At the Heart of Learning


The Endless Immensity of the Sea

 Once we get past the outmoded ideas of school – there’s only one answer, in the back of the book, take the test, and don’t look that’s cheating – we begin to see that learning and collaboration is an art and a science. We know more today about the science than ever before. We still tend to overlook the art.

A few weeks ago, my nephew asked me what the words “Subject Matter Expert” means. I told him it was all about learning. The expert was a team of people who each learned a lot about something, and learned more every day, until people agreed that team was The Subject Matter Expert. He listened carefully, then nodded and asked, “So, are Tommy and I the Subject Matter Experts about superheroes yet?” It made me pause and think about how that question would translate in the companies I consult with and what it meant for building successful collaborative teams who learn as they go.

Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, writes about “neoteny,” the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood. This ability to learn is like the compounding interest on an investment; after two or three years, a relentless learner stands head and shoulders above his peers. It stands to reason that a team of relentless learners is optimized for successful collaboration.

So, why then are so many teams of smart people so stupid?

The answer has nothing to do with their collective IQ. I think the answer can be found in an obscure quote I pinned years ago on my actual pre-Pinterest cork board. It was written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, best known for his work The Little Prince. Here is the quote:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

The quote focuses on the art of collaboration. And it has a direct bearing on learning, lighting a fire instead of filling a bucket.

Amazing how some people knew so much about learning and collaboration before it became the business word du jour. The key to a great collaborative team is their ability to look outward in the same direction, to share a deeply felt goal or, as Saint-Exupéry wrote, “[…] to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Seems almost too simple to repeat. Yet I cannot tell you the number of times I listened to team members who had no idea what it felt like to long for the “endless immensity of the sea.” When we build teams to collaborate, we need to make sure that the first item on the punch list is to build a deeply felt desire, a “longing” if you will.

The next time you bring a team together, ask yourself a question: What is the longing — the deeply felt longing — which will drive the team to learn and perform, even if they do not have all the tools and knowledge to “build a ship”? What will wake them up every day and make them want to go wherever they dream of going? When you can articulate that longing, then you are on your way to a great collaboration and learning that will just happen.

Here are some examples that punctuate this idea:

We want to be the ones to really feel what it is like to step onto the surface of the moon.

The team will take the very first pictures of life on the bottom of the ocean.

We will actually see the proof of the ‘god particle’ that started all creation.

In the beginning, it is not all about the wood and the work. It’s about the art of collaboration, describing that longing that drives learning and collaboration forward. I spend a lot of time researching and studying, thinking and writing about the science of collaboration as a crucial part of learning. I just want to make sure I never lose sight of the art, of that longing for “the endless immensity of the sea.”

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