Self-empowerment 101: I will make fewer decisions

Undoing mental patterns and habitual behaviors can be devilishly hard to do.  This is in direct contrast to how easily we create mental patterns and habitual behaviors.

I recently began undoing my belief that I have to make decisions all the time.  I guess I made a decision to stop making so many decisions!  A most fascinating and empowering journey has followed.

I gained the belief early in life that we are in control of our lives and destinies.  This control is called free will, and I was taught in school and by the world that it is a precious thing that should be exercised daily.  This belief in my free will has been at the foundation of my philosophy of life.  In fact, I still have the belief that I have free will.

What has changed, however, is in how I choose to use my free will.  One choice I made was to undo the belief that I have to make decisions all the time.  I used to believe that if I am not making decisions all the time I am not actually exercising my free will.

I now have a different belief.  Free will is not about making decisions all the time.  It is about “freely using my will”.

If this is getting too theoretical, here is an example:

ballotElection day.  You are to elect a new government leader.  You are presented with a list of 4 candidates.  You must decide on one and choose him/her.

Full stop.

First, who said you have to choose one from a set of options you didn’t create?

Second, who said you must participate in this decision process called an election?

Why did you buy into these two beliefs?

“If you don’t vote, you are not fulfilling your legal, moral, and ethical responsibilities to this country. ”

Ahhh…there we go:  I was forced, encouraged, or guilted into participating in a decision making process called an election.  And I am a bad person if I do not participate.  Someone decided that participating in elections makes you a good person and not participating in elections makes you a bad person.

Wait a minute!

How many other beliefs and decision making processes have I been invited to ascribe to and participate in?  How many have I chosen to believe and participate in, quite willingly, because I thought it was the fulfillment of the reason I have free will?

Lots, and lots, and lots.

Let’s take a step further back to uncover more goodies:

In university I chose a business education, where I gained the belief that leaders and managers are decisive, taking initiative as a part of their minute-by-minute workday.  One must “drive the agenda”.  And another saying goes:  “Decide, or someone else will decide for you.”

This is where it gets even more interesting:  “Decide, or someone else will decide for you”, is actually a fear-based belief!

I chose long ago not to live or act from a state of fear.

But I am still playing out the habits of my university training and even more traditional acculturation as a man, which says that a strong man is a decisive man!

Decide. decide. decide.

“People who don’t decide are weak, spineless individuals. They are soft.  They don’t take initiative, but let life walk all over them. The meek may inherit the earth, as the saying goes, but I would never want to be meek! Why be a victim when you can be a victor!”

Again, full stop.

This is getting silly.

One last look at this:

How many times have I encouraged my children to make decisions, when they did not understand the need for the decision to be made, the choices available, or the consequences?  And how traumatic was it for me to have to make “blind” decisions as a child or teenager, when I learned that decision making often resulted in outcomes that I didn’t understand and that hurt?  Ouch.

What I believe free will is not

Free will is not about becoming a “decision junkie”, thinking we have to make decisions all the time when we really don’t. It is not about habitually making decisions out of fear, usually without understanding the real reasons for the decision needing to be made in the first place. It is not about accepting the choices we are being presented and assuming without thought that they are the only options and the most valid ones. Free will is also not about making decisions when you don’t understand the importance of the consequences of the decisions.

And it is not about forcing others to make decisions when they don’t need to.

What I believe free will is

Free will is about exercising our ability to choose how we live our lives: What we believe, and how we act from those beliefs.

This year, I will use my free will to undo lots of beliefs and to make fewer decisions. And in doing so, I choose to empower myself to stay focused on the quality of my life itself and how I wish to live it.

I can hear the critics gleefully challenging this logic with “you just made a decision!”

Intellectualize all you want. I won’t play that game (another decision).

I am backing out of my addiction to the distracting activity called decision making.

And in doing so I am taking my power back to use my free will to focus on what will make me stronger and happier in my life.

Teaching reset: “How do you want to use technology in the classroom?”

Every so often I do a reset of my teaching habits in order to see if I am in synch with my MBA students. They are mature adults with years and sometimes even decades of international work experience behind them. I want to be sure I am current with their professional realities. It is time again for a reset, so I used the beginning of the new term to ask them how they wished to use technology during our class time together.

I love turning the tables on my students and inviting them to take ownership of their learning process. Many are delighted with the invitation and eagerly embrace the opportunity. Others are unsure, as their previous learning experiences have been largely out of their control. Empowerment takes a bit of getting used to, as a Japanese student reflected to me at the end of the class.

I had expected the discussion of technology in the classroom to take a maximum of 15 minutes. It would be simple, right?  Use smart phones or not? Easy. Laptops or not? Easy.

Not so.  Each of my three sections of students took over an hour, with one section going to 90 minutes. Clearly, the topic touched on real concerns they had about the use of technology in the classroom and the workplace.

Some fascinating insights emerged:

1.  Personal use of technology is now the accepted norm in the workplace.

The old world of separation between work and personal life is over.  Not only is it unenforceable, but it is simply impractical. Even just 10 years ago the assumption was that when you were at work you were working. Only emergency personal communication was expected by your employer. You should be focused on your work when at work.

Now? While some old-school dictatorial type managers can still be observed in the wilds of the workplace, they are an endangered species.  It is now the socially and professionally accepted norm that you will flow between work and personal smoothly and without significant concern.  Only when you are clearly not getting your work done or are disturbing others with your personal interactions will a concern be raised with you.

This is the world of work.  Students feel that the classroom should be the same as the workplace:  Technology for personal use should be just fine.

2. You are always connected and reachable.

Again, even just 10 years ago when someone in your personal sphere wanted to connect with you they would hesitate if it was during working hours: “Is this important enough for me to ask for your attention?” might go through their subconscious.

Now? Send a text message. Initiate an online chat. Or call. Anytime. You are expected to be reachable 24×7 to friends and family now. For any reason.

3. Everyone must develop their own discipline.

My students were most vocal about this. Do not restrict our use of technology in the classroom or workplace. Let us learn the hard way to discipline ourselves. When we fail in our studies or in meeting our goals in the workplace, we will learn when to put the phone into silent mode and close personal windows on our laptops so that we can focus on what we have to get done.

The Pavlovian urge to check text messages must be overcome by the individual. They need results oriented feedback before they will begin to discipline themselves.

Personally I question this, but mostly for self-preservation reasons as a professor.  When a student fails in their studies their first reaction is that it is not their fault. Blame is projected outward and the blame gun is pointed directly at the professor.  And in this era of “the student is a customer mindset” of institutions, the student must be placated, if only for institutional marketing reasons.

4. Our classrooms and workplaces are 100 years out of date.

This is my personal favourite. We have “Master” centric classrooms with mechanical layouts that encourage students and workers to think and act like robots being prepared for 19th century factories when they graduate. Desks all lined up in the classroom so the teacher is the authority. In the same way, cubicles in the workplace de-humanize employees in the workplace. Yikes.

We brainstormed what the 21st century classroom and workplace should look like.  Tables with wireless charging built into them.  Groupings of tables so that teams can work together face-to-face to solve problems and construct things.  Wireless projectors so that students can easily project what is on their smartphone to the whole class. Continual, natural, and individual-driven use of technology, all the time. Co-working, an emerging evolution of the workspace, is an example of how positive change is happening in the real world, where technology is fully integrated into the physical place people work.

Ahhh….I love the smell of empowerment in the classroom.

But then I asked them:  “May I use my smartphone during class?”

Their reply:  “No! Not you. We paid for you to be here and teach us.”

Clearly, there are still some limits on the use of technology in the classroom. Well, limits on my use, anyway.  And of course, they don’t see the irony:  “Teach us, but we won’t necessarily be listening, engaging, or learning from what you are doing. We might be busy focusing elsewhere with our phones and laptops.  But keep going.  We paid you to do this, so do it anyway. And make sure that we get good grades, too.  Oh, and thank you for doing all that. ”

They are polite.  I give them that.

Musing on Education, Part 1: Why education is not a business and students are not “customers”

Musings on Education, Part 1:  Why education is not a business and students are not customers

I started teaching my MBA course on business responsibility this term with a case study on the Thunderbird School of Business in AZ and the controversy over their privatization efforts. Thunderbird has joined with a private education company to delivery a new undergrad business degree. They have made their undergrad degree a “business”.

I thought this was a nice fresh case discussion challenge for my students:

“Why isn’t your MBA degree a private business? Wouldn’t it make sense to have an MBA degree delivered by a business…an education business?  After all, it seems silly to have a non-profit, government-funded university teaching you how to run a for-profit business, no?”

Well, the discussion didn’t really get very far.  My students knew something was wrong with the logic, but couldn’t really make sense of why.

And I started to wonder why it is that education is increasingly being treated like a business and our students increasingly being called “customers”.

Which led me to think about my 22 years of teaching and designing programs in colleges and universities and what I was really doing all those years.

And this led to some rather startling insights.  Here they are:

1.  The students we have in our classrooms are not our customers.  Instead, we have three other customers:

A.  The parents, teachers, counselors, and everyone else who encouraged the students to go into higher education.

Many students are in my classroom not because they want to be, but because they know of no other way to a better life than what they have been told.   In some cases, pleasing parents is the only reason the students are in my classroom.   So, the customer I am to please in many cases is not the student, but their parents.

B.  Society.

Government pays for a big part of higher education because it knows that education can create a better society.  So, my customer is, at least partly, the government and society in general.

C.  The student’s future self:  5-10 years from now.

Students don’t even begin to really understand what they have experienced and gained in higher education until many years in the future. So for a third time, my customer is not the student sitting in front of me right now, but their future self.

So, if the person sitting in my classroom is not my customer, then who is this person?  Which led to my next insight:

2.  The students in my classroom are the raw material of other stakeholders’ needs. They are the seed that will grow into a tree that others will approve of…including their future self.

And this raw material – this seed – does not even know it is not the customer.

Which led to my next insight:

3.  Students are not aware they are the raw material for other people’s wishes.

They are not aware of the system they are going through.

They are not aware of what education is and how it works.

They are not aware of who and what they really are.

They are not aware that they are not my customer.

Which led to my next insight:

4.  How can education be a business when the student is treated like a customer but they are not the customer?

Which led me to conclude that if education does become a business, it would be a very, very strange animal indeed.

It would be an organization where the raw material – the seed – is treated like a customer when it is not the customer…but believes that it is the customer.

Weird.

Musing on Education, Part 2: What my students want is not what I am here to do

Musings on Education, Part 2:  What my students want is not what I am here to do.

 

Oh dear.

I have just spent 22 years teaching and designing programs at colleges and universities.  I have been offering education and crafting programs that offer educations. And in recent years I have even been consulting and speaking on how to do things better in delivering educations at other institutions.

Now I realize that I have got it all wrong:

I haven’t been actually doing what students wanted.

I have been doing what I wanted.

Worse, I didn’t know I was out of synch with reality.

You see, students don’t want an education, they want the outcomes of an education, including:

  • a degree that tells others something about their status and abilities.
  • a good job.
  • lots of money.
  • a lovely mate.
  • happy parents (who paid for the education).

And here I thought I was supposed to be educating them.

Silly me.

Ooooopppps.

Time to rethink this teaching thing.

Musings on Education, Part 4: A letter to my students

A letter to my recent students:

Dear Students,

I am writing you today because I feel it is time for openness from my perspective on you and your experiences in my recent courses.

I went into teaching in higher education 22 years ago because I loved learning, helping others learn, and to enjoy the intellectually stimulating place that universities and colleges can be. I also thought that I was somehow doing good – helping the world be a better place through education.

The journey over 22 years has been very rewarding to me. I smile when I reflect on the amazing experiences we have had together. Many of you I will remember fondly for the rest of my life. Some have become my dear friends, too!

During these last 2 decades it was not only you who have grown professionally and personally through our experiences together, but me too! We have both gained new skills, awareness, knowledge, and self-confidence.  I used to be scared of going into the classroom when I first started teaching. This and many other fears and insecurities have been replaced with confidence and strength. And I have seen the dramatically increased  confidence and strength in hundreds of you, too!

Recently, however, I have found myself scared again of teaching. And it surprised and disturbed me when I uncovered the reasons:

1. I love learning and growing intellectually and personally, and always have. Recently, I have found a mismatch between what I love to do and what you are seeking. Most questions I get from you now are either grade related or “tell me what to do” queries, not learning related. As I don’t worry much about grades (and never did) receiving your questions has become increasingly frustrating for me.

2.  Further, there has been a lot of emotion attached to your queries recently:  Shock, anger, disappointment, and blame pointed at me when your grades do not meet your expectations, or I won’t tell you “what to do”. When I was in university, I knew that my grades generally reflected my effort, understanding, abilities, and skills.  Obviously, there were good teachers and bad teachers, great courses and crappy courses.  But overall, it was *me* who was responsible for my grades, not my professors. I always knew this. To my recent surprise, apparently many of you think I am responsible for your grades and for your learning!

3.  I always knew that I had to change and grow up as a necessary part of my learning. And for most of my 22 years, I think most of my students understood this too. Through mutual trust, engagement, hard work, and opening up our minds and spirits, learning happened through change.  Now, I am finding that most of you want to do more of the same things you did before, in the same ways, as if learning is about simply more volume of information intake in the ways you did before. This is so fundamentally opposite to learning as I understand the process that I simply don’t know how to teach in the way you want me to.

4. Mentoring has always been an important part of my learning. When asked at the end of my degree who I held up as a person I respected and wanted to be like right then, It was Professor Jim Erskine, a master teacher and overall amazing person. He represented at that time the person I wanted to be primarily because he was dedicated to crafting the most amazing learning experiences for his students and making it safe for us to learn. I grew tremendously from his teaching, mentorship, and those transformative learning experiences. From building our communication skills to new ways of seeing the world, every class had something to learn, even if I didn’t fully understand at the time all of of what it was I was learning. I knew I was on to something good in Jim’s classes and gave all I could to learning and growing during our time together. I was no perfect student, to be clear, but I really worked hard at changing myself.

Over the last 22 years, I have found myself humbled by the number of my own students who feel I have helped them learn and grow. This alone has made the journey worthwhile for me.

In the last 2 years I have been humbled again. This time, however, it has not been in a happy way. Despite crafting and honing what I thought were my best learning opportunities yet, and looking forward to our time together with all that I have to give, I witnessed very little interest from you in engaging and learning. Oh, we have had the odd fun times in the classroom and a few of you have excelled, but would have despite anything I have done. As a whole, however, I feel little change has happened as any result of my role as your teacher. In other words, I am no longer making a difference.

These last few courses together have been the most difficult experiences of my career and have led me to reconsider why I teach and whether I am able to teach any longer.

“Maybe it is me who is now simply a bad and uncaring teacher”, I have asked myself in reflection. So, how did I go from being a teacher that made a difference to one who students get angry at because they don’t like their grades or I won’t tell them what to do?

After some reflection, I have come to the conclusion that there is no judgement needed. No good or bad conclusions to be made about myself or about you.

There is simply a mismatch.

We now have different purposes. I am here to help others learn and grow because I love to learn and grow.

I sense that you have come to my classroom with different purposes and for different reasons. Not good or bad reasons, to be clear, but simply because you want something other than learning as I understand it and can help you with.

I regret that I did not see this mismatch coming sooner. But that is the nature of learning, isn’t it? You sometimes have to learn by experience.

I now take full responsibility for finding where I can do what I do best. I make this commitment to myself and to any future students I teach. Future students:  I will help you to the best of my abilities and with all the care I can for your human development. If, however, you want something other than learning as I understand it and can help you with, I will graciously decline to be your teacher.

In conclusion, I hope this letter helps you understand more about our time together these last few courses, the grades you earned, and why I was not able to deliver what you wanted:  Top grades and a simple path to your success in getting those grades. We have a mismatch of purposes, perhaps, that is all.

All the very best to you. May you find the success you seek!

Sincerely,

Paul