Of fishes, fishing, and feeding

July 21, 2010

I have not been spoonfed, whether literally or figuratively, since I was, say, three and a half. Even as a young child, and probably because I am the firstborn, I was expected to be independent. I distinctly remember having books for toys, and being left to read them for hours on end. I remember being put on a bicycle at age 5 and being pushed off to pedal on my own, only to fall and get back up, over and over again until I learnt that scraping my knee wouldn’t kill me and that I would, eventually, come to enjoy the feeling of wind through my hair and crouching over the handlebars, pretending to be flying like a bird.

This same pattern extended to school life and save some adherence to a formal curriculum, I was left to pursue my academic interests as I saw fit. I pursued my interest in the humanities with a passion and went far beyond what the curriculum dictated. If anything it was used as a guideline for both tutor and student, and not as a process manual.

When it came my time to step into the working world it was no different. I can count on my ten fingers the number of times I suffered to have processes and bureaucracy drummed into me…zero. It may or may not have significance but every job I’ve held, I’ve been thrown into the deep end many, many times and left to sink or swim. There is no better way to build resilience and gain hands-on experience. I was not spoonfed processes nor, I suspect, would I have expected or suffered it. Through a mix of tolerated failures, learning on the job and most importantly, observing, I learnt the ropes and gained the diverse experience I have.

Unfortunately I do not see too much of such a learning or teaching style in organisations. Failure is barely tolerated if at all and new recruits are either spoonfed or expect to be spoonfed. There is not that willingness to de-learn whatever Business Administration they learnt in University and learn that how things operate in the real world is quite different from what they learnt from books. Books cannot teach you how best to handle a sticky client situation, or how to balance competing interests. Books cannot teach you how to read a person and assess them in three minutes’ flat. Books cannot teach you how to interact with peers, subordinates or superiors. Most importantly, books cannot teach you how to be wise as a serpent.

All of the above is phronesis which is separate from sophia. In Ethica Nicomachea, Aristotle helpfully sums up the difference:

“Whereas young people become accomplished in geometry and mathematics, and wise within these limits, prudent young people do not seem to be found. The reason is that prudence is concerned with particulars as well as universals, and particulars become known from experience, but a young person lacks experience, since some length of time is needed to produce it.” – Ethica Nicomachea 1142 a

Without sophia, a seemingly worldly-wise young person would be hard pressed to explain why he thinks and acts the way he does, at least not within a philosophical or ethical framework. On the other hand graduates are being churned out with initials and acronyms appended to their names, full of the sophia they think will help them take on the world, until they find out otherwise.

It is not a lack of phronesis which is the problem, because that can only be gained by experience, but rather an attitude towards learning that expects spoonfeeding and coddling instead of inquiry and thriving on deep-end dunks, and most importantly, observing and ultimately developing their own work processes.

Those who cling to the former like a dearly-loved blanket will be one of the sheep who follow the latter. Perhaps that is how it should be.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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