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Trial & Error or Tried & “True”? …Or, a Matter of Balance?

Monkey & camera

Learning through dimonstrazione is the second of Leonardo da Vinci’s lifelong habits advocated by Michael Gelb, author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. Gelb describes this approach as “a commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.” 

The leaders in the 2009 IBM CEO study who successfully managed innovative resurgences in their organizations urge other leaders to increase their comfort with ambiguity, ongoing experimentation, and taking "calculated risks." Fostering organizational cultures that encourage questioning and the challenging of assumptions and that continuously solicit new and original ideas leads directly to experimentation, which involves exploring lesser known paths. Not all of these paths will necessarily lead to success.

Is there such a thing as "a mistake"?
Some say, "No," that “there are no mistakes.” Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “Experience never errs; it is only your judgment that errs in promising itself results as not caused by your experiments.”  The maestro certainly had his share of failures. Yet, while he experienced tremendous adversity which resulted in periods of self-doubt, he never gave up. Gelb cites studies by Dr. Martin Seligman that find career success is directly linked with resilience in the face of adversity, and that this hardiness goes hand-in-hand with a willingness to make and learn from mistakes. Gelb and Seligman assert that awareness, a sense of humor, and deep contemplation help us overcome adversity, just as they did for da Vinci.

Following my own instincts, learning through experience, and sometimes going "by the seat of my pants” is what I’ve done much of my life. However, I would not be honest if I didn’t share that I have mixed feelings about this approach and that I don’t think that it is always the smartest route. Some who know me well as the ardent follower of my own drummer might be surprised to hear me say this. And so, I've struggled more with this post than with others as I've sorted this through to find resolution, as you will read further down.

Is there a generational divide when it comes to learning by doing versus learning from elders?
I'm not so sure there is. 
There has been considerable discussion in the training and development field about experiential learning as the preferred learning style of much of the Millennial Generation. I recommend a particularly well-written blog piece on this topic: Do Millennials Think That They Can't Learn From Boomers? The Surprising Truth. The article asserts that Gen Y'rs do look to their elders to help them to learn some of the more nuanced areas of knowledge which generally come through experience, such as how to read people, how to negotiate, etc.

And while Millennials prefer learning many new skills by doing, they also want mentors who will give them immediate feedback and who solicit their ideas for ways to enhance the learning process. The latter helps them to engage more enthusiastically, draws on their considerable creative thinking abilities, and will likely yield valuable improvements. I believe that most adults of any age would prefer this style of learning, given the option. Unfortunately, there was less choice offered in how previous generations were educated and trained. Hopefully, the learning-style preferences of this sizeable younger generation will serve to create changes in training delivery that will benefit all. 

Both/and: Trial, Error & Mentors Horsehead yin-yang
It seems to me that, as with so many other things in life, the key may be to find the right balance: to seek out opportunities to learn by doing and to find wise mentors. The last words of the Buddha were said to have been, “Be a lamp unto your selves.” In other words, listen to what wise teachers have to share, and read the great books, but don’t accept everything they have to say without question. We need to process their teachings through the illumination of our own reasoning and experience, so that they become part of our own knowledge base, instead of someone else’s.

Unfortunately, those who didn't have good mentors when they were young and necessarily became self-reliant don't always realize that they would benefit from wise champions, and therefore don't seek them out. But I believe we would all do well to find caring mentors who encourage us to imagine, create, and experiment while also sharing enough of their own experience with us so that when we fail, we don’t fall too hard or precipitously. 

Most of the stand-out leaders in the IBM study said that mentoring is the style of leadership toward which they have been shifting, as opposed to that of command-and-control. The "persuade and influence" approach they endorse permits leaders to step back and encourage experiential learning and some risk-taking, while also providing a sounding board and support in thinking through ideas. I believe that it is this style of leadership that will fill organizations with the critical and creative thinkers who will themselves lead.

The next post will contain a few exercises from Gelb’s book that will help us to  explore the role experiential learning has played in our own lives and how we feel about (gulp!) "mistakes" we have made.

Cat Eyes w fish friendWho among us has not heard this unfortunate maxim repeatedly from the time we were very young?  This cautionary saying has been brandished as a means of squelching natural human curiosity for 400+ years, when it was first penned for characters in plays by Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare.  However, some version of these sentiments has likely been in existence for millennia, serving to instill trepidation into the hearts of children and adults alike that trouble comes to those who ask too many questions!

But don’t believe it!!  Resistance is not futile!  Reawakening our innate sense of inquisitiveness and wonder is essential to cultivating our creative and innovative mindsets.  Leonardo da Vinci’s voracious curiosity led him to being rigorous in seeking ways to examine everything from a range of perspectives.   He sketched his subjects from different sides, and from above, and/or below.   The powers of observation that he honed seemed almost super human. He knew that it was only in this manner that he could come even close to understanding a thing’s essence.

As another important means for regaining fresh perspective, he encouraged people to take breaks from their work and relax or put their attention elsewhere, often to find that new ideas would then emerge.  Most of us have heard stories of brilliant insights coming to people when their minds are “unfocused,” when they are in the car, shower, bed, exercising, etc.  Einstein said he got his best ideas while shaving.  Abraham Lincoln also wrote, “Such [thoughts] often come in a kind of intuitive way more clearly than if one were to sit down and deliberately reason them out.”  It is an experience many of us have shared, having great insights emerge when we are doing something seemingly unrelated to the topic of inquiry. 

So — how curious are you?  In How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Gelb provides a “Curiosità Self-assessment.”  Ask yourself whether you:

  • Take adequate time for some form of contemplation or meditation – mental “down time” when you are not thinking about anything in particular.
  • Are always learning something new.
  • Seek out different perspectives when making important decisions.
  • Read a lot.
  • Learn from children.
  • Are skilled at identifying and solving problems.
  • Look up words you are unfamiliar with.
  • Continually learn about other cultures.
  • Know or are learning foreign languages.
  • Would be described as open-minded and curious by those who know you.
  • Love learning. Da Vinci Workbook

I highly recommend either going through Gelb’s da Vinci book or the accompanying Notebook.  Some people intend to go back through the book and do the exercises, but never get around to it.  So it might be best to just dive into the Notebook.

In short, Gelb recommends five types of exercises for cultivating our curiosity.  Helpful guidelines for these and related practices are provided in the book and workbook:

Practices such as these and others outlined in the book can encourage us to keep our inquiring minds alive while continuously helping us to expand our intellectual, expressive, professional, and interpersonal capacities.

  1. Keep a journal for a range of types of notes, observations, and questions to be contemplated.  Gelb offers good suggestions for topics.
  2. Find the right questions:
    Gelb writes: “You can increase your problem-solving skills…. [By] shifting the initial emphasis away from focusing on finding “the right answer” and toward asking “Is this the right question?
    …Instead of continually asking how to get to water, nomadic societies became agrarian and stable when they began asking, “How do we get the water to come to us?”
    Exercise: Ask the Five Whys of things, as well as What? Who? How? & Where?  Contemplate them in your notebook.
  3. Continually Learn New Things:
    “Just as iron rusts from disuse, and stagnant water putrifies, or when cold turns to ice, so our intellect wastes unless it is kept in use.”  Leonardo da Vinci
    “Your progress in learning will correlate directly with your willingness to play and embrace feelings of unfamiliarity and foolishness.”  Michael Gelb 
    a. Pick a “by when” date that you will begin to pursue your “some day” hobby now
    b. Learn a new language.  "Babies dive into learning language as early as they are able and don’t worry about sounding foolish – so can you!"
  4. Continually build your vocabulary.
  5. Nurture your emotional intelligenceBe curious about yourself.
    Differing from “self” obsession, some level of curiosity about oneself is healthy and necessary for emotional growth.  It can increase one’s self-awareness along with compassion for others and the ability to relate to them with less reactivity.  “Know Thyself” seems to have been a guiding precept for the maestro as well as for Socrates. 
    Exercise:  Ask trusted loved ones, friends, and colleagues questions such as:      
    i. What are some of my blind spots and areas for improvement? (In my hospital chaplaincy training, we called these our “growing edges.”)
    ii. What are some of my best qualities?
    iii. What can I do to be more effective, helpful, or sensitive to others?


    Gelb recommends just listening; maybe asking some clarifying questions, but avoiding the temptation to justify (as difficult as this may be).  I admit this might be bit of a scary exercise for some of us, but its value can be immense.

Instead of listening to my preferred talk radio station on my long drive between the Washington, D.C. area and my home in central Virginia, other sorts of sound tracks allowed my mind to wander the other evening.  I started thinking about three of the seven key habits in the book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, which happen to correspond to practices recommended by the “stand-out” leaders cited in the 2010 IBM CEO study:

  1. Curiosità, and questioning;
  2. "Dimonstrazione": Experiential learning, which goes with the willingness to make, and learn from, mistakes, and,
  3. "Sfumato": Comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity.

It then dawned on me that these ways of being all relate to overcoming fear.  Even the term used in the report, “stand-out,” implies people who are willing to follow their own instincts and speak their truths in the face of “group think” and at the risk of rustling feathers, or worse.

I’d been wondering about the linkage that those successful leaders alluded to between
Standing out in a field
creative/innovative thinking and “integrity.”  As was said, yes, it does take courage to question the status quo, go into unknown territory, and be willing to learn from mistakes. But I then saw a deeper connection: that overcoming one’s own fears requires personal integrity.

As President F.D. Roosevelt said, “… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Although the two words, “curious” and “courage,” are not etymologically related, it occurs to me that they are intertwined.  Both require a willingness to question, to forge into the un-known, and to risk making mistakes.

It seems to me that fear is what sabotages our capacities for creative expression and innovative thinking.  It is fear that seduces many of us and keeps us in our comfort zones.  It is those people who have no choice, or those who are inspired by the greater visions, who exhibit to us time and again that “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

What moves us to overcome our fear?  Inspiration.  The word “inspire” derives from the Latin: “to breathe,” and is related to the word “spirit”: “The vital principle or animating force within living beings.”  Inspire: (American Heritage dictionary, 4th Edition)

1.    To affect, guide, or arouse by divine influence.
3a. To stimulate to action; motivate
5.    To be the cause or source of; bring about
6.    To draw in (air) by inhaling.
7.    Archaic  b. To breathe life into.  

Brave people, warriors on any number of fronts, consistently say that they do experience fear, but they push themselves beyond it for the sake of others or because they are inspired by causes or visions beyond themselves.

We were born inspired with curiosity about life and possibilities.  As little children, most of us didn’t fear being “wrong” when unfettered imagination was allowed and for which there was no right or Teacher --( wrong.  But gradually, fear crept in as we were acculturated to come up with the correct answers, to draw between the lines, and not be perceived as too different, “weird” or “stand out” from the crowd.  Actually, come to think of it, this is ironic in America, where the dominant culture is considered to be the most “individualistic”  in the world… Food for thought for a future blog post. 

Some say Leonardo da Vinci was the most curious man who ever lived.  But then, there was Socrates, who inspired even the maestro and other great Renaissance minds.  Our greatest artists and leaders overcame their fears through what inspired them and through their own integrity, often in the face of tremendous sacrifices.  These men and women continue to stand as inspirational figures for all of us.  Those who saw what was possible and asked “Why not?” and “What if…?”

What comes to mind regarding overcoming our own insecurities is the well-known Marianne Williamson poem quoted by Nelson Mandela in his inaugural address.  It speaks so poignantly to the fear that many have of standing out and the need for being true to our gifts in order to benefit others:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves,
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles

 That’s what truly inspirational leaders and innovators do: they do not shrink from standing out, from speaking their truths, or from daring to inspire with imagination.  We need a lot more of them; we need to be them.  As Ms. Williamson wrote in her more recent book, Age of Miracles, our world desperately needs our full range of skills which includes our creative imaginations, “All hands are needed on deck.”  

So now, I have some contemplating to do. If you care to join me in pondering these questions, please do.

  • What have you been most afraid of?  What has gotten in your way of following your heart’s desires? 
  • What inspires you?  When do you feel most alive?  
  • What helps you to overcome fear?

And best of all:

  • Where would you love your inner “drummer” to lead you in this year ahead?







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