Like most folks I know, I have a whole range of mixed memories from my years at school. Some fantastically ecstatic, others scary and traumatic, but I suppose the sum of those experiences were all 'character building'. If you had met me as a school-age child, you would have found someone who had very strong ideological views, but who so often lacked the ability to express them clearly. Some would argue that little has changed.
I did fairly well at school, but was also seen as a bit feisty at times - my strong views and beliefs weren’t always compatible with the power structures that existed in schools (those power structures, by the way, extend way beyond the teachers and well into the playground). One phrase that I remember people who perceived that they had power over me told me time and time again was: “You’ll think differently when you’re older“.
I didn’t understand that phrase at the time, and I still struggle with it now. I remember once, in middle school, I conspired with a few friends to go on strike. I can’t remember exactly what my disagreement was about, I vaguely recall it was related to the fact that the teacher intended to punish the whole class when one or two students misbehaved. Sadly, this strike never happened - I can’t remember if I was talked out of it (or coerced out of it) by a well-meaning adult.
I look back on this memory fondly. It’s easy to think “naïve child: why were you so naughty?!”. But press pause for just one moment and switch the context. Imagine you went into work tomorrow, and somebody has stolen the communal coffee jar. If the boss says “Right, all 30 of you are staying for an extra hour this evening, without pay as punishment, and you aren’t allowed to leave your seat” you would probably laugh at first. If they were serious, there would likely be lawsuits and union involvement. Why? Because it’s unfair to punish an innocent person for the actions of another guilty person. So isn’t that as true for my ten-year old self as it is for my [insert-whatever-age-you-think-I-am] age self? If we put ourselves in that ‘naughty’ child’s perspective, maybe we’d come to the same conclusion. How often are we stuck thinking that some things are “OK” just because they’ve always been that way? Sometimes it’s time for a fundamental re-think.
The Fantastic Mrs. Morgan: Debating for both sides
Understanding different perspectives is really important, but tricky to do. There were many fantastic teachers, and one who I really remember was Mrs. Morgan. Mrs. Morgan was Australian and (with some level of irony) was an English teacher. I learned English language and literature from her, but I also learned so much more. You see, Mrs. Morgan ran the only after-school club that wasn’t sports based – she ran the debating club.
For years, me and a bunch of other misfits turned up and debated things. But Mrs. Morgan was smart: You had a week to prepare your argument but you didn’t always get to pick your side. We’d debate all manner of controversial topics (euthanasia, legalisation of soft drugs, capital punishment) but sometimes you had to research, and construct a compelling argument for the side that you didn’t agree with.
I hated this at the time, but in retrospect it taught me to understand—and respect—that there are multiple perspectives on a subject. We might not always agree, but that doesn’t mean the other person isn’t acting entirely logical from their side. This encourages empathy, but also respectful challenge. You challenge the logic of the argument but this isn’t dissing the person. A useful skill to have in the workplace… or so we might think.
Fast forward a few years, and after college, I spent a (thankfully brief) couple of years early in my career in a very strong office culture, where there were strong perceived power structures. It was like being back at school again—as Bowling For Soup so eloquently put it “High School Never Ends”. I started challenging things, only to find out very quickly that this was not seen as appropriate for a “junior” member of staff. The way to get on was to shut up, sit down, and ensure that you made as much visible progress as possible. It didn’t really matter what that progress was, as long as you found a way of aligning it with whatever the middle management fad was at the time, and as long as you didn’t threaten the status quo. I luckily, very quickly, found a route out — and a couple of years later landed (very fortuitously) into the world of business analysis (where challenge is welcomed and age isn’t a barrier!)
“You Thought Better [On Some Topics] When You Were Younger”
So what does all this amount to? I think there were situations where the ‘raw naivety’ of youth meant that we had a better take on a situation. At eighteen, I hadn’t been as ‘conditioned’ by office politics, by national politics, and by norms and beliefs that get invisibly transferred to you as a knowledge worker.
A question I ask myself now is “What would I have thought about this when I was ten years old? Sixteen? Eighteen?”. It sounds crazy, but as a thought experiment it’s really useful. I find myself interpreting situations in a different way, often with far more clarity than my [insert-whatever-age-you-think-I-am-here] year old self. I find myself reigniting old enthusiasm and optimism that so easily gets beaten away in a largely “corporate” and “political” world. I also think back to Mrs Morgan’s debating society days, and asking “What is the opposing or different view(s) on this?” and “How might others be experiencing or perceiving this?”
These types of techniques are so important, in my view, because many of the “Messy” problems that we solve in our organisations - and our communities - need fundamentally different ways of thinking. Your “legacy application” problem won’t be solved by incremental changes around the edges. Our communal “climate crisis” won’t be solved without fundamentally re-thinking what we now take for granted. It’s time to retire the tired, faded, clichéd view that people “think better just because they are older”, and instead ensure that we inclusively seek perspectives of a whole range of folks to re-think the problem. By seeking wide participation, and by using thought experiments to expose and dampen the shackles and baggage that we all carry, we might be able to get closer to some of the radical solutions that our organisations and our communities need.
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