I have worked in a variety of professional settings, from food service and custodial work to the sprawling realm of academia and academia-adjacent. Each office, restaurant, or department had its own particular narrative about change. Whether it had to do with formal documentation or vacuuming the floors, each workplace had a clear standard for “the way things are done.” As a result, each setting had its own battleground between those invested in the current structure and those itching to take a risk and try something new. These battling factions used different words to describe the same practices: meddling versus challenging, disrupting versus innovating, and wasting past investment versus future proofing. But regardless of setting, the conflicts never seemed to come down to the policies or practices themselves. Instead, they centered on the implied value of the people associated with those practices.
Back in grade school, there was never a time when we could have convinced our teachers that learning had gone far enough. No third grader would be able get away with saying, “Well, I know there are a lot of other things out there, but I have put in a lot of time and energy learning all the things up to this point. Years, in fact. I think that is an accomplishment that should speak for itself and carry me through the rest of my academic career.” In fact, education advocates from every field talk about fostering a love for lifelong learning. But somewhere between grade school and adulthood, that love for learning gets put into a silo. We can be enthusiastic about learning new languages or taking on a new cuisine, but work? Oh no. It the workplace, being asked to take on new things can easily get framed as a burden.
The result can be a conflation of valuable institutional knowledge and the outdated frameworks containing that knowledge. A friend of mine works for an otherwise advanced technical group that still has a core piece of code in Fortran, because the person who wrote the original code is now a senior manager and unwilling to take on another programming language this late in his career. Attempts to get group feedback on a document can result in email chains with conflicting copies and file names like “finalfinalfinal.doc.” People argue that formally implementing version control or naming conventions could be helpful, but would take too much effort. Established employees fight against moving data from separate but familiar files and into a collective database that could be queried on demand, because they are not familiar with how to create queries in that new system.
Part of the hesitation comes from the perceived effort, but some part of it also comes from a fear of becoming irrelevant. It comes from a fear of failing. In education, we try to engage with this fear in productive ways. There are books and narratives and entire branches of pedagogy singing the praises of failure as a learning tool. They explain that failing is one of the steps in learning, and as a result we cannot expect kids to learn effectively if there is not the room to fail without fear. We separate out instruction from practice from assessment, and try to foster resilience. We fight back against the childhood notion that things that take effort are things we are not good at.
But in professional settings, that opportunity to fail without fear gets squeezed from every side. Employees are afraid to ask for help or try new things in case they get punished for the results. Managers look at the time it takes to train new people and opt just to do the work over and over themselves. Delegation requires clear expectations and time to develop the skills to meet them. For me, learning to manage meant learning how to stop asking members of my team if they knew how to do a task and start asking whether a task was something they wanted to learn how to do. I had to learn how to let go of tasks even if I was good at them and start accepting that my own value and expertise had clear boundaries. While I could – and would like to – learn how to query the new database, I would probably max out at the equivalent of a hunt-and-peck typist and only be able help my own team. Hiring an expert would take money and time and mean letting go, but it would provide access to timely and customizable reports to the whole department. Letting go can make that expert an asset instead of a threat.
I remember an afternoon when I was sitting in the lobby of my graduate department a few seats over from an 85-year-old emeritus professor who had been one of the first people to use seismic waves to look into the interior of the Earth and establish the modern understanding of plate tectonics. He was watching the USGS seismic app on his smart phone. He said, “Can you imagine what we could have figured out if we’d had access to something like this?” He was not mourning the lost value of past skills, but embracing the possibility represented by new tools as a way forward. That kind of embrace of lifelong learning is about more than ticking off new boxes of martial arts and stitching techniques. It thrives on the idea that learning takes place everywhere and opportunities come in embracing effort, failure, changing expectations, and asking people for help.