The cluster of strangers sitting or standing closely together reveals where an airport gate’s electrical outlets are located. Most travelers follow the unwritten rule of leaving an empty seat between them and the nearest fellow traveler. (Apparently we replicate what we hope to find in airplane seating while still at the gate.) However, when your phone has only 5% of its battery life left, the unwritten rule cedes its power to your need for a recharge.
Cell phone batteries do not recharge themselves. They give us network access for a certain amount of time. Then, without a cord and an outlet, they shut down. No more texting, no more surfing, not even a non-emergency phone call. Wouldn’t it be great if their batteries were in a constant state of energy renewal, if they never needed outside assistance to become useful again? At the very least, it would make the outlet Twister games between fellow airline travelers optional.
An organization characterized by a learning mindset seems to have found the secret to self-sustaining energy—a resource we call “passion.” Passion fuels pursuit and achievement. It finds untapped wells when energy levels run low and prevents determination and progress from dwindling. It’s invisible, but its effects are observable.
What can be seen in an organization with a learning mindset characterized by passion?
Eagerness, the excitement—or at least the will—to grow exceeds reluctance and resistance, even when it requires learning. I have worked with several organizations looking to improve their outcomes. While individual responses to improvement initiatives differ, the spectrum includes three general groups: the enthusiastic crusaders, the cautiously curious, and the unhearing critics. The first group, the enthusiastic crusaders, are usually anxious to move from the current station of teaching to any train going in another direction. The third group, the unhearing critics, desire their own status quo. They are usually biding their time until the next holiday break, summer, or the day they can leave the organization.
The middle group, the cautiously curious, provides the stability and progress needed to make the desired change reality. Their eagerness is slightly greater than their questions; in other words, they want to know more, even when the answers they receive differ from their expectations. In fact, their questions indicate focused attention, which is essential for constructing understanding. “As we focus on what we are learning,” explains Daniel Goleman, “the brain maps that information on what we already know, making new neural connections.”1 It is such connections between the new and the known that promote practical and flexible comprehension. The cautiously curious may not be an initiative’s initial cheerleaders, but their eagerness to understand makes them solid long-term supporters and effective practitioners.
The cautiously curious are guarded for a good reason; they desire to understand underlying principles rather than thoughtlessly follow a prescribed sequence of steps. The understanding they’ve carefully constructed directs continued effectiveness when current practices do not yield results. They act intentionally, knowing why what they do works.
They are like experienced surgeons. They know the way to get from Point A to Point B (or C or D or…), but they also know what to do when an unexpected curve shows up in the process. A surgeon who only knows the procedure when everything goes according to plan is likely to panic, proceed without attending to the changed circumstances, or quit mid-way through and blame the process (or other colleagues) for the poor results.
Recognizing that understanding enables strategic thinking, the learning mindset desires deep-rooted comprehension of research and practice.
Initial success can be circumstantial; sustained success results from continual growth. A passionate practitioner, be that a tennis player, a teacher, an architect, or any other example of accomplished human endeavor, seeks new growth and improved capacity without external prompting or extrinsic motivation.
We occasionally play a game with our dog Ernest (named after the Oscar Wilde play). We show him that we have a treat, and then we make him sit while we hide it. When we say, “Okay!,” he begins to search, mostly following his nose. If the treat is well hidden, he will occasionally stop and look to us for guidance, but he never gives up. That treat will be found! Of course as soon as he finds it, he thinks we should play another round.
Ernest is a great metaphor for a self-directed learner. There is something to be discovered, to be known, and once it’s understood, there is something else to pursue. While there may be pauses for guidance along the way, the passion for comprehending is greater than the challenge of the pursuit.
So, when it comes to you and your organization:
- Is an eagerness to grow evident, even when it means learning and mastering new concepts and skills? Are we eager, ready to learn?
- Is there a desire for understanding so that intentional action and flexible strategizing is possible? Are we applying our minds to constructing deep and useful understandings?
- Is there a self-driven striving for continual growth, a drive that is not dependent on approval, kudos, or rewards from external sources? Are we pursuing new learning because we love our craft?
- In short, are we (Am I? Are you? Are our organizations?) passionate practitioners? Are we generally charged up and genuinely excited about the potential of today and tomorrow and our part in fulfilling it?
Our honest responses matter, because passion is the self-charging battery that powers authentic learning organizations.
- Goleman, D. Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (New York: HarperCollins, 16).