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  • benjaminnewman01

Mod. 3.1 - Learning and Unlearning

Journal Prompts

  • What is your mindset about human motivation?

  • What experiences have you observed at work or in other groups/communities that reinforce this point-of-view?

  • Have you actively pursued unlearning?

  • Are you noticing identity and/or generational differences in attitudes about work? How are they showing up? (see: Bridging Generational Divides in your Workplace, HBR, 01/2023)

  • As a leader, how do you approach mindset differences?


My mindset about human motivation varies, mostly by industry. For example, working in arts nonprofit environments for most of my career, I can recall my initial shock at how many people I met who worked for opera companies or symphony orchestras and did not care about the music, performance and genre at all. It was just a job. I had just assumed the majority of folks working in these spaces would be other classical music nerds like me who were super passionate about the work. It took me a while to wrap my head around why so many people would take these jobs with that mental framework, especially with so many other, better paying jobs available. What I learned over time is that many of these folks are motivated by the consistency of expectations they encountered on a daily basis. Essentially, they know what to expect from the job, the people, etc. and there’s great comfort and security in familiarity with the devil you know, as it were.

By comparison, I tend to think that most people who work in a corporate setting are motivated by opportunities for financial growth and advancement to build their careers and overall wealth to support their respective dreams, goals and lifestyles. My initial observations and sense of people’s motivations have been challenged and subsequently changed through numerous conversations with members of different generations. Looking at my older colleagues’ point of view, as someone now 10 years into my career in this field, I can understand what an important role stability can play in someone’s life, especially when so many other elements of life appear uncertain. Personally, I am immensely grateful to have a salary for the first time since 2019. The stability it’s given me is hugely important to me which is a large shift from my priorities a few years ago.

Unlearning has been a constant in my adult life. At the beginning of my career it came through colleagues who knocked me off of my high horse thinking I knew everything I needed to know at the ripe old age of 25. I also converted to Catholicism, much to my Evangelical parents dismay, just before my 25th birthday which coincided with my journey towards progressive political values. Like many others, I also had to go through a degree of racial reckoning internally to better understand how much internalized racism I had inherited from how I grew up and the very real threads of institutionalized discrimination playing out in society on a daily basis. I came face to face with the harsh reality of these truths when I began dating a Black man in 2018. I had unknowingly made a number of insensitive remarks which showed my ignorance and hurt my partner at the time. We ended up breaking up about a month into the pandemic in April, 2020, but I can say with gratitude that were it not for him and our time together, I would not have had the same understanding or charge to defend Black Americans during the injustices occurring all over the United States that summer.

In an assignment for a previous course in this program, I noted that across America thousands of people graduate from high school, college, or graduate school programs with little to no real work experience and when they get their first “real job” they are unreasonably expected to know the rules of workplace culture, dynamics and etiquette. They bear the experience of multicultural, open learning environments as the fruits of their education in these new roles but the people and the environment write them off as immature and naive. Over time, and very often through making mistakes, they begin to learn the rules. And in the process, many of them lose the vigor and energy they initially brought with them on their first day. It struck me during that assignment that while there are many disconnects that occur between the jump from student to young professional, one of the most unfortunate ones is the loss of energy and vitality that results from learning how to survive in the life-sucking hierarchy of traditional corporate culture. While commonly perceived by young professionals as an intentional attack or form of hazing, it’s actually just a byproduct of learning how to cope with the harsh realities so many will face over their careers.

The mindset that accompanies this soulsucking repetitive cycle is one of conformity and powerlessness. Where one only finds comfort in the quotidien consistency the job offers and tries to find glimmers of hope and joy outside of the office. For me, this horrible experience could not only be avoided, but actually leveraged to the company and staff’s benefit in myriad different ways. If the mindset changes from conformity to curiosity, and from powerlessness to empowerment, new possibilities and opportunities emerge that can put an end to the vicious cycle of “the daily grind.” For me, the largest challenge I face as a leader is trying to create space and opportunities to introduce these ideas to begin the difficult work of changing mindsets. The structure of so many organizations doesn’t support “creative time” or encourage staffers to think about how to maximize their own productivity through collaborative innovation. Instead, it reinforces the traditional model of conformity by questioning how that time spent brings value to the company. In my current role, I have no opportunities to facilitate learning, creative thinking, idea generation, or team building within a group setting, so instead I am focused on trying to understand what my colleagues values are, so if and when the opportunity does arise, I can apply and capitalize on those learnings to create space for experimentation and exploration in the workplace.

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