Since 1977, I have been sending out a newsletter called LEARNINGS. Here is how I began the first issue:
This newsletter—LEARNINGS—is my way of sharing with you what I am learning. Often I learn something with one client that would have been useful with another client the day before. In order to bridge that gap of time and also to bridge the gap of space that separates me from clients and other friends outside Cleveland, I will share my learnings with you regularly in this newsletter.
That statement feels amazingly accurate more than 35 years later. The only real change is that I moved from Cleveland to London and then on to the Crook of Devon in Scotland.
In the earlier newsletters, I shared one or two learnings each time. Then I read a wonderful book by Michael Phillips called The Seven Laws of Money. He describes the Taoist approach to creating Seven Laws about anything.
I like that approach except that instead of announcing Laws, I prefer to share Learnings. I’ve now discovered Seven Learnings about all sorts of things, including Journaling, Love, Retreat, and Diversity. The latest Learnings starts here; the rest are in the Learnings Archive.
LEARNING: I learn from stories
I was born fifty years ago this month, on 16 April 1944. I have been celebrating all month – with family, old friends, and new friends. On the 16th itself, I celebrated by beginning a week-long Human Interaction Workshop with the NTL Institute.
As part of the workshop, I facilitated a group of 13 people. We listened to each other’s stories of loss, suffering, fear and depression. We listened to each other’s stories of connecting, rebuilding, committing, and serious dreaming. We cried. On our final evening, we shared stories of our week together and we cried again, but we also laughed long, loud and lovingly. I felt as I did when I began recovering from the injury to my hands and from the death of my father – the pain is still there – but now, once again, life is worth living.
It is difficult to explain how these training sessions work, but I told the group that my mother explained it best when I thanked her for raising me well. She said, “We don’t do much. We just provide a good growing environment. And we love you.”
I learned again that an important part of loving is to listen to the other person’s story. And to share my own story. Stories are fascinating. Anne says that I never tell just one; I always tell three instead. But each story contains another story which leads to yet another story; I am impressed that I can stop at three!
And I am even more impressed now, since I just learned from dictionaries that “story” is a form of “history” and comes from Greek words meaning “learning or knowing by inquiry” and “an account of one’s inquiries.” That is what I try to do in each of these Learnings!
In 1968, when I started to teach writing, I learned that the basic unit of speech is the phoneme – a sound. You put several phonemes together to make words and then sentences. I decided to try another approach. I have been keeping a journal since I was 13 and it is full of stories. So I asked my students to write a page in a journal each week. Some of them learned to write from writing those journals – and I learned to help people grow by listening to their stories. I also learned that the fundamental unit of communication is not the phoneme – it’s the story.
And now a research study on self-help groups supports the value of stories. I am part of a self-help group for people who have Repetitive Strain Injury. In our group we tell stories that the others understand. We all know what it is like to “look healthy” and get a strange look when asking someone to open a door.
The research discovered that it makes a difference what kind of stories we tell each other. My friend Marianne Erdelyi and re-learned that last December when we celebrated our 25 years of friendship by spending the day together. For the first half-hour or so we talked of problems. We were getting depressed. Then we remembered the Support Partner process we created years ago – and we switched. We told stories about our recent successes. When we eventually got round to the problems again we had the energy to deal with them.
The research discovered the same thing: people in support groups who tell each other positive stores about successes get better. When they focus on difficulties – the difficulties continue. One interesting factor that leads to a focus on difficulties is the presence of professionals. It makes sense: tell the professional about the pain because the professional knows about handling pain.
And that reminds me of a story. When I was just starting out as a career counsellor, a young woman came to see me. I asked her to write the story of her life. I was saddened as I read about her difficult life. Then I asked why she had not written about the time between age 11 and 13. “Oh,” she said, “those were happy years.” When I told her that we could learn from her successes in those years, she said, “No-one has ever asked about the good times before.”
That was the brilliant insight of Bernard Haldane. Although we can certainly learn from our failures, there is nothing to stop us also learning from our successes. In fact, if we believe that learning comes mainly from failure, then the logical step is to fail some more so that we can learn some more.
In my Life and Career Designing work, I have learned to encourage stories about successes. When I met John Crystal I began using his idea of the autobiography – the complete story. Later, in 1976, when I met Dick Bolles, I learned his technique of using a series of success stories. I am sure Dick will be delighted to know that research has confirmed what he and the people he has trained have been doing for 20 years!
Back in 1972, Roy Fairfield, my doctoral advisor, encouraged me to write my own myth and tell the story of my learning as Book 25 – going beyond the 24 books of the Odyssey. Last week I had dinner with Roy, and after we shared stories from our odysseys, he asked what I want to do with the next part of my life.
Sometimes I feel like Homer’s Odysseus, looking for the way home to Ithaca. Sometimes I feel like Cavafy’s Odysseus, grateful for the journey that Ithaca provides. And sometimes I feel like Kazantzakis’s Odysseus, who discovers on his return that Ithaca cannot satisfy him. He sets off on a new physical and spiritual journey, declaring, “My voyages are my native land.” He goes out to create his own myth, to tell his own story, to keep on learning. I am looking forward to that.
LEARNING: Learning is the story of my life.