Why is experiential learning superior to every other kind? In a word: feedback. Jerry Weinberg explains simply and concisely.
“Why is reading or writing something different from doing something?
First consider reading. Reading is (usually) a solitary activity, with no feedback. Without feedback, there’s no check on what you believe you’re learning.
Now, writing. Unless you put your writing in the hands of someone (or perhaps some computer analysis app), there’s also no feedback, so there’s no check on whether you wrote sense or nonsense.
When you do something, you interact with the real world, and the world responds in some way. With the world’s feedback, you have the possibility of learning, confirming, or disconfirming something. That’s why we strongly favor experiential learning over, say, lecturing or passive reading or writing.” —Jerry Weinberg, Why is reading or writing something different from doing something?
For five days, forty of us lived in silence, meditating in the Vipassana tradition. No talking, no reading, no writing, no phone, no internet.
Before this experience, I had never been silent for even one day of my life.
What happened next? A totally unexpected outcome was that I fundamentally changed how I eat. Mindfully eating in silence for five days allowed me to learn how much my body really wants to eat. It turned out to be a lot less than I’ve been eating most of my life.
When I was younger, I could eat anything and not put on weight. At thirty, something changed, and I gradually became overweight. Over the years I tried various approaches to eating less. Most of my efforts had a temporary effect, but they were essentially efforts of will—always a struggle—and I remained at least ten pounds overweight.
Now, three months later, I am at my lowest weight in thirty-five years. My Smart Body Mass Index is now in the normal range. And, to my surprise, this practice remains easy for me to continue.
What can we learn from my experience? Experiential learning is the most powerful kind of learning! Five days of mindful eating reprogrammed my lifetime pattern of applying external strictures — eating certain foods, avoiding others, disciplining myself to wait until a set time to eat, etc. — to one where I eat from what Jan Chozen Bays, MDcalls a sense of cellular hunger rather than other kinds of hungers such as eye, nose, mouth, stomach, mind, and heart.
Five days experiencing what I mindfully wanted to eat trumped years attempting to teach myself what and how to eat.
What else did I learn? Prolonged sitting mediation — focusing on my breath for forty-five minutes many times each day — was a new experience for me. I became aware over and over again of the games my mind continually plays. Sometimes I found my thoughts drifting to scenes from the past or imagined situations in the future; sometime I found myself in a blurred dreamlike state. Each time I noticed my mind straying, I brought my awareness back to my breath.
As you might imagine, it’s hard to do this, but the practice has fascinating benefits. Besides the mindful eating outcome, I feel more connected to my experience of the world, more able to flow with what happens, more in touch with the suffering and impermanence in my life. The latter may seem an unlikely benefit, but seeing more clearly what exists (we all suffer, we all die) is transformative.
A lot of people think that meditation is about attaining a blissful state. That’s not the whole picture for me, though there were wonderful moments during my five days, especially while experiencing the beauty around me. Rather, being closer to what life is actually about — both the joy and the suffering — is what the retreat gave to me.
In addition, the retreat reinforced my experience that we are the stories we tell ourselves — further deepened by the observation that we’re telling these stories to ourselves in our own minds all the time!
My retreat experience was fascinating, hard and wonderful, and I now plan to participate in one or two retreats a year. I recommend the experience, even though yours will surely be different from mine.
So many conferences are a collection of unrelated sessions. But the June 2015 PCMA Education Conference in Fort Lauderdale showed how a coherent set of meeting goals can be embedded in a congruent conference arc, improving learning and connection amongst attendees. Here’s what PCMA did.
Although PCMA asked me to be the “conference facilitator” and “connect the dots” for EduCon, most of the credit for the conference design goes to the PCMA team. Pre-conference collaboration with the team was a pleasure.
My consequent jobs over the three days of conference sessions—which boasted a record 675 attendees, plus several hundred following the live stream of portions of the conference—were to:
open and close the conference;
interview John Medina on stage and at a “deep dive” breakout;
facilitate a closing public evaluation of the conference.
Being up on stage so much, interviewing, and providing event continuity for as many as a thousand people was a new experience for me—definitely risky learning! Connecting the dots immediately after presentations is hard when you don’t know what presenters are going to say!
When I accepted the offer of facilitating the conference, I only had a rough outline of the presentations, and I wondered about the content/learning arc of the event. To my pleasant surprise, as the event design unfolded, EduCon delivered a coherent set of sessions that shared common themes around predetermined goals.
At the opening I told a story and shared the EduCon design goals: experiential learning, risky learning experiments, and meaningful engagement. I’ll use [EL], [RL], and [ME] respectively to indicate how these three themes were woven throughout the event.
John Medina’s opening session immediately touched on some of these themes. He described how prospect-refuge theory suggests that a mixture of private and public spaces provides an optimum environment for events, balancing the needs for safety [RL], frankness, growth and confidentiality with the openness required to spread content.
John also spoke about the importance of high Theory Of Mind—the ability to reason about the mental states of others, what some might call empathy—for creating effective work teams that have high collective intelligence. (There’s a great test of your Theory of Mind ability Reading The Mind In The Eyestake it for free here!) It turns out that women have better theory of mind than men, which is perhaps why there are so many female meeting professionals—empathy is important in our industry [ME].
Interviewing John—who must surely be the easiest person in the world to interview—was a blast! I had 15 minutes with him on stage, followed by 75 minutes in a breakout. For the breakout I simply had the audience sit in curved theater seating facing John and me plus a couple of empty chairs, and had audience members with questions come up to the front of the room and talk with him. We could have easily spent another hour with John.
Read my earlier post to learn more about the session crowdsourcing experiment I facilitated the following morning, which incorporated all three goals for the event [EL] [RL] [ME]. A few of the sessions chosen: women’s leadership in the event industry (described to me afterwards by several participants in glowing terms), cultural issues in international meetings (run by Eli Gorin, who seemed very pleased), and selling sponsorship (held in the round).
After lunch I facilitated a personal introspective breakout session [EL] [RL] [ME], which provided participants the opportunity to think about what they had experienced so far, how their experiences might impact their life, and what changes they might want to make as a result. Afterwards, I received the same feedback independently from many people—they had gone into the session thinking they had little to say, and discovered during the process that there was a lot to talk about and get excited about. I have heard this kind of feedback for many years now, but it’s still gratifying to hear the conversation volume rise steadily and observe the palpable reluctance of people to leave their small groups when the session is over.
I attended a few of the other breakout sessions during the conference, and observed a good mixture of [EL], [RL], and [ME] in all of them. Though I can’t be sure that those I missed followed the same path, the interactivity of the sessions I witnessed was unusually high for a meeting industry conference, and all the presenters I talked to had incorporated trying something new during their sessions.
The second plenary speaker, Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise, spoke to several themes related to the “gift of failure”:
the “deliberate amateur” who avoids the traditional route of learning [RL];
the need for “private domains” that allow creativity to flourish [EL]; and
the “supple grit” needed to know when to keep working on an idea and when to stop before the work becomes dysfunctional persistence [EL].
On the final day of EduCon I ran a public evaluation of the conference in 45 minutes using plus/delta. Having attendees publicly evaluate a conference they have just experienced was clearly an [RL] activity! I think it went well; the scribes’ Google doc summary (projected in real time as the session took place) gives a taste…
The first question Sarah was asked at the conclusion of her talk was on overcoming fear [RL], which segued nicely into the subject matter of the closing session by Mel Robbins, author of Stop Saying You’re Fine. Mel delved deep (and interactively) [ME] [EL] into our fear of change and introduced her 5 second rule—if you have a game-changer impulse, act on it within five seconds or else it dies [RL]—another formulation of improv’s “say yes”.
Mel closed with a powerful call to action, a key component of a compelling conference arc, to take ownership of our lives. After such a powerful session, I kept things short with my closing remarks, pointing out specifically how PCMA’s conference goals had been achieved, and then asking the audience to stand and applaud themselves, as the people who, collectively, through their own interactions, risk taking, and engagement had made the achievement of those goals possible.
It felt good!
Awesome photo of me at 2015 PCMA EduCon taken by and licensed from Jacob Slaton!