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Learning from Experience: Jay Cross Discusses His "New Muse"

Jay Cross, one of my favorite learning experts, announced on his blog last week that he has a "new muse": 

For the better part of forty years, my work has focused on adult learning. I’ve strived to make learning at work more effective, relevant, enjoyable, and cost-effective.

Today I am shifting direction. My new muse is well-being.

I'm intrigued by how and why people make the career transitions that they do, so I asked Jay to do a blog interview with me about his new direction. Here it is.

Can you give us some background on your career to date?

Upon graduating from college with a degree in sociology, I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living. I became a mainframe computer salesman.

After a couple of years, I became an Army officer and managed computer operating in Germany. Returned to the U.S. and earned an MBA. Had a miserable time as a market researcher. Developed curriculum for an educational start-up that eventually became the University of Phoenix; refused to move to Phoenix.

Joined a start-up that trained bankers how to make decisions; spent fifteen years selling, managing sales, and directing marketing to very large banks. Tried my hand in a medical software start-up, a wholesale financial service start-up, and a tracking software start-up. A dozen years ago, I went on my own -- Internet Time Group -- to champion first eLearning and later, informal learning.

You are well-known in adult learning, with 40 years of experience and accomplishments to go with it. What is it like to go from being an "expert" in your field to doing something where you are more of a novice? 

As of yet, I don’t have much experience in my new field, well-being, so you may want to take my temperature on this one a few months from now. Thus far, I am thoroughly enjoying “beginner’s mind.” It is liberating. “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few,” wrote Sunryku Suzuki.

I am painting on an immense, blank canvas. I get to set my objectives anew. I am free to think big thoughts. I can ask any questions I want. I can mash up everything I know from other fields to spark innovation. Who are the best people to talk with? What are the top things to read? How big a dream can I take on? This is much more fun that pontificating on topics I already know about. (If anyone reading this has pointers for me, get in touch via jaycross.com).

Can you tell me about the process that led up to you deciding to move in this new direction? 

My first significant paper on informal learning came out in May 2003. Since then I think I’ve said most of what I have to say on the topic. I can answer most question on auto-pilot. Informal learning was getting old. I want to learn new things and make new discoveries.

What got me going with informal learning originally was the anomaly that most learning in organizations is informal yet training departments have nothing to do with it. I saw an opportunity to improve the way business is conducted by getting things into balance.

My new interest is the impact of well-being on business. Research suggests that happy people sell more, produce more, and come up with more creative ideas. Neuroscience tells us that people are driven by emotion, not logic. Yet “business-like” means without emotion. Most workers hate their jobs. There’s a giant opportunity to make people feel happy and fulfilled while simultaneously boosting profits. That’s noble cause.

I think well-being is going to be an easier sell than informal learning. Sixteen to twenty years in school has brainwashed people to the extent that they confuse schooling and learning. They argue that informal learning is out of control. They’re right. I think that’s good; the schoolers disagree.

I began the year at a meeting on a Swiss mountain top where an interdisciplinary group sought ways to reinvent management. I’m convinced that the goal of a business is to delight customers. How do you delight customers? By delighting employees. Happiness is contagious.

Marty Seligman’s latest book, Flourish, sets out five areas that contribute to well-being. One is having a purpose greater than oneself. I am getting on in years. I want to make my dent in the universe. If I can help at least 10,000 people lead happier, more fulfilling, and more productive lives, that accomplishment will make us all feel happier.

In June, five friends and I spent the weekend at Asilomar Conference Center, a wonderful retreat center on the coast between Monterey and Carmel, to talk about our lives and aspirations. I rated myself on the five things that lead to well-being that Marty had described. I lacked that “purpose larger than myself” and needed to work more closely with others. I determined that My calling is to create happier, more productive workplaces. 

What kinds of activities have you been engaging in to make the change? How are you learning about your new focus and how is it changing your daily work?

I believe in learning by doing, so I’m following routines to make me happier personally. (And they appear to be working). I’m setting up ways to curate what I find. I’m making lists of books to read and people to talk with. Soon I’ll begin hitting up my network for suggestions. I’m reading a lot and I have feeds plucking things from the internet for me.

I’m having fun setting up the processes I’ll use get to know the field.

Unlearning is going to be a challenge. When I see people making ridiculous claims about informal learning, I feel compelled to respond. I’ve got to stop that. There’s only so much time in the day. 

What are you most looking forward to with this new career identity? How are you going to be integrating it with your identity as an adult learning expert?

It’s a lot more enjoyable meeting new people. Well-being is more fun to talk about than learning.

I don’t really think of this as a new identity. I been saying for several years that my field is helping people work smarter. Well-being falls under that umbrella as well as learning.

My beliefs about learning are so deeply ingrained in my psyche that they will shape my ah-ha’s and discoveries. Well-being and informal learning are each related to freedom, autonomy, recognition of accomplishment, meaningful relationships with others, trust, and transparency. I expect my mash-up of the fields of well-being and adult learning to produce innovative approaches.

What advice do you have for others who may be thinking about moving from a very established career into something different? What has surprised you most or challenged you most in all of this?

Expertise is overrated. I am hopping into this new area with no fear.

Determine what you’re after. Marty Seligman’s Flourish was my touchstone.

Choose a role that lets you use your signature strengths. Take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths to identify what yours are.

A few things that stood out for me in Jay's interview that I think are applicable to a lot of people:

  • Having a "purpose larger than ourselves," is a big driver for Jay, as it is for most of us. I find that when people start to be dissatisfied with their current career trajectory, it's often because they start to become aware that they are not working on a larger purpose. 
  • The ideas for change have been percolating for awhile, but some events--the conference at the beginning of the year and the retreat in June--really moved him to take action.  I find that while reflection will get you so far, it's getting together with like-minded people who are also thinking about what they want that often pushes us forward. 
  • There's a process we go through in shifting our energy and attention away from our former career into the new one. Jay talks about "unlearning" as a challenge and needing to disengage from the conversations around his informal learning career interests because "there's only so much time in the day." Again, this is a common situation for people--we often are operating in the same networks of people, so we see the same conversations and have to discipline ourselves to not engage at all or to engage in ways that are tied to the new career focus we are developing. 
  • Jay talks about enjoying being in "beginner's mind," approaching a new subject area with fresh eyes. I've found that, especially for people who are life-long learners at heart, this process of getting to learn about a new field is what can make a career change even more compelling. It's an opportunity to explore something different and really immerse yourself in the learning process.  

Thanks to Jay for his willingness to share his thought process and experiences as he embarks on this new direction in his career. I think he offers us a lot of ideas for how we can pursue and think about our own ongoing career development. I also think he offers a terrific model for how to go about change as we pay attention to our shifting needs and interests in the career life-cycle. 


If you need time and support to plan for your own career transition, join me on November 9-11 for the Dream It/Do It Retreat


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