The Luxury of Reflection: A Personal Journey of Learning and Transformation.

Five or six overlapping career paths and 49 years later, the reason I am so committed to new and non-traditional ways of learning is that, for the most part, it’s the path I chose and for me the rewards of alternate forms of broad and primarily informal learning have outweighed the benefits of formal education. I realize it’s not for everyone.

At the end of my last post, I asked readers to reflect on their best learning experiences and I promised to do the same.  Looking back, I can safely say that when I left grammar school (English high school) at 18 there is no possible way I could have imagined the multiple career directions I would take over the next 5 decades.  What I imagined when I left school was a lifetime ‘s work in science for which I had specialized for the last two years of my education.  That direction lasted barely five years. 

Five or six overlapping career paths and 49 years later, the reason I am so committed to new and non-traditional ways of learning is that, for the most part, it’s the path I chose and for me the rewards of alternate forms of broad and primarily informal learning have outweighed the benefits of formal education.  I realize it’s not for everyone.  

This does not mean that finding the precise career, developing the passion for it, and following it for one’s working life should not be a primary goal.   However for many, if not most of us in the 21st Century, the twists and turns of fate, environmental pressure, hard work, and good fortune will probably form a major part of the way our patterns of work unfold.

I also want to add at the start that, while I am frequently critical of the formal education system, many of my rewarding educational experiences (and many dreadful and frustrating ones) have been as a lecturer in formal classrooms.  The rewarding ones have been the result of interactive exchanges with the students and the remarkable growth and development that has followed during their careers.

In this century, personal and professional changes are certain to be more frequent and unanticipated. Integrating creative behavior and novel modes of learning appear to have greater and longer lasting benefits than simply taking a traditional, prescribed learning path.  I’m not completely negating the validity of the formal education system but I believe, as I have said before, that today it’s largely outmoded and inadequate in the face of today’s exponential rate of change.

So what were my best learning experiences and how did they inform and shape my professional life? In many ways, thinking back, the most positive experiences have typical characteristics of 21st Century learning.  There is too much packed into a half century that I can write about in this column so I’ll try to précis the decades with some general observations in the hope you can see connections with the theme of creative transformation.

I have transitioned through six distinct but mostly overlapping career paths, each one characterized by learning patterns that have been based primarily on mentored and self-taught methods - plus a great deal of associated on-the-job experience.

These were (almost in chronological order) physics research (on the job training), professional photography (self-taught), general systems and creative behavior research and practice (mentorships and self-taught), computer animation (mentorships and self-taught), teaching and educational administration (on the job and mentorships), and consulting (self-taught and experiential).

The easiest way to illustrate what followed is though a visual resume so you can see how these paths evolved. At the top are a selection of key positions and activities and the bottom illustrates relative involvement in each major discipline (plus cabinetry which I find a relaxing problem solving activity that keeps me “hands-on” and connected to the material rather than intellectual world). 

My grammar school education in the late 1950s and early 60s - rigid, formal, specialized and which I enjoyed, taught me the fundamental principles of rote learning, sustained effort and good study habits and it provided an environment that resulted my early enthusiasm for physics and chemistry.

I left school at 18 and after a brief job in analytical chemistry (six months), I joined a small research team in a military university studying aspects of laser physics – then still in its infancy.  There I learned elements of creative experimentation and problem-solving, engineering, electronics, close collaboration and the importance of a positive and supportive team environment. It was three years later, when I immigrated to Canada in 1965, that my life was to change radically and after another 18 months in physics research at a Canadian university, I transitioned through a passion for personal expression and the art of photography.

As you can see in the above visual resume, from the late 60’s I stopped a contiguous progression of specialties and that was a result of result of exposure to the ideas expressed in the theories of systems design, general systems, creativity and evolutionary modeling. After that I purposely overlapped my career interests so that when one matured I was already in the late formative stages of the next.  Overlapping and interrelating aspects of learning and experience are cumulatively powerful because you can draw on multiple perspectives more easily when faced with new situations.

Did I say my path was unconventional? Even though I have worked and taught in formal institutions of higher education during the majority of my working life, I have no undergraduate degree and I have never studied with other students in a university class.

When I finally arrived at the idea I needed a graduate degree, I went to a local university with an idea for interdisciplinary research in creative behavior and said “I need to do this at the graduate level”. They agreed if I could find three professors at the university who would support my studies and research. So for the following three years I was mentored by faculty from the departments of psychology, philosophy and art as a part-time student.  All the courses involved independent study and were customized and tailored to my specific research needs and interests. I learned critical analysis, research techniques, original and interdisciplinary strategies, and solid academic writing skills.  The result was a significant breakthrough for me in developing a unified field model of creative behavior and which has informed much of my thinking and consulting for the following 30 years. 

I cannot imagine a better non-traditional learning experience within a formal institution and that was over 30 years ago! It was rare for North America and I was lucky. But it’s a pattern that I believe should be more typical of 21st Century education today – highly mentored, customized and personal.

Rather than go into lot of unnecessary detail, what follows is a summary of thoughts and observations on learning and experience about future career preparation and development.  No doubt many of these remarks may appear obvious but, based on reflective practice and personal experience, I hope they will stimulate or inspire you to look at your own skills set and see where opportunities for learning, growth and creativity can make a difference in your personal and career paths.

Breadth versus Depth

First, it’s important to find a balance between breadth and depth in knowledge and skills.  Breadth is key in bringing to any field a broader range of connectedness with allied or even disparate concepts and is critical when developing interdisciplinary and creative solutions.  Depth is essential for demonstrating your level mastery - your command of skills and expertise. Demonstrated proof of past and current levels of ability are the evaluative corner stone of the profession and that’s why your animation or vfx show reel is so important. Conventional thought says it takes 10,000 hours to reach true mastery of any professional skill set and from experience I think that may be a minimum. 

Passion

Over and above level of mastery, passion demonstrates your commitment and desire to learn, to collaborate and to contribute in animation and related professional areas - both increasing defined by the quality of creative teamwork. Enthusiasm carries you forward; it keeps you sharp and it supercharges your learning, your cooperative mindset and your competitive spirit (btw, do read Ken Robinson’s “The Element” on finding your passionate direction).

Participation and Networking in the Community of Practice

To seek out and collaborate with those who share your prime interests at a professional level is both rewarding and inspirational.  I’ve found that personal connections in every area I have worked have been as important as every other form of learning.  Conventions, seminars, formal and informal meetings, advisory groups, social networking, all connect you with like minds (and dislike minds) and immerse you in the community of practice.  Personal networks are critical on many levels as connectivity often results in unexpected opportunities and professional enrichment.

Presentation Skill

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We live in an attention economy.  Getting and keeping the attention of those we want or need to influence is a critical talent that takes a great deal of time, energy and skill to develop.  Good presentation skills are essential in our visual culture for developing and giving formal presentations, pitching ideas, interpersonal communication, training, mentoring and competing for attention with the myriad of messages everybody is subjected to every day.  It takes a great deal of practice to present well and develop clear and convincing arguments – as it does with the written word.

Cross-cultural Experience

Nobody needs to be reminded these days that we live and work in a truly international work environment. In a world of competing creative centers and globally distributed production, the ability to understand cross-cultural issues in storytelling and art direction is a critical skill for developing universal content.  

Even more demanding are dealing with “novel” business practices, production methods, corporate culture and organization, roles, responsibilities, language translation, social, political, religious, artistic, and historical influences as well as diverse cultural practices and norms.  And layered on top are the technical challenges of communication across multiple time zones.

Working on several continents and in different cultures results in invaluable learning experiences as well as adding perspective and depth to one’s professional and personal portfolios.   Creative personal and professional evolution often requires a rich pool of diverse knowledge and experience gained through a wide range of interactions and involvement with disparate people and events. These are not essential conditions for everyone and there are of course exceptions, but as a general rule creativity is energized by diverse connectivity.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

I incorporated my consulting company, IMAGINA Corporation, in 1985 and it gave me additional industry and government related experiences that have been really helpful especially when I transitioned away from full employment in formal education a decade ago.

For a wide variety of reasons, it’s very difficult to fully realize the ideas and visions you develop for projects that come your way.  Success and “failure” (read “experience”) go hand-in-hand when in comes to entrepreneurial initiatives.  But that’s the reward, having the opportunity to break new ground, make a difference and push things forward.  I always try to take on new ventures that are a conceptual and experiential stretch (never do tomorrow what you did yesterday!) and where there’s an opportunity to create and implement emerging ideas and novel solutions.

Developing Creativity

True, some folks appear to have much higher levels of creative output than the rest of us, but creativity is something you can learn and develop though practice. Like any skill, once you understand the personal dynamics of the way you best organize your thought processes and understand the principles of creative problem solving, you can apply these practices in every phase of your personal and professional development.  

Like physical exercise or musical talent it takes time to develop the ability and skills to perform at a high level, but willingness to take risks and to overcome the blocks that you experience (or others may cause) are all that stand in the way to increasing your creative ability.  

With the vast resources of the Internet, the high bandwidth of connectivity through smart phones, tablets and other personal communications technologies plus access to an incredibly diverse range of knowledge, there has never been a more important time to develop creative skills that result in ideas and products that are both original and valuable (the two essential conditions for creative productivity).

Future Learning Environments

Nobody can accurately predict the future. What skills each of us will need and in what particular combination will depend on factors both within our control and outside of it.  Technology and production methods will continue to evolve quickly.  Global competition will bring major, innovative challenges and push conceptual boundaries.  Building individualized capabilities that are creative, flexible and transformative combined with in-depth abilities in specific areas may be the best preparation.  To make this happen in institutions, a revolution in formal training methods is long overdue.

Creative transformation is a result of the dynamic interplay between intense preparation, sustained commitment and hard work, environmental support (and sometimes pressure), a passion to succeed, a positive response to opportunity, openness to new ideas and an overriding desire to evolve and to grow.           

Let me know if you find these comments useful.......... 

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