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3 lessons from learning disabilities

Learning disabilities hold special meaning to me, as I was typing away on my assignment on learning organisations and quality assurance mechanisms. The knowledge obtained spammed across two semesters during my masters programme.

It’s really no accident that some organisations learn better than others, not because they achieved the systems thinking(according to Senge). It’s because of the disabilities that form along the way, the culture that has been rooted in the organisation that might result in such ‘disability’ occurring.

Learning disabilities according to Senge in his Book “The Fifth Discipline” defines learning disabilities as:

It is no accident that most organizations learn poorly. The way they are designed and managed, the way people’s jobs are defined, and, most importantly, the way we have all been taught to think and interact (not only in organizations but more broadly) create fundamental learning disabilities. These disabilities operate despite the best effort of bright, committed people. Often the harder they try to solve problems, the worse the results. What learning does occur takes place despite these learning disabilities – for they pervade all organizations to some degree.

Here I present 3 out of 7 of the learning disabilities from Senge that I felt more meaning in my context of work and experiences.

THE PARABLE OF BOILED FROG

The metaphor of the boiled frog teaches us about awareness and our responsiveness towards danger and the external environment. Our lives are full of commitment as we grow older; our parents require our care, we get married and have kids, our job responsibility raises. There are lots of life events that occur through, some we treasure them dearly, some we overlook.

On the flip side, the accordance of technology as a distraction is an area of concern as well. We want to savour moments as we feel we worked pretty hard for the day/week/month/year. We don’t usually spend our time predicting what’s going to happen in the organisation, keep track of the external environment and how it impacts us.

We can’t track danger as well! Before we know it, we might get swarmed by competitors and a sudden change in the environment around us. So, our ‘radar’ needs to be on while juggling commitments around us. We need peers and colleagues to remind us periodically that danger lurks. Communicate them openly and acknowledge that personal vulnerability could surface due to this.

In addition, Senge mentions that changes can be too slow for us and can often go unnoticed. We will need be patient and slow down to get the best views in lives.

I AM MY POSITION SYNDROME

I am pretty sure that you have at least experience one person in your working career who has something similar to the comic illustration above. Just as Senge pointed out that:

When people in organizations focus only on their position, they have little sense of responsibility for the results produced when all positions interact.

In an age where technology truly drives collaboration and teamwork, we’re still at the age of building up areas of going the extra mile and being humanistic about it.

For this to subside, I believe mental models are a good start to get the culture moving. Culture is a terribly slow change management procedure that could work both ways. There might be resistance towards no initiatives. Even when one out of the hundred employees decides to change the existing process, ninety-nine of them would have resisted the change. It could possibly boil down to leadership and how one person alone could possibly restructure a culture of learning and encourage a collaborative spirit.

THE ENEMY IS OUT THERE

This is a common syndrome that is happening across different cultures and organisations. Finger pointing culture is a common phenomenon that most of us experience in our lives. It has became a natural human behaviour that people adopt and can be increasingly challenging to change this. Crediting external events could be a social norm, where people do not praise themselves for the good work they have done. Neither will they take the blame when things do not go their way.

How can we make our journey better? Taking full responsibility of the mistakes made is really one of the extreme approaches we take. Beau Lotto in his book Deviate, informs us on the concept of human and uncertainty. He argues that we inherently make uncertain things certain, just like the example of walking in a dark forest makes us uncertain and frightened as we are unable to predict what is in front of us. I feel that there’s a need for ownership for the things that we do, and understand that there are interrelationships in your work life. Consequences that you might eventually have to bear even though it is not your fault after all.

SO MY ORGANISATION IS NOT MOVING?

Beau Lotto writes,”If we are taught to be cotton, we will become cotton.”

Lotto reminds us that we will become whatever that our brain has ‘determined’ us to be. Senge talks about the importance of leadership in the organisation to drive systems thinking, but at times he might have missed the point that leaders tend to overlook their importance in driving the organisation.

To provide you with some principles, here are conscious thoughts about 3 things:

  1. Changing your existing mindset – Look at the way you perceive and see things. The one way that you are looking at might not be the only way. Perhaps, you should be willing to challenge your existing assumptions you have. For example, Ben Underwood was one of the prominent figures that will stay in me for a long long time. Despite not being able to see, he was able to use ‘echo locations’ to detect locations of objects and accomplish areas such as running and playing basketball. Become emotionally ready to be ‘exposed’ at times, especially when things are against your existing mindset.
  2. Be an influencer(An agent for change) – Senge claims that individuals tend to think of structures as external constraints, formal hierarchical structures that dictate processes(cultural,norms,policies and procedures) within the organisation. We tend to think that we are constraint by the structure dictated by the organisation. Perhaps, we need to think about overcoming the existing invisible boundary we created and work towards the vision and purpose that we came to this organisation for. Be influential to the little things that happen, good things will follow suit.
  3. Coach yourself – In Brian Souza’s book on The Weekly Coach, he says, ” A lot of coaching equals a lot of improvements, a little coaching equals little improvements.” This is invaluable advice on progressing yourself as an individual and finding out your blind spots(as mentioned in Johari’s Window). It is about finding the blind spots so you can progress towards a known area of yourself. This is a difficult task, but with constant(and consistent) practice, you will go a long way with this. You can use the empathy map to define the areas and plan ahead.

Be grateful again!(and again)

You must be thinking about the academic aspects of gratitude as you read this post. it’s not really one, I’m here to show you my journey after a year thinking hard about it.

It was a journey of a book “Gratitude in education” by Kerry Howells(The video can be found above). The obvious reasons were cause there wasn’t much literature focusing in depth on gratitude. The other reason was that I am focused on the education aspect of gratitude.

You think about gratitude as something obvious, a process that goes through your mind each day without thinking much about it. Gratitude is this invisible partner you see often but just neglect it because you are preoccupied with your daily activities in life.

You spend maybe 1/4 of your day being grateful to God, being grateful to the ones that helped you when you needed them most. You feel grateful when there is a positive outcome from an important occasion like passing your examinations, Drivers license or get promoted.

On the other hand, there are times where we really take things for granted. For example, we assume that we will get the service we expect because we paid for it. Anything below that standard, we express anger and frustration, questioning the standards of the service provided.

This sense of entitlement is what holds us from gratitude and even expressing it. I felt how it creates the negative energy that deters people from showing their true-self in being gracious and kind. You feel a lot less grateful when you missed a train, get blamed for something that isn’t directly your fault, etc. These events drain your energy and affect your mood for the day/week/month.

So to get you started on your journey, my clear intentions are providing some perspectives that you should consider as part of a new year resolution.

Is this about Positive thinking again?

Gratitude is a strange feeling that occurs to you. According to Dictionary.com,It is the quality or feeling of being grateful or thankful. It is an emotion that makes you feel good!

Positive thinking is deeply embedded in gratitude because you are feeling grateful for the things that happen around you. Both positive thinking and gratitude are emotions that take up your time, and with it effort. It requires changes to your daily routine, if you are a pessimist or if you never feel grateful about anything. Positive thinking is about the die-hard attitude of believing you can perform a certain task or overcome a difficult situation too.

Deep within gratitude, it is more than just having optimism. It is a deep appreciation of things/situations that occur around you and how you react towards it. Being positive doesn’t make you grateful for anything, it just makes you able to overcome anything! Howells did mention how emotions are interconnected and separation was not possible. It implies that we cannot remove just disappointment and feel happy instantly. What emotions we feel is an interconnected chain of thoughts. Separation is never possible!

What do I need then?

You will need to develop the appreciation of the things that you have, not the things that you don’t. List down the things that you feel happy and grateful for. Here are some things that you will overlook(non-exhaustive):

  1. Being able to see clearly each day
  2. Have a mode of transport to and fro (Work/Home)
  3. Being able to wake up everyday
  4. Having a Job!

You can pause for a moment and think about these before reading on. I advise you to identify some of them that made you rethink about being grateful. It is an important moment to think about.

Howells reminded me that gratitude cannot happen every single day and moment. It is impossible to overturn an unhappy situation and feel grateful for it (Although it is possible to feel positive about it). So let’s prepare ourselves to feel gratitude.

Don’t expect anything in return

Don’t you hear phrases where people tell you:

”You ought to be grateful that someone celebrated your birthday!”

You would also hear phrases like:

” Why doesn’t John says anything about the present I gave him last week?”

Or maybe:

“I gave up my seat to this guy and not even a word of thanks! What an I’ll mannered person!”

If one of these sounds familiar to you, congrats! It’s time to step out of it, or even tell someone that you should not expect anything in return. Strange to say this, but it’s a phrase in life that I go through myself.

My dad used to tell me about this terminology called unconditional love, where you love someone without a condition, without expecting anything in return. Bear in mind that it is something you feel uncomfortable about because you feel self-entitled. It is a feeling to love yourself more than others.

Sometimes when you give something or offer your seat on the train, you’re always expecting something in return, as to make you feel ‘rewarded’ and happy. Life is kind of different, it doesn’t always work that way. Because of that, you will accumulate lots of disappointment and feel that gratitude just isn’t worth it. To make things simple.

Don’t expect anything in return when you give. Be appreciative of what is given.

It requires perseverance

I personally feel that gratitude can bulldoze and drain your emotions easily. Within weeks, I foresee you might be exhausted and start reverting back to your habits. For once, to conquer and feel gratitude, you might have to overcome social norms and culture. It means that your personal belief system will be tested. I challenge you to bring your perseverance to another level, it will take time, but it is highly rewarding! It can be daunting and makes you feel powerless. This stretched goal can be a long and tedious journey. But, don’t sulk because you are not alone in this journey.

Keep being grateful, and the world will be grateful to you!

Be intentional about it

We are subconsciously aware of gratitude as it feels habitual. It is a feeling that we can overlook easily.

One of my best advice for you is to do something differently that’s related to gratitude. I never ever thought of getting a good luck charm certificate to provide well wishes for my boss for her upcoming conference. I was very sceptical about my idea because I thought of things like, “What if I can’t get everyone’s signature?What if nobody wants to sign this card?” This list goes on and on and on…

But deep within me, I had to do it, because I wanted to express gratitude in a way that I never did. The important lesson here is not only being intentional about gratitude, but also doing something out of the ordinary so people might become aware of the differences. Take the recognition as a bonus, but rest assured that the gratitude feeling that comes after doing something different is intrinsically rewarding. Remember that we always feel good when we do something good for others!

Create good intentions to make good things happen!

In Summary…


To sum it up, I took an example from Kerry Howells, whom I read about in Gratitude in Education as she speaks about how a downstream effect that gratitude has when you express it on a daily basis. What I’m saying is that gratitude flows down to our students.

I would believe that gratitude is something very holistic and pure, not easily achievable and overlooked at times. It was actually a reminder that your role, as parents, as educators, as a professional has a great deal on whatever you do. Being grateful to the things you have, as mentioned above, helps you to develop gratitude in many subtle ways.

Your tale of wonder will unfold as you express gratitude to people in your life. – Kathryn Sievert

As a self-reflection, I have taken the initiative to express gratitude each day, to be thankful for the days and things that I have and for the journey that God has given me. It can be a very rewarding journey, but it could really be lonely. There are a lot of things that you could benefit from. My last take away for you is:

Start small, dream big, you will succeed!