Five years ago, I started this blog. I launched it in May 2014 while I was visiting the Kloster Arenberg, a convent outside of Frankfurt, Germany. I was then—and continue to be—a junkie for solitary, spiritual retreats. At the time, nothing sounded better than a quiet weekend amongst nuns. Between walks in the woods, visits to the stations of the cross, and trips to the sauna, I managed to write my first post—all 518 words of it.
In that first entry, “The Courage to Begin,” I expressed anxiety that my writing would not be good enough, and that posts shared on the web would be hauntingly permanent. But more than either of those fears, I feared the judgment of others. I wrote, “There’s vulnerability in expressing myself authentically… What if you think I’m silly, stupid, or too much of a hippie? What if you think I’m too pragmatic, too intellectual, or not intuitive enough?” While I was theoretically bought in on authenticity, I dreaded its ramifications both online and in real life.
Yet, over the last five years and seventy-five posts, I continued to put myself out there. With each post, I learned more about myself. With each post, I came to care less about the opinions of others. Just as important, with each post, I came to understand more about what mattered to me. As I moved away from worrying about approval, I focused more and more on my mission: to give a clearer view to life and how to live it meaningfully. Now, I have the courage not only to publish my work online, but also to share the collective wisdom of The Intentional in my second book, The Intentional Life: Reflections from Conscious Living, which publishes later this week.
The element of The Intentional Life that I’m most proud of is its authenticity. While the topic of the book is living intentionally, the content could not be more personal. It includes reflections on major life events (e.g., engagement, marriage, childbirth) and mundane, everyday life (e.g., parenting, cooking, working). It shows my weaknesses, fears, and failings. And, if it has been successful, it gives a better view into what it looks like to live intentionally and calls you to reflect more on your own life.
So happy birthday, The Intentional. I am meaningfully different than I was five years ago when we started this journey. Thank you for providing an incredible platform for my on-going development – and the inspiration for my next big turn as an author.
Meredith The Intentional Life is live this week!
Order the paperback here. Order the Kindle version here. And, if you prefer to hear my voice while you’re out and about, wait for the audiobook release shortly!
My wife and I have been together nearly seven years and married almost four. We’re still near the beginning of our lives together and in the process of figuring things out. But, these few years together yielded the first major realization about how life works as a couple: As you get to know each other more and more, you experience the ‘relationship reset.’
The relationship reset happens when you go from living within the broad spectrum of how people act to living within the narrower spectrum of how you compare to your partner.
Take cleanliness, for example. Maybe a similar level of cleanliness was one of the reasons why you were a good match for one another. While other potential matches left clothes on the floor or dishes in the sink, you both put things away immediately after using them. You were, in essence, on a similar spot on the dirty-to-clean spectrum.
Now you are in a relationship. You live together day-in and day-out. And instead of comparing yourselves versus the whole world, you primarily – and increasingly – only compare yourselves to each other. The ways that neither of you would ever act – failing to sweep the floor or not noticing cobwebs – are not even conceivable possibilities. Instead, the spectrum of possible states – and thereby, your effective world – narrows. You each define one of the new poles of the spectrum. And further, you sit in opposition. Suddenly, one of you is the ‘clean’ one and the other is the ‘dirty’ one. Sure, you both put away clothes and dishes. But, you have different tolerances of how dirty the bathroom can be before it needs a good scrub down. Weirdly, you become more different than similar.
This dynamic holds true for nearly every personality trait. For me, regardless of my absolute level, I suddenly became relatively less romantic, more social, less organized, more serious, a worse driver, etc., etc., etc. While the relationship reset confirmed some of my self-perceptions, it really screwed with other parts of my identity. I found myself exclaiming “What do you mean I’m not organized?!”
And so, I need to remember the broader spectrum and the impact of the relationship reset. Just because I’m more or less qualified on any dimension between my wife and I doesn’t say much about how I stack up in the broader world. And, more importantly, any differences I feel between us are probably minute in the bigger scheme of things.
Have you experienced the relationship reset? Along what dimensions?
What are your relative strengths and weaknesses versus your partner?
How has being in partnership changed the way you think about yourself?
One of the themes of the last few months has been stuff – the physical items with which we surround ourselves. The impending addition of my son in September prompted a flurry of preparations and reconsideration of all our possessions. We started by sorting through all our baby gear. But, soon enough, we found ourselves shuffling our lesser-used Christmas ornaments and fancy china off to a new storage room. I spent my evenings sorting through memory boxes from my childhood and sending boxes of photos off to be digitized. And now, even though we’re away from most of our possessions (we’re travelling for two months), we still spend a fair amount of time schlepping suitcases from one location to another, packing and unpacking the things we brought, and organizing our items into new spaces to be functional.
All of this ‘stuff management’ has made me reflect upon how we manage our things – how we ensure that they are of service to us instead of us being of service to them. Long ago, when Liz and I moved in together, we agreed upon a number of guiding principles about how we would manage our combined stuff. It was less guidance that we aspired to but more an articulation of our already-shared philosophy. It included such guiding principles as:
One in/one out: The concept is simple: buy a sweater, get rid of a sweater. The challenge here is that you need to accurately baseline what you own at the start. This ensures you are not adhering to the letter of the law and unintentionally maintaining a bloated pants collection or never letting yourself buy the extra set of socks you need to make it through the week. But, if you follow the spirit of the thing, I find this principle is the most useful for maintaining day-to-day discipline.
Keep memories electronically: While the memories that our parents kept for us are very sweet, the volume of them is overwhelming. When I sorted through my memory boxes this fall, I found dozens of figure skating medals and reams of participation certificates. In sorting through our old boxes – and thinking prospectively for our kids – we try to keep memories electronically. This means that we try to take pictures of things and ditch the originals instead of accumulating more fodder for the memory boxes. Goodbye ticket stubs, programs, menus, and, yes, the little ones’ artwork. We have room for one work of art per child on the refrigerator, so pick your favorite, kiddo.
Maintain 30% extra space: Empty space begs to be filled. And yet, a home that is perfectly full – no space empty and nothing extra – does not give room for growth. I vaguely remember reading a feng shui article at one point which suggested that you need to leave empty space in your home in order for good things to arrive. Our target is that any closet, cupboard, or drawer can be 70% filled and should remain 30% empty. This is admittedly a tough one, but it’s always a good reminder for me when I am tempted to shove the Nth t-shirt in a drawer.
Let it go: When an item can serve others better than it can serve you, pass it on swiftly and without hesitation. This can be difficult for us because we’re both so frugal. That said, as we sold our San Francisco apartment and moved across the country to a Connecticut rental, we were reminded how owning, maintaining, and moving items requires the expenditure of real mental and physical energy. So, instead of hoarding ‘value’ by keeping things that we are unlikely to use again, we try to do the more comprehensive math of each item’s value to us, weighing our likelihood to actually use it versus the more intangible costs of ownership. This is not exactly Marie Kondo’s approach of disposing of things if they don’t bring you joy, but it has a similar ruthlessly cleansing result.
Since originally articulating our approach, we have also added new principles related to how we manage our stuff with kids. The best of these are:
Up to one toy: Both to manage our space and also to keep ourselves sane, we limit friends and family to giving “up to one toy” for holidays and birthdays. They are welcome to give an endless parade of books, clothes, and college fund contributions, but only up to one toy. Sometimes little things sneak through (particularly if they’re of the consumable kind, like crayons, stickers, or bath bombs), but we’re okay with that. The point is that we are trying to set limits upon the endless consumption of things so that we can make our boundaries clear with others and provide some of that discipline to our children as well.
Want/Need/Wear/Read: I can’t remember where we picked this one up, but before Elliott’s first Christmas, we decided that she would receive four and only four gifts from us for the holiday: something she wants, something she needs, something to wear, and something to read. The small number and delimited categories keep us from splurging on many things and force us to consider closely what we acquire.
As we step into the holiday season abundant with things – old things we’re using and new things we’re acquiring – it’s a good moment to reflect. How do you manage your stuff? What do you want your relationship with your stuff to look like? And, how can you bring intention to this part of your life?
When we told friends and family that we would be travelling through Costa Rica for the last two months of my maternity leave, we got a lot of interesting reactions. Some were in disbelief, thinking us either crazy or stupid for taking a two-month newborn and a two-year toddler anywhere. Others were jealous of the idea and seemed almost annoyed that they didn’t organize something similar with their own children. Still others couldn’t wrap their minds around the complexity of it all (logistical and otherwise) and surmised that we must be superhuman (fact: my wife is).
Now, two weeks into the trip, we get a lot of curious questions from people on the home front who want to know how it’s going. The tone is often tentative, almost as if people are wishing us well but expecting a train wreck. “So…how is it?”
When I began to answer that question, I measured my answer against two things: our ideal of travelling and our ideal of parenting.
The Travel Ideal When my wife and I travel, we optimize for having authentic experiences and challenging adventures. We eschew tourist infrastructure and instead seek out interesting experiences off the beaten path. We put ourselves in new situations that require us to rise to the challenge – whether rappelling waterfalls in Vietnam, navigating the public bus system across Croatia and Bosnia, or hitchhiking in Norway. We make every meal count by finding restaurants frequented by locals or touted by reviewers; it’s like we can smell a menu printed in multiple languages.
When looking at our previous ideals, what emerges is this: it is impossible to travel the way we’d like to travel while parenting. And, it’s impossible to parent the way we’d like to parent while travelling.
So, back to the question at hand: how is it on the road with two little ones?
I find that I am grateful for the beautiful travel moments which I can steal while taking care of these two. That brief moment sitting under the pounding of the hot springs waterfall. The tropical fruits and sips of Costa Rican coffee before a long mealtime implodes. The massage in an open-air bungalow and speedy zipline tour while my wife takes care of the little ones.
A moment away: zip-lining through the forests of Arenal
At the same time, I am grateful for the beautiful parenting moments which I can steal while travelling. Playing ‘telemarketer’ on the unplugged hotel room phone with my toddler. Making finger puppet shapes on the ceiling to entertain my newborn. Long talks around where things goes when you flush the toilet and unexpected potty training wins.
A momemt together: hats on while on a “ride to school”
Yet, what I have been completely caught off-guard and delighted by are the new moments of integration in which travelling and parenting transform each other. The best parts of this trip – and undoubtedly the most memorable – are the rare moments when it all happens together in a new and different way. The conversations with my toddler about how mud is made as I carry her through ankle-deep gunk in the jungle. The quiet moments breastfeeding my newborn son while looking out into the tropical rain. The kids’ reaction to a handful of white-nosed coatis wandering up to our hotel room window.
A moment when it all comes together: white-nosed coati encounter
By combining the two, the nature of both parenting and traveling changes completely. On the road, I become a different parent. I let go of optimizing their world for respectful, independent learning; I am more flexible and fluid. And with kids in tow, I become a different traveler. I don’t need everything to be perfectly authentic and perpetually challenging; I slow down, judge less, and see this place through their eyes.
So, am I eating more hotel hamburgers than I would like? Absolutely. And am I also delaying nap time to fit in one more store, one more museum, or one more dip in the pool? Yep. But, increasingly, instead of feeling like I am compromising on both sides, I feel like I am finding the beautiful integration of both.
I was sitting around chatting with a group of moms the other day. One friend mentioned that her son was not eating meals, and they were, as a result, putting in extraordinary efforts to get him to do so. Her pediatrician’s advice? Just “un-thing” it.
Un-thinging is the process of not making a big deal out of something; in other words, not making it into a thing. Her son can eat or not eat. Either is fine. As a parent, you set the direction and the implications (i.e., here is good food, you need to eat or you’ll be hungry), but you don’t get tied up in what the child chooses to do. You don’t bribe or coerce. You don’t have an emotional reaction. You stay chill and let them figure it out independently. By un-thinging it, you lower the stakes. You normalize the situation. You create the space and opportunity for change.
In becoming conscious of un-thinging things, we have also started to play around with thinging things. By thinging something, you differentiate it. You make clear that the behavior is situational and even special. You create limits and boundaries around it. For example, when flying with my toddler the other day, we decided to thing the use of a diaper. My daughter is in the middle of potty training, and we don’t want her to think that wearing a diaper is typical behavior. And so, my wife drew planes on each of her diapers. We talked about how these were special “plane diapers.” When we took the diapers off, we said goodbye to the them and made a big deal of wearing underwear again because we’re not on a plane anymore. We made diaper-wearing during travel a thing.
Beyond that, we are thinging a whole host of behaviors associated with travel: lollipops to pop her ears on the plane (“plane lollipops”), the use of a tablet (“special Daniel Tiger”), eating more frequent desserts (“something we do on vacation”), and sleeping on an inflatable mattress (the “travel Older Toddler bed”). We want each to be a specific experience with its own use case, boundaries, and related expectations. We are creating the association that these are all related to this special time and place and do not reflect the new normal.
Stepping back, thinging and unthinging are simply more intentional practices about consciously choosing – in this case, consciously choosing your relationship with each action. What do you need to unthing to create space and opportunity for change? What do you need to thing to create differentiation and limitation?
I returned to my hometown in Michigan this week to visit and introduce my grandparents to my newborn son, Hawk. Gathered in their living room, Grandpa told stories of working as a machinist in the auto industry, and Grandma knit another beautiful afghan. We ate egg salad sandwiches and homemade cake, cooed over the little one, and caught up on life. And yet, while our visits were lovely, they all happened in front of a backdrop of scathing purple-state attack ads. The muted television in the background prompted me to see that, while this narrow moment was perfect, there are so many challenges in the wider world.
The tone of the ads reminded me that we live in a country where intelligent discourse has fallen by the wayside, where there is little listening, and where both sides are guilty of unprincipled behavior and partisanship. All of that points to my bigger concern. As we approach Tuesday’s election, I am concerned about our fundamental respect for each other. I am concerned about human rights.
I look back on the past two years and see so many things that horrify me: the rampant use of dehumanizing language, a failure to condemn white supremacists, threats to revoke citizenship of birthright Americans, separating children from their parents at the border, work to limit the rights of trans citizens; and, beyond our borders, our country’s complicity with the human rights abuses of other countries as we fail to hold them accountable.
We can talk about the economy, healthcare, education, foreign relations, or anything other political issue you’d like to debate; but, to me, all those have become secondary to our fundamental human rights. Events like the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh demonstrate how dire this issue has become, not only for the Jewish community, but for all of us. I am surprised and saddened that human rights need to be an issue at all, and yet, here we are.
I would say that the actions of this administration have reduced me to being a one issue voter, but that would be wrong in multiple ways. First, I am not reduced or diminished in any way; atrocities call forth my power instead of minimizing it. Second, the administration has not forced this upon me; I choose to stand up, first and foremost, for human rights.
I vote for treating each other as humans worthy of respect.
I vote for understanding people however different they may be from me.
I vote for erring on the side of compassion.
I vote against fear.
I vote against blame.
I vote against ‘other-izing’ our fellow humans.
I vote against using harmful descriptors (e.g., “animals”, “lowlifes”, “dogs”) which lead to harmful beliefs and increase the likelihood of harmful actions.
And so, how to vote?
In the past I have voted for both Republicans and Democrats, though I have trended towards the left as of late. That said, even if I didn’t mostly vote Democrat, I would in this election. Any Republican who has not openly, actively, and continuously disavowed the actions of this administration cannot claim to be a champion of human rights. And that is what we need right now. We need people who will openly and vocally disavow Trump’s actions even if they agree with his policies. We need to reestablish our foundation of how we are with each other instead of sacrificing it for superficial political wins – for it is only upon that foundation that of rights and respect that we can again engage in a thoughtful discourse to come to workable solutions.
The Talmud states that “who can protest and does not is an accomplice in the act.” If you’re a Democrat, a Republican, an Independent, or someone who formerly affiliated but now feels dismayed and dejected, please vote this Tuesday. And, for me, I will vote Democrat in order to make my stance as clear as possible: Human rights are at stake. I do not support anyone who, by commission or omission, accepts the atrocities of this administration.
I would love to hear your perspective on this especially if you disagree with me. I promise it will be met with an open mind and an open heart.
What has been most notable about this second pregnancy is how different it feels from the first.
The first time around, I prepared myself for what I anticipated would be the life-changing and spiritual experience of pregnancy and birth. My friend Michael fed the fire, commenting on how spiritual it must be to have life growing within you and to be in such a powerfully creative place. I wanted to feel that way.
And, I wanted to be fully prepared for everything. We took every single birth class. I mean every single one. Not just the birthing and breastfeeding and first-year parenting classes, but also the infant CPR/first aid classes and infant massage classes. I even convinced Liz to come with me to a ‘prenatal partners’ yoga workshop.
Working with the midwives, my birth preferences were extensive. They articulated a plan for natural labor and reflected weeks of research on how things might go best. By the time I went into labor, I was ready in every way – spiritually, intellectually, logistically – to be transformed by this experience.
Thirty-hours of labor later, on August 2nd, 2016, Elliott joined us. The midwife said I looked surprised there was a baby at the end of childbirth, and she was correct. So much of my preparation had focused on me, my experience of birth, and what I would learn from all these things that I couldn’t clearly see how this was the start of so much more.
There is so much which is different this time around, both in my circumstances and in myself. I wish I could say it’s because I’m infinitely wiser, but instead I continue to learn from every new experience. Here is what I’m seeing this time around:
It’s Actually About the Baby
…but it’s number two
The most important difference between my pregnancies is that it has shifted between this pregnancy being about me to this pregnancy being about the baby. I know the punchline now; God-willing, childbirth ends in parenthood. The whole point is bringing this little man into the world in a safe and healthy way. So, instead of being curious about the experiences I’ll have, I’m just excited to meet the little man. There’s far less interest in “What am I like in this situation?” and more interest in “What’s he going to be like?”
Who Has Time for That? I realistically don’t have the time to be so self-centric this time around. I could point to a whole portfolio of demands on my time, but the ultimate cause is my daughter, Elliott. Two-year-olds do a remarkable job occupying every available minute of time, and I am (mostly) happy to give her those moments. As a result, pregnancy looks different. Last time around, I prioritized weekly acupuncture, gentle but diligent workouts, and frequent prenatal massages. This time, I sit in the closet while Elliott delights in opening and shutting the door or lay together on the floor waiting for imaginary deer and lions to come visit. (Elliott requires Liz to do much more active play for some reason.)
I Know I Don’t Have Control
Even if I don’t always act as if it’s true, I know through experience that I have nearly no control over all of this – from pregnancy to childbirth to parenting. The most important processes – physical and otherwise – unfold naturally. While I still struggle to act in accordance with this insight, I realize I am less in a position of control and more in a position of surrender. No birth plan, only birth preferences. A recognition that birth will come when it comes and go how it goes. And, most importantly, no expectations that the lessons learned caring for Elliott as a baby will translate into any better ability to care for number two.
Sometimes I step back and reflect on all this, wondering if my different emerging relationships to my two children – starting with even these early months of pregnancy – are simply the first manifestation of birth order conditioning. Though still in utero, Elliott had attention and focus throughout my pregnancy. She’s maintained much of that while this little man has developed inside of me. For his part, the little man has either enjoyed or suffered through a pregnancy with far less of a maniacal focus on him. At times I’ve blamed myself that I have not been more pregnancy-focused during this time, but my wise friend, Nema advised me that “the baby will make sure he draws in what he needs.”
Little Man, I hope that you have everything you need. We can’t wait to meet you.
Two weeks ago, the Callahans embarked on a ‘near-shore’ adventure — a long weekend in Montreal to meet up with friends, dine on poutine, and test our high-school French skills. As we crossed from New York into Quebec, we were grilled at the border by the guards: How long would we stay in Canada? Who were we meeting? When was the last time we saw them? Where were we staying? Did we have a reservation? Who made the reservation? When would we come back to the United States? As we drove through Quebec’s broad fields, we made appropriately grim jokes about seeking asylum in Canada as a LGBTQ family. We laughed about The Handmaid’s Tale and shared our adoration of Justin Trudeau.
But it was the drive back — not the drive there — that made the sad truth of our circumstances even more real. As we approached the American border, I felt my heartbeat quicken. Yes, we held American passports. Yes, we were crossing the Northern border and not the Southern one. And yes, as Caucasians we had the privilege of not triggering any of the profiling flags that would cause someone to doubt our case. And yet, I was attempting to cross the border into the United States with my child. Thousands of mothers and fathers in similar situations had their children taken from them over the past weeks and months. It was only an accident of birth and circumstance that separated me from the parent who comes to the border seeking asylum.
As this disturbing truth percolated in my head, it didn’t take too much imagination to hear Elliott’s cries not as innocent toddler crises — about dropping her milk, wanting to take off her shoes, or refusing a graham cracker — but instead about being separated from Liz and me. I cannot imagine the horror of having your child forcibly taken from you, however briefly. I cannot imagine the inhumanity it takes to do that.
On a daily basis, I’m ashamed by what our country has become. We increasingly live in a country which is run, at the highest levels, without a sense of compassion or humanity. While there may be room for power and politics in parts of government, the way we treat human beings is not up for debate.
Regardless of our political persuasion, we increasingly have a choice between acting out of love and acting out of fear. Do we believe that others are worthy of respect and treat them accordingly? Or do we demonize and dehumanize them, characterizing them as animals or criminals? There is a long history of humans blaming “the other” in times of uncertainty and distress. It is easier to point the finger than it is to take responsibility for our contribution to the problem. But it takes a certain level of personal evolution to assume responsibility, to humbly seek to understand, to leave the need to be right behind, and to contribute to the solution. I am not always good at this; I can’t imagine that you are either. But, hopefully, if we can choose to face every situation — even the smallest and most trivial situations in our lives — with love instead of fear, we can collectively shift into a different way of being.
What does it look like to choose love? Every time you find yourself afraid — afraid of a person, afraid of a situation, afraid of an outcome — look inward. Try to investigate what is going on inside of you. What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of not being loved? Of not being good enough? Of failing? Of not being able to provide for your family? How do you act when you are consumed by that fear? In reality, that fear is just that — a fear. It may come true; it may not. You will find out over time. But, in the short term, your relationship with that fear — your mindset about it — dictates your actions. What would it look like to have more love, to have more faith? What might you see differently? How would you act differently?
So please, take all the political actions you can to influence our government in the direction you believe is the most compassionate and loving. Call your elected representatives. Sign petitions. Donate. But, in addition to these, take the initiative to shift from fear to love in your own life. Nothing but the sum of our everyday choices to love will unlock a bigger transformation in who we are as a people.
As many of you know, the Callahan clan moved from California to Connecticut earlier this year. I wrote about that transition here on my blog, The Intentional, and posted it to the appropriate social media channels. Amongst the chorus of wisdom and encouraging words, there was no comment more apt than my friend Michael reminding me that: “Qui transtulit sustinet.”
“Qui transtulit sustinet” or “He who transplanted sustains” is the state motto of Connecticut. I recalled the motto from the first time I transplanted myself to this state — from my hometown of Port Huron to college in New Haven. And here it was, cropping up again as I moved to Connecticut a second time.
There are a couple of meanings of the motto: The first implies that he who transplanted you will sustain you, indicating that God (who brought the settlers to America) would support them (in the new land). I prefer a second interpretation of the motto, however — the one that makes it more personal: He who transplants himself, sustains.
The idea of transplanting oneself resonates with the advice that “You have to repot yourself every once in a while.” The philosophy of repotting people is the same as repotting plants. When our growth slows or stops, it’s time to move. We pull ourselves up by the roots, shake off the dirt, and settle into a new pot with fresh soil. The pot should be a bit bigger than the old but not overly big; we need space to grow without being overwhelmed.
While the goal of repotting is growth, when plants are first moved, they often enter a period of shock. Instead of thriving, we appear wilted and thirsty as we adjust to our new circumstances. Change, as everyone knows, is hard. That said, over time, the new pot, with more space and refreshed nutrients, enables the new growth and, eventually, new bloom.
While repotting sounds wise, it is often painful and unpleasant. Your pot may be so homey that you could stayed there forever. And yet, if we’re committed to growth, we must repot ourselves instead of waiting for some cosmic gardener to change our circumstances. As John Gardner wrote in Self-Renewal, only by intentionally repotting can we grow into our fullness as humans:
“Most of us have potentialities that have never been developed simply because the circumstances of our lives never called them forth. Exploration of the full range of our own potentialities is not something that we can safely leave to the chances of life. It is something to be pursued systematically, or at least avidly, to the end of our days. We should look forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our potentialities and the claims of life-not only the claims we encounter but the claims we invent. And by the potentialities I mean not just skills, but the full range capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving, and aspiring.”
When we made the decision to move across the country, it was not pleasant. We didn’t happily repot; instead, we felt our roots holding onto the California soil with all our might. When the opportunity called to investigate our new potentialities — to see what new growth might be possible — we took it. And so find find ourselves here, repotted in Connecticut. We are certainly still adjusting from the initial shock, but we hope that the family who transplanted will not only sustain, but grow in an even bigger way.
Wishing you plenty of uncomfortable growth and self-renewal,
Working in the learning and development space, I often reflect upon what takes us from novice to master. For any given topic, what is the path of learning? How do we become experts? And how do we grow our ability to then teach others in a meaningful way? Below, I propose a framework for understanding how we move from student to teacher, from teacher to content designer and, ultimately, from content designer to learning strategist.
AS A STUDENT Experiencing We begin in traditional student mode. Students in the experiencing stage are the recipients of the experience rather than creators of the experience. Though they may actively participate in exercises and offer their perspectives, they do so within the design of the course and typically at the behest of the teacher. They focus on content — comprehension, application, and integration — rather than the way in which the content is delivered.
Note that, for most learners, this ‘hard’ focus on the content is where nearly all their attention goes — and rightfully so. It is often only higher-level thinkers with a specific curiosity about learning and development who step above the direct student experience.
Understanding Stepping one level above the experience at hand, students shift their focus from the content of the experience to the design of the experience. Students are still primarily in observation mode, but their senses are attuned to different dimensions: They look for the choices made by the designer and/or the teacher. They are curious about the decisions made about when to tell, when to ask, when to demonstrate, and when to invite participation. They notice the teacher’s own style as a factor in facilitating the experience.
AS A TEACHER Replicating Shifting roles, we next transition from students to teachers. Again, this transition is not for everyone; on any given subject, the majority of students will find that they capture the value they needed through their experiences and move on to apply their learnings in the real world. For the handful looking to teach others, their teaching approach begins in a crude and unrefined state; it lacks subtlety and depth of experience. They largely replicate the approaches they have seen, delivering content referenced in notes or memorized by rote. They navigate with the aid of lesson plans, outlines, or presentation slides. When complex questions come up, they tend to parrot their own teachers and cite the experience of others rather than relying on their own expertise or observations.
Tailoring As they teach the content again and again, teachers come to facilitate the learning experience more elegantly. They abandon their external aids, depending instead upon an increasingly clear understanding of what is required to meet the goals and how it should go. As they get the facts down cold, they are able to widen their aperture, intentionally managing their style and focus. They dynamically adjust to accommodate the learners in the room and their style of learning. Increasingly fluent in the content and structure, they grow more fully into their authentic selves as teachers.
AS A DESIGNER Evolving With increasing experience, teachers may shift into content designers. At first, they may simply evolve pre-existing content, making an adjustment to the delivery here or a tweak on the timing there. Over time, they come to shift the learning experience in bigger ways, more fully revising content to better achieve learning objectives. Evolving designers take the power of the pen not only as they plan learning experiences, but real-time in the room as well; they are comfortable shifting the design in substantial ways on the fly in order to maximize learning in the room.
Innovating With even more experience, content designers become innovators. They are able to take new learning objectives and craft meaningful learning experiences ex nihilo. They thoughtfully consider all aspects of the learning experience. They often begin by examining the world of relevant content on a topic and synthesizing this into the most important points. They then apply themselves to crafting the learning, adjusting each aspect of the embodied experience (e.g., the timing, the tone, the atmosphere, the space, the materials) to enable the higher-level goals.
AS A STRATEGIST Translating Beyond this, we again transition roles; this time from the designer to the strategist. Translating strategists can take high-level goals (e.g., greater proficiency in mathematics) and render these into the right set of tangible learning objectives (e.g., understanding of concept of addition, facility with adding multi-digit numbers, speed of application). In addition to the learning objectives, they also articulate the design principles and high-level architecture within which the objectives are best achieved (e.g., twelve-session series over three weeks, focused primarily on application). Translating strategists can apply their skills in either direction — scoping a new learning experience from the top-down or evaluating an existing learning experience to understand whether it fits shifting needs.
Envisioning Finally, envisioning strategists primarily concern themselves with the goals at hand and how exposing people to learning experiences might contribute to those overarching ambitions. They bring a big picture view, carefully considering the relevant context (whether that be the organization, industry, community, country, or world as a whole). They see the opportunities and challenges within the broader system and can envision its evolution. Given this view, they identify where learning experiences might affect meaningful change in individuals and communities.
As you see, each stage includes a basic level and a more advanced level before fundamentally shifting focus via a role change (e.g., student to teacher). That said, this framework is not linear. Though some may ‘rise through the ranks’ from student to teacher to designer to strategist, this is not necessary; for example, a strategic thinker with experience in other domains may also strategize about learning. However, the best envisioning strategists are not generalists who see learning experiences as one of many levers to pull to execute a strategy, but those who have moved from student through strategist in this continuum and hold a nuanced understanding of how learning experiences can meaningfully shift human development.
Stepping back and reflecting, what has your own evolution as a learning professional looked like? At which level do you prefer to function? At which level do you aspire to function? Then, looking at your team, at what level are they engaging with your agenda? What potential do they have to operate at other levels and what experiences are necessary to get them there? And, most importantly, what do you see now that you didn’t see before?