Irritated? – Great!

Photo by Rob Schreckhise

When we were kids, we just had it. Inquisitively we absorbed everything around us: Behaviours of the elderly, views, books. We tried to understand the world and learned new things every day. Why aren’t we able to act like this that as adults? Because we push everything through the filter of our experience.

As children, our bookcase is empty. We greedily devour everything we can get our hands on comics, science fiction, non-fiction. We learn something from all the books and over time the tower in our children’s room gets bigger and bigger. Our focus naturally changes over the years. While it’s all about understanding the basics of the world at the beginning, it becomes more and more specific. We learn how the world works, what love is and we get to know basic values.

School and society help us to organize the whole flood of information. We build up shelves within ourselves and sort the books according to categories. We sort out some of them and move them to the archive because they don’t seem so relevant to us anymore.

At some point, we have an impressive internal library and we love to show it to our guests. One day we even get a certificate that the accumulated knowledge is now enough to release us into the world of work.

Then everything changes. Whereas the focus used to be on accumulating knowledge, it is now on its practical application. We no longer have time to read. On vacation, we might take a few hours for a relaxing novel, but non-fiction? Often, we only read the summary and a few seemingly relevant pages. We prefer to listen to the summary on Blinkist so that we can shine with our illusory knowledge in front of our colleagues during the next small talk.

Any new book is quickly categorized and inventoried by our inner librarian decorating our inner library. But have we learned anything from it?

When I introduced Agile and its new understanding of leadership to a group of senior executives, a program manager threw in: “Good project managers have always done it that way anyway”.

When I hold training sessions with adults, I invite the participants to send the word “anyway” on holiday for the duration of the course. Instead of using the energy to assign what they have heard to what they already know, I invite them to let themselves be surprised – like a child.

The effectiveness of adult training can be measured by the number of irritations. Irritations are crucial because they indicate the starting point of the learning process.

The inner librarian cannot simply assign an inventory number and sort the new book into the other books of the same category but gets into a state of pondering. What do I do with this book? Do I have to introduce a new category? Do I have to sort out a few outdated books that have become dear to me over the years and have served me well so far?

The filter of our experiences is, of course, important in everyday life. How else should our inner librarian be able to efficiently cope with the flood of incoming information? Alone, we don’t learn anything – we just collect.

Irritations touch our innermost. They generate emotions and resistance. Sometimes we project these feelings onto the speaker and deny him the competence to save our old certainties. Traditional beliefs and experiences from the successful past are finally questioned. But that’s exactly what’s important if you want to develop further.

Sometimes it also takes a while until an irritation can be processed and integrated. These elements of a seminar sometimes kept me busy for weeks afterward until I could accept the new point of view. Ultimately, however, these were always the most lasting gains in knowledge that such a learning experience has brought with it. The greater the irritation, the better I remembered what was new and the more it helped me develop.

What about you?

Do you often think “Yes, I already know” in seminars or non-fiction books? Have you ever been annoyed by a speaker and denied him the competence because you didn’t like what you heard? When was the last time something irritated you? How often did that happen in your last seminar or creative brainstorming session?

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