Posts Tagged ‘learning’


The monkeys learned the song My Funny Valentine at preschool for Valentine’s day. (I love the monkey’s preschool!) They’ve been singing it for a few weeks now, and I’m finally learning the words. But between the three of us, we all mess up the song almost all of the time. Tonight at dinner, the wrong word led to screams and shouts.

I don’t know about you but screams and shouts are two of my least favorite things to have for dinner. So I decided to put a stop to the arguing by listening to the song on You Tube. We listened to this version by Chet Baker, this one by Etta James, and this really great oneby AJ, who I’ve never heard of.

Listening to different variations, we heard different singers use a few different words and treat the vocals very differently. I tried to tell the monkeys that these variations are what makes music interesting. I talked about how different singers interpret the song differently, and that’s what makes it interesting. How you can learn from each version, or listen to them all and decide which one you like best. I promoted this approach to listening to and making music over their current approach, which involves screaming and fighting over whether the words are “is your finger less than Greek” or “is your figure less than Greek.” 

But I have to admit I was  talking for the sake of pleasing myself, instead of actually teaching them anything.

As music novices, they’re still sticklers for rules. They learned the song one way and that’s how it goes. As they get better at singing, and learn more songs, they’ll become more comfortable trying varying approaches. But not until then.

It’s kind of like how it’s often harder to work with a client who is new to an organization than it is to work with someone who has learned the rules and knows which ones can and should be bent. Or like how a seasoned researcher can divert from textbook research methodologies and still get insights that are interesting and valid, because she knows the rules that underlie the methodologies, and therefore can alter the way the research looks without altering how it works. But someone who is new to the field will tell you that things  MUST BE DONE A CERTAIN WAY.

With experience, comes appreciation of variation and diversity. When you’re still learning something, that variation is confusing and consistency reigns. It was fun watching all the videos, and the monkeys did enjoy them. But I’m still going to have to weigh in and resolve the argument: it’s figure, not finger. Go figure.


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A few months ago, I was speaking with a client who I’ve become friends with over a couple of years of working together. She has 7 year old twin boys and my monkeys are three, so in addition to talking about work I often turn to her for twin management advice. She’s super smart, has a great sense of humor, and seems amazingly on top of her shit.

I was totally shocked when she revealed to me that she was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and was about to undergo radiation treatments. I offered whatever commiseration and compassion I could, and she told me that she was managing pretty well.

Initially, she was scared, anxious and overwhelmed. Over time, it’s gotten better. She had come to see the situation as an opportunity to grow, to rise up to the challenge of asking for and receiving help, and to remind herself of her strength. Overall, her prognosis is good and she is extremely positive.

One thing that helped, she said, was maintaining a perspective on the situation. She keeps the Chinese character for crisis posted on her desk. The symbol is a combination of the words for danger and opportunity, she told me. She said it was comforting to see the opportunity in the situation, and it helped her not to dwell on the danger.

I thought it was a very poignant story, and immediately loved this idea of hope amidst crisis.  I planned on blogging about it, but as soon as I Googled the idea I found about 10 different posts saying that while Westerners like to say this, it’s not really true. It’s a misinterpretation of the way Chinese characters work. The anthropologist in me values the intrinsic Chinese cultural perspective over Western interpretations of the culture, and so I decided that it wasn’t really true and that I shouldn’t write about it.

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about breast cancer and I’ve come to a new interpretation of the crisis means danger plus opportunity interpretation. I’ve decided that it doesn’t really matter if it’s technically true or not. If it’s a powerful way of thinking about a crappy situation then it is, in some way, true. I’m sure it’s true to my client, if not to Chinese linguists.

Before, I dismissed the wisdom in the perspective because it wasn’t grounded in absolute truth. But now I realize that sometimes, truth is irrelevant. It doesn’t hurt anyone to believe that there’s ancient wisdom about how a person can respond to a situation. And it’s such a powerful idea that I believe it can really help ground a person’s approach to dealing with a frightening and often painful disease.

I wonder when else we let our intellectual understanding of a topic or an idea get in the way of emotional insight. I’m pretty sure it happens more than we know. I’d love to hear about your experiences with the truth in the comments below.

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We went to Ikea for dinner tonight. (This time, we didn’t go just to get the monkeys to behave, but knowing that I wanted to go check some stuff out gave me a great way to keep those guys in line all day. A nice byproduct.)

After dinner, we went downstairs to get ice cream. We got the cones, but didn’t manage to get the extra cups and spoons we usually give them so they can eat their ice cream and not make a total mess. As they started to eat I realized that at 3 years old, the monkeys are actually old enough to learn how to eat an ice cream cone.

Being old enough to learn how to properly lick an ice cream cone is not a major milestone that’s likely to be found in any parenting book. But it’s another reminder that they’re growing up, and fast. 

Tonight, it was another reminder that we cling to the practices that worked when they were younger because that’s becomes the habit that we’re in. Assisted ice cream eating, sitting in high chairs at the dinner table, swinging in the baby swings at the park, and ‘bumping’ down the stairs are just a few of the things I can think of that we should probably be moving past soon. But they’ve become as much crutches for me as they are assists for the monkeys. The high chairs keep them stuck in their seats. When they bump down the stairs, I don’t have to watch them as closely (and they can carry things!). All these reasons keep me – and them – rooted in what’s comfortable instead of looking for opportunities to grow.

And to be fair, it’s not just me. Although they are getting to be ‘big boys’ the monkeys still love to be cuddled, coddled and carried – mostly by me. They like to play the baby role almost as much as they like playing the big boy role.

But there’s something exciting and fun about teaching your kids the proper technique for maximum enjoyment of ice cream with minimum melting all over your hands. And for them, there’s something exciting about developing new skills and doing things that the big kids can do. Even as we give up some of the positive benefits of old behaviors, we gain something from adopting new ones.

It’s not just our kids that we get into these patterns with, of course, it’s our colleagues, too.

It’s easy to limit someone’s growth by saying – she’s not ready, we’ll give her training wheels and then, someday she can do it on her own. It even sounds like you’re doing something nice. But you’re not. You’re limiting her growth. Because without trying, she’ll never really learn.

Often growth happens at work by accident. People get pushed into developing or demonstrating new skills and flexing new muscles when they have to – a particularly difficult project or a very busy day means that everyone has to step up and eat their ice cream without a cup. And that’s when you realize that they can. But it’s probably worthwhile to be more proactive about providing these opportunities, not just taking advantage of them when they come up.

But I am going to be so sad to get rid of those high chairs.


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My company just celebrated it’s 10th Anniversary. To celebrate, we invited some amazing thinkers and doers to talk about whatever they’re thinking about and doing these days. My brain is full of interesting ideas, which I’m sure will spill into the blog over time.

But today I’m thinking about one speaker in particular, Andy Hargadon. His blog is here. He’s a prof at the UC Davis School of Management with a very impressive bio.  One of the things that I appreciate the most about his work is the way he explodes the myths around ideas and innovation. Andy has discovered that innovation isn’t about building a better mousetrap. It’s about building networks of relationships between buyers, sellers, advocates, financiers, etc around the mousetrap. Without the networks, even the best mousetrap just sits on some stores shelf or, worse, in your warehouse. According to Andy, the idea is only the beginning of the innovation process. The hard part is what comes next, building the right network around the idea.

Anyone who has ever created a great product that didn’t succeed knows how true Andy’s findings are. Most new products that are introduced fail. And sure, some fail because they’re not actually better. But many excellent ideas still don’t succeed, and a lack of a supporting infrastructure, or network, is one common reason.

Parents who don’t want to constantly be tearing their hair out also leverage the power of the network. We have a network of teachers, babysitters, grandparents and great-grandparents that help us care for the monkeys while we work and play. They’re not just there for child-care, though. They’re critical parts of our child raising network because they can teach them things that we can’t. Mom mom, the monkey’s great grandmother, is good for introducing new songs and stories. Pop Pop, their grandfather, knows how to dig giant holes in the sand. Nana knows the entire tune of Peter and the Wolf. I know how to make pizza dough. We all play our part.

The network isn’t just critical to working moms, either. My sister-in-law just told me about her friend who decided to host a summer camp in her home. Her three kids each invited a couple of friends over, she hired a teacher or two, and voilla, instant summer fun. The kids got to participate in some new activities, the moms got a bit of a break, and the hosts didn’t even have to change out of their PJs until 10 AM.

The myth of the nuclear family is almost as strong as the myth of the lone inventor. Believe in either at your own expense – not only are you less likely to succeed, you’re less likely to have fun while you’re doing it.

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At school and at work, we learn to build on our experiences.

In fact, the older the get, the longer we’re supposed to remember information. When you’re younger, you get tested on what you’ve learned that week, or that month. By the time you’re in college or graduate school, you may only get tested once every few months, on information that’s supposed to accumulate in your brain over time. Professional careers build on knowledge that we’ve built up over even longer periods of time.  We’re valued for having wisdom and expertise, which comes with years if not decades of practice.

And then we have kids. And they have bad days.

After half an hour of whining, not listening, hitting, and other merriment, my monkeys will suddenly want to snuggle and cuddle and play nice with me. They seem to have forgotten everything that’s happened over the course of the past hour and are ready to resume normal hanging out. But not me. I’ve been trained for years to build my knowledge over time, and I can’t just forget the bad behavior, even if it’s already been addressed.

Tonight, I’ve decided that it’s time to unlearn years of conditioning and start forgetting.

In fact, I’m trying to get myself to consciously re-set my attitude every 1/2 an hour or so. The past few days with the monkeys have been very trying, and I find that if I don’t consciously try and reset my attitude, I easily spiral into a frustrated, angry, yelling mom. And I miss opportunities to cuddle, play and generally hang out because I’m still annoyed about what happened a short time ago. But I’ve already punished the act, and so acting out my frustrations with this ‘phase’ (god I hope it’s a phase) doesn’t really do anyone any good.

I recently read a great Parent Hack, called Pause Your Nose. It’s a brilliant fun and physical way to inspire the behavior I’m looking for, and I already use it all the time on the monkeys. They think it’s really funny.
I’m going to try a similar trick on myself: pressing Acupoint 11 when I need to do a hard reset. Best case scenario, I’ll forget about the fighting and arguing, and once again become a patient, calm, fun, and engaged mom. Worst case scenario, I’ll think it’s funny.

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This is one of my favorite of the Heath’s suggestions because it is so true. I tend to be an abstract thinker, and often, no one has a clue what I’m talking about. Until I take the time to get specific and concrete. And then, of course, everyone sees how brilliant I really am.

I’ve actually become a lot more concrete since the monkeys were born. My company uses the thinking style assessment based on the work by Anthony Gregorc. It assesses your thinking styles based on two metrics: whether you tend to order or organize information sequentially or randomly and whether you are better at processing or perceiving information that’s abstract or concrete.

I’m off the charts random, which I’m pretty sure is never going to change. And I have always been more abstract than concrete. But soon after the monkeys were born, I retook the test and found that I’d become more concrete than abstract. Which makes sense when you think that very young children don’t yet have the capacity to think abstract thoughts. So if you want to communicate with little kids at all, you have to start being more concrete. Which has served me well, since I’ve also found that the more senior my client, the more likely it is that he or she responds better to information that’s concrete than information that’s abstract.

So how do you get more concrete? Well, for starters, think of all of the times that we talk in abstractions of time to our children whose concept of time is not yet well developed. “Oh, wait just a minute, honey,” I’ll say to a monkey who is trying to get my attention. Or, “No, we don’t have tumbling class today, it’s another few days until tumbling class.” Even if I get to a level that I think is concrete – naming the days of the week, my monkeys will nod, and agree with me, but not really know what I’m talking about.

Sometimes it’s OK for a notion to remain vague and abstract, but other times it’s really important to convey an actual sense of duration and time. When we’ve got hot food on a plate, and the monkeys need to wait before biting into it, for example, I found that “wait 2 minutes” didn’t work so well. No surprise, since 2 minutes is an abstract notion to a two-year-old. Finally, I caught on. Now I tell them how long they need to wait by telling them how many times they need to sing the ABC. “This is really hot, honey, you need two ABC’s before taking a bite.” And they launch into song. We now use ABC’s whenever we need to ask them to wait a minute or two. It helps them mark time and they really know those ABC’s.

And how does this translate into sharing ideas in the workplace? Even I’m not crazy enough to suggest asking your clients or your colleagues to start singing ABC’s. But I do think it’s worthwhile to take the time to ensure that your ideas are concrete. Especially those really fun, ambiguous, big ideas. 

Sometimes, it’s relatively easy to get concrete just by forcing yourself to get specific. But when you’ve got an idea with lots of nuance and complexity, a great way to make it concrete is through a metaphor. Two of my all time favorite metaphors come from the parenting world, but you get the idea.

  • From a parent of twins, on having a singleton: taking care of one baby is like taking care of a goldfish.
  • From a pediatrician in Manhattan: three kids is the new Hummer.

I know, these are both kind of obnoxious sentiments. But they’re sticky. I love that each metaphor is immediately evocative, conveys a ton of information, and is memorable. Finding equally specific metaphors to capture your big ideas will help them stick.

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I bought two great 3 piece puzzles by Melissa & Doug over a year ago. Both have animals  that are easy for the monkeys to recognize and really big pieces with big knobs to hold onto. The monkeys started playing with them when they were about 12 months old, and could do them by 18 months. Today, I was organizing the toys and put them in a front and center location, even though I knew that they were kind of easy for the boys to do.

Before bedtime, Monkey 2 got both puzzles out, and starting doing them together. He’d take all 6 pieces our of both puzzles, and treat it like one much larger puzzle. He did the puzzles and took them back apart and did them again with this same method about 4 times. He was enjoying himself.

I was fascinated watching him turn two easy puzzles into one slightly more complicated one. I’m pretty sure it was his way of keeping things interesting. After all, while he is capable of doing much harder puzzles, it’s probably still fun for him to ace something. But he’s no slacker, so he gave himself a small challenge by doing two at once.

Watching him made me wonder how much of what goes on in the workplace is the result of the same drive: people wanting to find the line between what they’re good at and what’s challenging to stay engaged in their work. Sometimes, you want to push yourself harder and so pick out a harder puzzle to attack. Sometimes you’re handed a harder puzzle and don’t have a choice. But sometimes, you get to do an easy one, which is nice. And also a bit boring – so maybe you start doing two easy ones, or three, to see how much you can handle.

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