Learning, Coaching and Inspiration
You might be a consultant, or an executive trying to understand how to motivate, or inspire yourself and others. Or, maybe you are interested in helping people grow beyond their own perceived limitations. It is possible that through relationships, disabled self-esteem could be healed and a sort of prowess developed if there is enough intention to begin with and willingness to let go of old fears. This story describes the role of a coach in such a relationship and how it changes over time. At the end of this story, there are some suggestions for you to get the most out of this story in case you are interested in applying the principles outlined in this story.
" Prasad, could you come and help me learn to use my computer?" I got a call the day after Christmas. The voice was urgent.
" Hi, John," I said. " What happened and why are you suddenly interested in learning about computers?"
You see, John is a senior executive in a Silicon Valley company. Now, in his late forties, he is known as a brilliant strategist. His contributions in marketing have been substantial and he is rumored to be in line to head his company.
I have known John for about five years. Over the years, we have developed a reasonably good personal relationship. I joke and use humor to help him see what he doesn't see by himself, and coach him in learning what he is up to.
This confident and smart gentleman has one area that has become his Achilles' heel: John is afraid of technology. He justifies his inability saying that he was hired for his marketing and administration expertise; he doesn't need or have time to learn to use technology. He would say, " I have an excellent assistant who can get these messages off my voice mail, or e-mail, and prioritize them for me. My time is better spent in looking at strategic issues!"
I heard that a month ago he was ridiculed for making presentations on old acetate overheads and for being `technophobic.' " How could he market technology when he himself is afraid of it?" colleagues who were jealous of John commented to each other. I think John has become aware of these comments and his self-esteem has been suffering and was beginning to affect his work.
I am aware though that `technophobia' is a common problem among executives in many companies. I wondered whether he was really afraid of technology or just unaware of its potential to transform his effectiveness. He could easily learn once he sees the possibility. With that background in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to receive his call.
He told me that his nephew, Tim, got an Apple Macintosh as a Christmas gift. Tim was so excited and John was puzzled: <"> Why would a seven year old be interested in a computer?<"> John observed what the kid did. Tim hooked them all up with minimal help and loaded the software onto his Mac. The kid was able to draw, cut and copy pictures, play games and print. John realized that he had no idea what technology could do, that he had been blind. He could now see how easy it is to learn to use computers, yet their potential for him was invisible.
Most of us run around life wearing blinders and ear muffs not seeing and hearing what we don't want to see or hear. In other words, we walk around with very limited ability to perceive things as they exist. We have some mental maps we follow, and old tapes we listen to, not paying attention to what is present at this moment. It is like we are on `autopilot' most of the time. It is a scary thought but true. John, in this case, suddenly began to notice that he was afraid and wanted to do something about it. He realized that he had been missing out by being on autopilot.
John now wanted to buy a computer during Christmas vacation so we went and bought an Apple Macintosh and a printer. He asked me to teach him how to write memos, send e-mail, prepare presentations, get on the Internet and master his computer by the time he got back to work in January.
John was impatient. He wanted to know it all---he wanted everything he wrote to be perfect the first time he did it. He did not listen to me. Maybe he wanted to prove his critics wrong.
After an hour of working on his memos he unsuccessfully tried to send them. Frustrated, he wanted to check out other programs. I suggested he save the files that he had typed before he opened other applications, but I don't think he registered that suggestion at all. We loaded on-line software and tried to get on the Internet. John did not know much about the Internet except that he had heard from others how great it is and how much stuff is available on it. He wanted to explore it. Just then, the computer froze up.
John did not understand why the computer froze and what to do. He moved the mouse and tried to type on the keyboard. Nothing happened. He was frustrated.
This scene repeated itself many times that day. When John found out that the memo he composed after two hours of work was gone because it was not saved, he was furious. John began to feel that I was not really helping him the way he wanted me to and, by the end of that evening, there was a lot of tension.
Many of us get to this place often in our work. Just because we are intelligent in one area, we expect that we will master another area just as quickly. Will it make a difference that you have 150 IQ when learning how to skate? All your theoretical knowledge about friction and movement does not help you much while on skates. You fall down until your body learns the distinction "balance." Most of us are unwilling to take time and practice what we want to learn while telling ourselves that we are `good in this but not good in that.' These unconscious beliefs become self fulfilling prophecies.
I wondered whether I had made a mistake by agreeing to help John learn how to use his computer. While I used computers a lot, I never really sat down and helped somebody else learn. I learned by exploring and making mistakes, so I assumed others would do the same. Maybe I don't know how to coach. While I was having doubts about myself, John was frustrated by his slow progress and was getting impatient with me. When we quit that night, both of us were tired.
" John did not know much about computers to begin with but had very high expectations of himself. Until he let go of his self image, it's not possible for him to learn something new," I thought. " He always focused on what he was good at, and, like all of us, lives in an invisible box."
How do we create the box around us? Each of us has personal boundaries based on our earlier conditioning and what we believe about ourselves. Each of us bumps into each other's boundaries, and such interactions shape our experience of the other person. Depending on our experience, we make assumptions about the other person and ourselves. Those assumptions become filters that mediate further experiences and quickly we begin to believe what we experience to be `the truth' and the only truth. This is how we create the invisible box that we live in. The box shapes our reality, and anything outside of that reality becomes invisible to us. Within our box, we are on autopilot.
You know what is strange? While our box is invisible to us, we see other people and their boxes quite easily. Instead of using our differences as opportunities for learning, we use them to pass judgment and call others on their limitations.
Within his box, John is calm, collected, witty, and intelligent. He can relate quite well to others who think and feel like him. Birds of a feather flock together. Right! It is not that he has a conscious bias against people with different personalities, but he just does not know how to relate to them unless there is a strong need or interest.
John, will always look for the solution to any problem inside his box because that is his entire world. Until he discovers that he is in a box and he is on autopilot, any amount of reflection (inside the box) would not help him to see what he has not seen before. He doesn't know what he doesn't know. When presented with an opportunity to learn, he gets frustrated or surprised. He may ask you to help him `think outside the box' when he learns that he is in a box. But, he reserves the right to change his mind. Reflection is only useful outside the box and not inside! That was a powerful insight for me.
I continued to reflect on the day as I went to bed. John had to learn by making his own mistakes and I could not protect him from making mistakes. By shielding him from failing, I was hindering his growth rather than helping him. Even though I noticed that John's self-esteem was low, he needed to work his way through it himself as I have had to work through my issues. If only I could think of an environment where we both could learn!
I know that I have my box around me (though I can't quite see it) and John has his box and he can't see his box either, I began to realize that I have not explored and learned new things about computers myself for a while. So I have to explore, fail and learn what I have not learned before I can coach John. In 1850, William Hazlitt said, " To get others to come into our ways of thinking, we must go over to theirs; and it is necessary to follow in order to lead. " To help John, I have to be where he is and get in the same box. Together we can appreciate the partnership and expand the capacity of the box by pushing its boundaries. I was turned on. Tomorrow, when I go to John's " I thought, " I should spend time learning what I have not learned about the Internet and that itself might `inspire' John. Maybe the essence of coaching is inspiration! " The game plan secure in mind, I fell asleep.
I woke up quite late. It was 9:30 am when my phone rang and John was on the line, wondering why I hadn't shown up yet. He confessed that his self-confidence was low. He asked me whether he was `learning disabled;' or had something missing that prevented him from learning how to use a computer.
I was glad that he was still interested in learning how to use the computer even though he doubted himself. " As long as you are willing to act, and are willing to let go of assumptions about yourself, you will be able to master it," I assured him. His old instincts were getting in the way.
It was important for him to discover that his instincts would not serve him well in learning how to use the computer. His instincts might be well honed in the field of marketing, but when using the computer, he had no prior experience. He might develop intuitive judgments over time, but he would have to work on the computer a lot before it becomes second nature and his instincts and intuition are reliable.
John hugged me when I reached his house later that morning. I noted that it was the first time he ever hugged me. I also felt the warmth, and learned that he had been reflecting. He saw how his expectations of himself were getting in the way and made a conscious choice to let go. We were both ready for a breakthrough.
John made significant progress that morning. He was open to whatever was happening and concentrating on learning what he was doing. John was not attached to producing memos and presentations, as he wanted to do the first day, but was there following instructions. He lost files when the computer crashed on him again, but it did not perturb him very much. He surrendered to the process of learning his computer. His self-esteem was no longer attached to results. Whenever he took a break, I tried to log onto the Internet and explore World-wide Web. I did not have much experience on the Web and I often got lost. It was fun and exciting to really see how small the world has become and how interconnected it was. Technology has a way of equalizing and democratizing information. Together, we explored Web sites from India, Nigeria, Canada, and Austria in addition to sites all over the USA. Learning together was like magic!
Openness and Flow
We were so engaged with the computer that we forgot to eat lunch. I offered to go pick up a pizza around 5 pm. When I came back, I noticed that John had written three letters, searched and downloaded several articles, and was preparing a presentation. He did not notice my return and I silently sat next to him. I realized that John was in a `zone'. He was actually using clip art, an outlining feature, and a timing feature to choose when a particular slide showed up as well as many advanced features to prepare for the next presentation that he needs to make for his board. He prepared 12 slides and he set them up for presentation on the screen. I could not contain my joy and shouted at him to look at what he had accomplished. His concentration was broken. For a moment, John took in what he did disbelievingly and then he beamed. Of course, you know what happened next? Right! His computer crashed and all the work he had done was lost again! I thought John would be crestfallen. John was not upset. He was ecstatic. He didn't care about the presentation or letters. He had already gone through the eye of the needle and was on the other side. He told me that he was going to connect his computer directly to the screen to make his presentations from now on. John was thinking of what was possible now that technology tools can augment his native intelligence. His fears were all gone.
He did not need me anymore. He was inspired. After showing me how adept he was in using PowerPoint (presentation software from Microsoft) and navigating his computer, he thanked me profusely for sticking with him through the experience. He laughed at himself for thinking that he was stupid and could never learn to use the computer.
I thanked John before I left because I learned a lot myself. I had had the computer for a long time but I was too lazy to explore the Web. I also had my own fears. In working with John, I learned how to learn and that the essence of coaching is inspiring. In the cycle of learning, John and I are at exactly the same point. Our paths might seem different, but we are both on a learning path. Inspiration is infectious.
John did not answer his phone for the next few days. I could not even reach his answering machine because he was on-line most of the time during Christmas vacation. In January, I heard that he had made a great presentation to his board and got them turned on about using computers themselves. He 'discovered' himself and his passion through his exploration.
The last time I heard about John and his computer explorations, he was spending many of his weekends teaching his directors how to take advantage of technology!
Here are two ways to get the most out of this story:
1. Read it as if you are the executive that I write about in this story. Substitute the issue that you are wrestling with instead of learning how to use computers. Pay attention to any insights that you might gain. Reflect at the end of your reading to see what actions you can take to make your insights help you. Read the story as often as you need to fine tune your own learning.
2. Read the story and see whether there is any relevance to your life and your issues. Pick one issue (it could be an aspiration that you wish to fulfil or a fear that you want to go beyond or a skill that you want to develop) that you have a strong intention to work with. Identify reasons why you have not been able to take action in that direction so far and if you have taken action identify what barriers did you encounter on the way. Reflect on what outside barriers (for example, money, other people, distance, time) are in your way and how to address them. Then reflect on your own attitudes and mental models that might be getting in the way fulfilling your intetion. Ask yourself whether you are willing to let go of your internal barriers. If you the answer is no, the intention is not strong enough to go beyond your fears.
If you do find that you are willing to let go of your own mental models and fears, then create a support system (like a coach) to help you on your path.
Once you are on your path, you find that you have to go through the same steps many a time (noticing your present status (conditioning), clarifying your intention, unlearning and letting go of old models and ideas, being open to what is present, manifesting and implementing what you gained as insight during openness and coaching others so that you can gain more clarity on the learning process yourself).
I wish you the best in your learning journey! I would love to hear your comments.
Prasad Kaipa is the founder and director of the Mithya Institute for Learning and Knowledge Architecture.
Prasad is grateful to Debu Ghosh, Rambabu Kaipa, Anne Levine, Mike Miley, Prof. Y. Murti, Chris Newham, Satya Sreenivas, John Tupper, and Russ Volckmann for their critical reading and comments on this article.
Copyright 1998, 1999, The Mithya Institute for Learning. All rights reserved.