Learning in Action: What it Means to Live on the Edge
If you’re not willing to fail, you don’t have much chance to learn in action.
John Seely Brown is a visiting scholar and advisor to the Provost at University of Southern California(USC) and the Independent Co-Chairman of theDeloitte Center for the Edge.
Prior to that he was the Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation and the director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)—a position he held for nearly two decades. While head of PARC, Brown expanded the role of corporate research to include such topics as organizational learning, knowledge management, complex adaptive systems, and nano/mems technologies. He was a cofounder of the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL). His personal research interests include the management of radical innovation, digital youth culture, digital media, and new forms of communication and learning.
John, or as he is often called—JSB— is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Education, a Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence and of AAAS and a Trustee of theMacArthur Foundation. He serves on numerous public boards (Amazon, Corning, and Varian Medical Systems) and private boards of directors.
He has published over 100 papers in scientific journals and was awarded the Harvard Business Review's 1991 McKinsey Award for his article, "Research that Reinvents the Corporation" and again in 2002 for his article “Your Next IT Strategy.”
In 2004 he was inducted in the Industry Hall of Fame.
With Paul Duguid he co-authored the acclaimed book The Social Life of Information (HBS Press, 2000) that has been translated into 9 languages with a second addition in April 2002, and with John Hagel he co-authored the book The Only Sustainable Edge which is about new forms of collaborative innovation. He is currently working on two new books – The New Culture of Learning with Professor Doug Thomas at USC and The Big Shift: From Pull to Push with John Hagel.
JSB received a BA from Brown University in 1962 in mathematics and physics and a PhD from University of Michigan in 1970 in computer and communication sciences. He has received five honorary degrees including: May 2000, Brown University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science Degree; July 2001, the London Business School conferred an Honorary Doctor of Science in Economics; May 2004, Claremont Graduate University granted him an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters; May 2005, University of Michigan awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, and May 2009, North Carolina State University awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Science Degree.
Most of us, if we were honest, are risk adverse. Many of us actually move from being risk adverse to being willing to live more on the edge. I call those folks edge-dwellers.
I think the catch is to recognize the dimension of excitement, the sense of adventure that’s actually out there, as long as you have safety nets. Meaning some really powerful ways, with the right kind of mentors and reverse mentors, you actually feel more capable pushing yourself out on the edge and recognizing that, yeah, you’re going to mess up and you’re going to fail, but you most of us fail and learn from those failures.
In fact, once you kind of got used to constantly kind of messing up in a way you suddenly discover that you’re learning those exponentially up. As you may know I’m very fond of studying of bizarre things; although, I’m trained in mathematics and computer science. I study extreme surfers; people that are now world champion surfers. Kids that become world champion surfers and come back to possibly how that was possible these particular kids that I study.
But there’s no question, every day they’re willing to push themselves and fail, fail, fail because it is failing is a sense of not figuring out exactly how to catch the lip of this particular kind of wave. How this particular move and shift of weight balance as a wave is crashing down on you could have helped you kind of escape that. Maybe you go through the tunnel even faster and further and so on and so forth.
It’s only about constantly trying and looking at what are the most nuance moves that you didn’t make that made the difference. So in some sense, if you’re willing to kind of reflect in a state of failure or after the failure, then you’re learning becoming amazing. And I think if people step back and think about it, learning in action is kind of fun. Not necessarily learning by reading book after book after book; although, some of us brought up that way and did pretty good at it and kind of liked it, but an awful lot of us like action.
And the real question is how do you learn in action. If you’re not willing to fail, you don’t have much chance to learn in action, but if you’re willing to fail then learning in action can be phenomenally powerful and very exciting. From this point of view, all change becomes in fact a learning opportunity and a new kind of adventure.
This lesson is derived from Big Think Edge, an online learning platform designed to help employees help their companies cultivate the new skills and knowledge necessary to invent new products, new markets, new business models, and new industries.
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