All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.
A: I remember, when I was working for the government, I had this colleague who refused to do professional development. She said ‘I’ve had enough with university, I won’t sacrifice my fun’. Our business manager was trying to get her to sign up for some training, for her performance review or something, and I remember, she said she wouldn’t do it, and I was so judgmental of her!
B: Maybe we can look at learning as either a means or an end? When it’s connected with curiosity, it’s an end in itself. That’s what curiosity is, learning without a goal.
A: Well, that colleague didn’t have much of it. But then you have this other thing people say, they say ‘I have to keep learning, when I stop learning I’ll change jobs’. And I’ve always found that’s a very self-centered thing. What about the value you’re adding when you’re able to do things at your peak, because you’re not stretching all the time?
B: If you’re managing someone, it’s always more useful to treat them as an end in themselves. But if it’s about yourself, I think it’s actually more respectful – to the group – to think of yourself as a tool for the task, not the task as a tool so you can learn something. Otherwise, you just take work as entertainment.
A: Yes! There’s this book by Kierkegaard that I love, Stages on life’s way. He talks about three stages that people go through – or three different ways that we can experience life: aesthetic, ethical, religious. That thing of ‘I have to keep learning or I’ll move on’, it’s typical of an aesthetic approach to life, it’s work as hedonism. And Maybe that’s a thing in the way that many startups operate, where you’re joining to learn something, rather than do the job.
B: Well, it’s easier to relate to your job aesthetically when you’re in a tech startup than if you’re a cleaner.
A: So then, the question we could ask is, how can we move towards an ethical stage and continue learning. Not as an end in itself, for pleasure or entertainment, but so we can do the job better, or prepare for the future. Learning as a form of responsibility.
B: There’s a thing you see when you work in professional development, it’s the workshop hoppers. Those people who just go from workshop to workshop, but it’s never quite clear why they’re trying to learn something.
A: Maybe they’re bored at work, and learning is part of their lifestyle? It’s so different from the way we’re looking to develop our learning program in that startup I’m joining. It’s all about finding ways for everyone to really get how everything works, in depth: understand the tech, the business model, the goal, the context and the culture.
B: Well, that’s the opposite of typical corporate learning, where it always goes outwards. It’s about learning new things and bringing them in. When you look at it, there’s two problems that companies face, and they’re very different. There’s the technical skills, and mindset, or adaptability.
A: That’s the capacity to make use of your skills in context, right? I’ve been doing work on that.
B: Yep. But then there’s this American thing to say that ‘everything is a skill’. Adaptability, that’s a skill. Making use of your skills, that’s a skill. And so you have the impression that everything is a ‘technical skill’, and that’s rather confusing. There’s other things you can learn, but you need a different model to learn them. And I don’t think we’re doing that yet.