“The Spirit of Learning”

My co-author Alan Weiss and I received some unsolicited, hopefully well-intended, feedback about our book, THE GLOBAL CONSULTANT. The person bristled at our suggesting the world by and large sought out American thought-leadership in business and management.

In acknowledging other world-class centers of learning however, by error when we wrote our draft, we placed INSEAD in Switzerland rather than France (it also has a campus in Singapore). We may have had IMD in mind, or we might have just made an honest error. Alas, three sets of editors (two in Singapore, and one in the United Kingdom) failed to catch it, and it made it’s way into print.

It is one line in a 284 page book, commending INSEAD by the way (though this writer suggested we had insulted INSEAD by getting its location wrong, — AND he suggested we may have offended IMD too on the off chance we actually had it in mind!). Surely INSEAD’s self-esteem is not so precarious, even if this writer is demonstrating that his own might be.

This one oversight, seems to draw fire from more than one person who seems unsettled by some of our observations, and can find nothing substantive in the book to decry. People have said imperiously that this error erodes our overall credibility,  even that it shows we don’t know anything about Europe — thereby displaying their loose handle on logic (how does getting a location of a university wrong accidentally, show anything about your overall cultural, economic, historical or other knowledge of an entire Continent?).

I mention this because if I read a 240 (or so) page book, and wrote in, spending several paragraphs on a minor publishing gaffe , I’d have to wonder what the book stirred in me. A desire for real learning would have me wondering why I’m so bothered, why I needed to find such a dubious scapegoat within the book so that I could vent.

This particular writer caps his comments by saying he hopes we “appreciate” the input “in the spirit of learning”.  Well, we’re happy to learn of an error, even a truly inadvertent one like this. But the “spirit of learning” is the last thing that comes across in the communication. So, let’s just use this as a quick case-study on offering input that truly might stimulate learning.

Stated as it is, with such sweepingly excessive conclusions, this communication makes one wonder at the motivation for the observations. This distracts from any “learning” that may otherwise take place. So, first if you want to communicate a view, keep the focus on the learning you want to share, or the real point, minimize off-ramps and gratuitous secondary conclusions from your observations.

Then, give prime-time to what really matters to you in the communication. And be honest as to whether you’re sharing that you’re just emotionally miffed for whatever personal reason, or making a point you want intellectual engagement on.

The truth is the writer seems to really be annoyed about the perceived US-centrism of some of our comments in the opening chapters (he confessed to only having made it to page 39). Our actual point was that in an earlier age, we would have sounded more French-centric or English-centric, tomorrow we may be more China-centric. At the time of writing, we were speaking about American predominance in the world of management thinking and also global business given the overall size of the US economy. It was factual, not subjective. It wasn’t a paean to cultural or economic “manifest destiny”. It was about facing facts — so we can build on them —  for consulting and business success. We clearly mentioned that as these facts change, so would the specifics of our advice. We’d have suggested learning French in the 18th century, do suggest English for today and may suggest Mandarin and Hindi 20 or so years from now. Let’s see.

Had the writer focused their comments on this issue, we might have had a fascinating and illuminating dialogue. Harping on a relatively trivial reference (trivial to the sweep of the book and the point being made), was a distraction and an emotional indulgence that was intriguing, but not in the way intended.

Finally, choose your irritations carefully. Opt to be far more often amused or even bemused if you like. And if irritation keeps getting the better of you, ask first what YOU can learn from it, before asking others to be educated by a display of your annoyance, especially when accompanied by rickety logic and odd inductive liberties you’re taking. The more you come from composure, are relaxed and flexible, the more you are likely to generate as well as communicate points worth learning from. You don’t need to get your hackles up to be impactful. On the contrary.

Reflexive ire and pulpit pounding don’t produce the spirit of learning. The spirit of learning requires curiosity and exploration, enrolling someone in dialogue, sharing and owning our own feelings and reactions, and thereby irrigating the possibility that we all might just discover something new.