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A Dream: Learner-Centered Professional Development for Growth

One of my favorite Steve Jobs stories is the one he told during this Stanford Commencement address a few years ago:

Seventeen years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents' savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn't all romantic. I didn't have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends' rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5ยข deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on (my emphasis). Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life (my emphasis). But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Every time I think about this story, I think about how we do staff development. If Steve Jobs had worked at a company, he never would have learned calligraphy--at least not on company time or on the company dime. He would have been busy attending the "required" courses for his job grade. There would have been the the compliance courses and the conflict management course his supervisor decided he needed since he didn't always get along that well with his co-workers. Maybe some coding classes and a "team-building class."Calligraphy

Most definitely Steve would not have taken something as "impractical" as calligraphy. Not only would he not have been allowed to pursue learning by following his "curiosity and intuition," he would probably have had little time or encouragement to even consider what he was curious about. The company would decide what he needed to learn and that would be that.

But think about what happened to Apple--in fact the entire industry--because a man pursued learning in an area that excited him and that piqued his curiosity. It transformed our lives. 

I know all the reasons why company-sponsored professional development isn't based on people's personal interests--there's no immediate pay-off for the company, certain kinds of training to meet regulatory requirements are required, companies aren't in the business of supporting individual growth, etc. I do question a company's ability to really know the future, though. How can they predict what skills people will need in 5 years? How might they be restricting their own growth because they aren't helping the knowledge workers they depend on to grow in ways that might actually have benefits for the company not immediately perceived by the organization? Steve Jobs had no way of knowing how a calligraphy course might apply, yet it was this investment in something that wasn't "practical" that helped him completely re-define the way personal computers operate.

I also recognize that the pay-off for Apple didn't come until 10 years later and that if Steve had learned calligraphy on company time, his company might not be the one to benefit.  For many (most) organizations, it is this concern more than any that holds them back.

I can't help but feel, though, that there's still a way to balance a company's interest in developing people for its own purposes and supporting the development of people for purposes beyond the job and work they have today.  If we did this, I think we'd have more Sachas in the world and more Steves, having more creative ideas and making greater contributions, both to their organizations and to the larger societal benefit of all of us. Not to mention what it would do for individual lives. For me, it's these possibilities that drive my own belief in the need for professional development that's based on individual growth.

What do you think would happen if professional development started with people's curiosity and passion? Would it be a good thing? How would it benefit organizations? How would we start doing professional development differently?


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This is the from-the-heart observation that I love hearing from you, and it is what you practice here at Bamboo. And I strive for as well.

What is assumed is that people, the individuals who are developing, are working on synthesizing or integrating the many spheres of their lives. Knowledge they gain there informs action here; experience informs analogy, etc. In folks who are growth-minded, yep, it's a good and achievable goal. In work settings in which innovation and fresh thinking matter - as values or necessity - yep, it's fertile ground. But a synthesizing take on life and exercising it in a setting in which fresh thinking is valued are prerequisites, don't you think? It's pretty easy to think of people who would develop very narrow and private skills and use them as a lens through which to enrich their work.

Speaking obvious common sense, though, when leaders model those two attributes and tolerate some wild-hare ideas without judgment, that sends a strong message about what you can do with what you learn.

I love this post, Michele!

Have you read "Mavericks at Work"? There's a chapter in there that talks about Pixar University--an internal learning program at Pixar where all staff can take courses on filmmaking, sculpture, writing, and all sorts of other things. All Pixar staff (even those who aren't working as "creatives") are encouraged to take up to 4 hours a week of Pixar University classes to further their own development. I wonder if the development of Pixar University was inspired by Steve Jobs' experience with that calligraphy class ...

Bill Taylor, who was one of the authors of "Mavericks at Work," has a recent blog post up that talks a little about Pixar University. I'm not sure if you allow links in comments, but here's the URL: http://discussionleader.hbsp.com/taylor/2008/07/pixar_rulessecrets_of_a_blockb.html

I look forward to your next post!

This summer I am leading a group of teachers through the 23 Things on a Stick project. Designed primarily for Library staff in Minnesota, the project takes items from the Learning 2.0, now . It's personalized learning, in that there is flexibility in which things they choose to learn about that is in line with what you are saying here.


No deep intellectual thoughts here, just a few tears while watching the whole video. This was a GREAT post and one I will be sharing with my admin. friends. Thank you for this it made my day and gave me a smile.

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