that much deeper and more life-changing. When I am thinking about "lesson planning," I often end up going through a checklist that contains all three of these ideas--expectation failure, recognition, creative collaboration. If I don't see how they might happen, it reduces the chance of something becoming an experience.

Of course, one of the most important realizations of skipping down the Yellow Brick Road is that the Wiz isn't really a Wiz because of the "wonderful things he does," but that "you've always had the power, but you had to learn it for yourself." And, of course, that the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion were already there in Kansas you just needed to make the familiar strange to see it anew.

What do you think are some of the crucial characteristics of why some learning becomes an experience? I would love to explore some of those ideas--let me know what seems most important to you as you think about what events in your life have been transformed into experiences that you learn from all the time.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Going Home

Going Home

One time when I was doing some work with a school in Los Angeles, I left my boutique hotel, La Amarano, and found myself walking down the street. There is nothing odd about this for me, but I soon noticed that there was no one else walking down the street. In New York everyone walks; in L.A. no one, I mean no one, walks—except for homeless people. It brought back a scene for the Steve Martin film, L.A. Story, where he hops in his car to drive down the block to visit his friend.

So, this being L.A., it was just me and this one homeless guy, shopping cart filled with cans and clothes, walking down North Pass Ave. And we got to talking because we were the only two people not hermetically sealed up in motorized machines. He said that the difference between being homeless in L.A. was that there were different “vulnerabilities.” That phrase wouldn’t leave me alone, and I find myself realizing that both homelessness and feeling at home are both tied up in one's relationship to vulnerabilities. I remembered reading a book by Kenwyn Smith, Yearning for Home in Troubled Times, that talked about some of these concepts, but it was really this encounter with this man that made the ideas jump out of the recesses of my mind.

One of the hardest things about creating a feeling of home, especially in a new space, is that there seems to be an ironic prerequisite—a feeling of homelessness. I don’t mean that one defines the other (though that may be true) but that we must literally feel “homeless” in order to feel at home. Think of all the stories we tell ourselves to remember this—the Jews wandering in Egypt for scores of years. African-Americans trapped in slavery for hundreds of years trying to reach the promised land. Going home is truly the realization of “amazing grace”—I once was “lost but now I am found.”

The lesson may be that one can only come to be truly home from a state of exile. But is it exile, or a pilgrimage? It is the lesson of Lee Stringer’s life—“the gates of hell are locked from the inside.” Home can’t be achieved without that feeling of uncertainty, of feeling lost, of feeling not in control, of acknowledging vulnerability? We refuse to acknowledge this vulnerability; we run from it with all our might. And, ironically, it is this stubborn refusal that traps us in the feelings of alienation and despair and incompleteness that do not allow us to have the feeling of home. If you acknowledge your vulnerability, you actually gain leverage on the feeling of being at home. Home is not the denial of being vulnerable; it is not that kind of safety (which is an illusion after all). It is the incorporation of vulnerability into our lives that allows for the creation of a home.

Then I began to think about how this applied to experience-based learning. What I began to realize is that in the realm of creativity, there is always an artistic homelessness that precedes the creative act. One never becomes truly independent until one leaves one home to create another. The feeling of homelessness that CITYtermers have in the first few weeks is unsettling, unstable, precarious but is it necessary for them to be able to create a home in a new place? Ironically, growth often occurs from losing our sense of "home" and having to realize that home is a condition of the spirit.

We feel at home when we satisfy three things: we feel that our authentic self is allowed to express itself; we feel that the common good nourishes us and needs us and spiritually, that there is some mystery that we do not control but we believe means us well.

Notice what is missing—the physical space we think of as home. That is just a shell. If it were otherwise, there would be people who possessed that material thing would feel at home—but they don’t. To be sure, we need the sense of physical safety, but not in the way we obsessively think about producing our "edifice complexes."

This is the wisdom of the Wizard of Oz—there truly is no place like home. But home is not some physical place like Oz. Oz is, in this case, actually necessary to create the feeling of homelessness that allows Dorothy (and maybe ToTo) to achieve the feeling of home. There is no Wizard, there is no medal, no clock heart, and certainly no diploma that can actually make you feel at home. Yet we strive for all those things not realizing that catching fire, and rusting and being scared are the vulnerabilities that we have to embrace in the community of others to really feel at home.