The other day I picked up this Kelly Mark postcard from the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham – it caught my eye, it provoked a wry smile, it made me think. At first, I wasn’t sure I agreed with it. Some things I find utterly uninteresting: motor racing, accounts and conversations about walnut trees with my best friend’s ex-boyfriend among them. However, I do of course acknowledge that those same things are greatly interesting to others: my dad, chairmen of boards and the dreaded ex-boyfriend respectively. So in that sense I can accept the artist‘s proposition: one man’s tedium is another man’s thrill; interest is in the interestedness of the beholder, as it were.
This postcard seems particularly pertinent to me right now and its slogan serves as a cosy bedfellow to my Clore fellowship mantra: ‘Be brave. Stay open. Don’t stop learning.’ I have been really challenged over the last few weeks to examine my own learning process, my own surety or otherwise of judgement and my healthy (?) cynicism. When being repeatedly challenged in all sorts of ways, when being provoked as part of a process of encouraging my development, I am aware that my response to something needs to bear as much scrutiny as whatever I’m being asked to consider. So, in the spirit of being brave, open and keen to learn, when I encounter things I feel to be problematic, poorly done or simply missing the point, rather than feeling frustrated by and dismissive of them as I usually do, I’m enjoying calmly assessing my response to them and analysing why I feel that way. And sure enough, I’m learning as much from that self-interrogation as I would do from the more passive admiration of exemplary practices and inspirational experiences.
In place of my usual expressions of dissatisfaction, I’m trying to ask – and in fact finding it increasingly easy and instinctive to ask – questions such as: ‘Why am I disengaged / angered / frustrated / dissatisfied?’; ‘Why doesn’t this play / conference / event work?’; ‘Why am I bored by this format?’; ‘Why am I unable to engage with this speaker?’; ‘Why am I being resistant to this approach?’. All of which, after an appropriate amount of self-criticism-cum-soul-searching, leads to the reciting of a more positive catechism: ‘How might I approach this differently to feel more engaged / less frustrated?’; ‘How are others able to appreciate this and what am I missing to enable me to do so also?’; ‘How might I have organised this event / structured this format / contextualised this experience differently?’; ‘How might these pitfalls be avoided?’; ‘How can I ensure I am able to see the flaws in my own work as clearly?’; ‘How might I get more out of this?’.
Of course, what I am finding is that if I answer these questions honestly and with due pause for thought, once I have gone through the initial phase of frustration or disappointment with an experience, I then find I am able to learn more from it than had the experience been a success in the first place. I should stress that these experiences are in the minority: in the main I am finding inspiration, stimulation and delight all over the place. And while there is real value and joy in meeting and learning from experts and role models, and from engaging in intelligent conversation with stimulating peer groups and sophisticated thinkers, I am also learning that what I can learn from less satisfactory experiences can on occasion be more salient.
I cannot, for example, ever hope to emulate Tim Smit – I do not have his unorthodox combination of infectious passion and radicalism – or Michael Kaiser – I do not have his levels of self-discipline, blinkered determination and relentless single-mindedness. I have found listening to them both recently to be hugely memorable, utterly inspiring, refreshing and deeply significant experiences. But I know that I can never do what they do how they do it. So there is something reassuringly practical in the process of analysing less inspirational, less convincing, less good experiences and challenging myself to meet my own criticism square on and figure out how I might better it were I in a situation to do so.
I don’t of course always know the answers; on many occasions I only know that I don’t know. And even if I think I know, I don’t for one second presume I could execute the theory any better than others who I feel have failed. But what I do know is that I’m beginning to find it a very useful process of self-awareness and self-perception, and therein, I hope, it offers me some promise of self-improvement in the dim and distant future.
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