The rain helped, offering me fewer distractions. The writing went well: i completed my first five thousand words. Interestingly, they came in three bursts. The first in the morning, over coffee, the second early afternoon and the final one later in the evening. Whilst the last was the fastest, i need to revisit it to see if it’s actually coherent. I seemed to write so fast that i can’t help but feel i may have missed the point somewhere.
One of the strange things i find about writing is that it’s addictive: the more i write, the more ideas are buzzing around in my head that i want to write. The struggle is not to get hands to keyboard, but rather to keep myself focused on a single text. I’ll tell you one thing though, i really can’t imagine how anyone wrote a book by hand, with a pen and paper. It must have made the task twice as hard!
In any event, a section of yesterday’s writing is shown below. This is part of a chapter on ‘context’ in learning. It’s the first step of the learning methodology that i’m exploring. This particular section is very relaxed, a slower style than i typically use on the blog (but then again it’s four times as long as my average blog post, so i can afford to relax a bit). It’s not been proofed at the moment, so forgive any typos and grammatical mistakes. One of the joys of blogging in this semi formal social space is that it’s the first draft. It’s ok for it not to be perfect!
Skills for life: skills from life
“The last mile or so felt the hardest. Strange really as the ground was flat, the final approach through the valley to the pub, and the packs were the lightest they’d been all journey. When we started, two weeks earlier, it had been a struggle to even get them off the ground, but now we threw them on and off with ease. The boots that had started out feeling heavy and restrictive were now dusty and battered, blisters had worked their way through and we had adapted to an uneasy alliance with our bodies.
The old ‘reality’ of office chairs, computers and soft beds felt like a distant memory. Whilst the first week had felt hard, the relentless walking, the routine of pitching camp and the meagre portions of dried pasta for dinner, the routine had become our new reality.
There had been some touch points: the first day, in at the deep end with a relentless climb in the Cheviots in driving rain. Trudging through the soft mud as our boots succumbed to the depths of the marsh and slowly filled with mud then abraded our feet. Camping out that first night the tent had filled with water as we pitched it and it had been so cold that i slept in my full waterproofs and still shivered.
But the high points met and exceeded the low ones: waking up the next day to discover that we had camped in an old Roman marching fort. Seeing the ramparts rise above us, retracing the perfect rectangle of the walls and looking up at the same watery sun that would have greeted them. Then the long, slow descent and the sheer delight when we hit the road and found a greasy spoon cafe that wasn’t on the map: fried bread, eggs and tea when all we expected was a cereal bar.
There were moments on that walk when i felt i just wanted to give up: when my knee swelled up like a grapefruit each night and felt like it was grinding each morning, despite being strapped up. But there were moments that i wouldn’t trade for anything. On my birthday, camped up high above the meadows in Yorkshire, eating a Mr Kipling lemon slice when Paul reached into his bag and produced a single candle and a miniature of Glenfidich that he’d bought for the occasion. Moments of achievement, generosity, shared pain and inspiration.
The thing about expeditions where there are two of you is that someone is always ‘up’, whilst the other is ‘down’. Sometimes i would pull ahead, whilst at others it would be Paul, although at only one moment can i remember resenting it and thinking that he was doing it on purpose, that he was deliberately making me suffer. The closer you get to your limits, the more aware you are of those tiny edges of performance, more aware of how your mind tricks you and either pulls you back or spurs you on.
Like the day that we had walked through the sun for twenty four miles, made good time and hit the half way point. Normally, when walking, your day is divided into chunks, two hours of walking then a fifteen minute break, then another two hours and another break. Walking is all about putting one foot in front of the other, but success is achieved by doing it relentlessly. You’re constantly thinking about how far you are through the day, how many more minutes or hours to go. The feel of the day changes, from the morning, as you pack the bivi bags and contemplate the slog ahead, as you take the first tentative steps on aching, blistered feet and feel the sharp reminders of your weakness, through to the point half an hour later when the aches and pains have fallen away, then through lunch to the point where you have eroded the bulk of the challenge and finally through to the last session, when dinner and the camp beckon and you know you have achieved your daily target.
But this time it felt different. It was early, we felt strong, the sun was out and we decided to push on, a little further. And push on we did, but not slowly: somewhere we found a reserve of energy, a reserve that i couldn’t have accessed by myself. We were positively flying. We pushed on without a break, through the evening and up over Nine Standard Rig, a punishing stretch through broken and creviced peat bogs and past the ancient stones themselves. We pushed on for thirteen miles, until finally, with night falling, we arrived at the village and reality hit us. After thirty seven miles, i actually fell asleep on the pavement.
Being roused with a kick from my companion, we realised we had to walk a further mile to a campsite. That last mile was punishing. My mind had achieved what it set out to do. It has found deeper levels of motivation than i knew i had and my body had fallen into line. But now it had had enough. As i sought the strength to push on for the easy mile along the road to the camp, my mind retreated and left my body to take the blame and my body wanted none of it.
If you asked me what was harder: climbing a mountain or walking a mile on the flat, i would have replied that it was the mountain. But not when your mind has had enough. In this case it was the flat that nearly got me.
We often talk about ‘skills for life’, but what strikes me is that we get skills FROM life. Knowing what i am capable of achieving in one part of my life gives me strength and determination in others. Walking, for me, is one example. I may be daunted if you ask me to climb a mountain or embark on an expedition, but i am daunted in ways that i know, that are familiar. I know the fear, i know the pain and i know the exhaustion: equally, i know how to beat it. I have done it before.
Cross country cycling is, for me, a mindset as much as an activity. Climbing the never ending hill is about my ability to blank out distracting factors. I can put my head down and find a pace, i know not to look up, because what will that teach me? I know the only time i will give up is if i look up and see the climb to come. I know that my mind will surrender before my body does. So why give it the chance. Determination of this sort is something that i have had to learn, but now that i’ve learnt it, i can apply it in all sorts of different ways and places. This determination doesn’t just let me cycle up hills, it lets me write a book, or maintain faith and momentum when things seem difficult emotionally or in my social life. I have the image of looking down, of seeing the wheel going around and of feeling the momentum, the cadence of the pedalling.
I have learnt that if i focus on the detail, on putting one foot in front of another, or turning the crank one more time, of walking one more mile, then the journey will look after itself.
Learning these lessons from life falls into this informal schema for learning. It recognises that not all learning is formal, that we learn from everything we do and see. To imagine that all, or indeed the most important, learning is covered and derived in formal spaces is a mistake. Think about where you learned to love, to survive pain, to care. All of this is learnt informally. Where did you learn to be determined, to strive, to achieve? Not just in the classroom.
Skills and knowledge that we win in the formal learning space may well help us in our wider lives, but it’s certain that the skills we learn through life can help us in our formal spaces. An aspiration to recognise this is what drives the team building events that have us making bridges out of paper straws or walking across hot coals. It’s a noble venture, although i find myself personally cynical about most of it (although that may just be because i am inherently mistrustful of organised self development activities). I guess you can contrive to run these situations, but i prefer my social learning to come out of my own life, not some crafted event.
And i’m not sure how easy it is for someone else to make the links for me: the strength that i draw from my own achievements is a strength i draw upon in a very personal way. It’s built on achievement that i don’t think can be cultured easily. To climb the mountain you have to put one foot in front of another and carry your own bags. Our formal, corporate, fear of pain and failure may prevent us exposing ourselves and others to the very elements that are needed for learning. It’s hard to learn without the blisters.
The transferability of skills from one part of our lives to others does not, of course, relate exclusively to mountain climbing and cycling. Indeed, it permeates our being in all sorts of interesting ways. For some people, learning to cook may give them insight into other parts of their existence. I know that whilst, for me, cooking is a strictly utilitarian activity where the most creative i get is to grate cheese on top, for others it’s a truly involving affair.
I recognise that whilst i gain joy and challenge from painting, understanding how colours mix and merge, how the parts become a whole, for others, this satisfaction, this learning, comes through cooking. Or building radios. Or playing sport. Or gardening. Or indeed the full plethora of hobby activities that we participate in and learn through.
Indeed, it’s not just hobbies that can give us these transferable skills and mindsets. As our careers today are inevitably more fragmented, our ability to identify and transfer learning from one space to another is increasingly a skill for survival. What will you take away from that role where you managed your first team? That project that went disastrously wrong? That manager who you just could not get on with? If all we take is resentment or mistrust, we are missing a chance to learn.
Our formal learning programmes, from induction to management development and leadership modules, tend to be built around a syllabus, a curriculum that covers the key knowledge and skills and challenges us to learn them, to manipulate this information in very specific ways. It’s an approach to developing skills and applying them to our lives. I like this approach: it’s proactive and able to help people to identify and follow a skills development path that can help them.
But it’s only part of the story: skills from life is the flip side. It’s the reactive, painful, erratic and unstructured process of teasing out the learning from the pain, of working out what we did to make it right and what we did that went wrong. In a world where our careers are increasingly our own, where we can’t rely on an organisation to own them for us, we need to develop these skills for ourselves.
When we consider the context for learning, we need to think about how much of the learning is formal and what the informal elements look like. How can we encourage individuals to learn from experience or even to think actively about what this looks like?
Context is about understanding everyday reality, about knowing what is important for other people and ensuring that our messages resonate with those things. We need to understand the whole person, or at least to take account of the fact that there may be a ‘whole person’ beyond our understanding. People are rarely simple, having a great potential to excel, sometimes near the surface, sometimes buried deep. In the right situation, many people can achieve more than they believe: if we can help them to understand this and to learn from their achievements in different parts of their lives, we will be helping them to learn skills from life.”