Social learning is humans’ true superpower

What is humans’ true superpower? [Hint: We’re not more intelligent than other species.] We can make a strong case that humans’ true superpower is social learning. Why am I writing about social learning on a blog that’s (mainly) about meeting design? Because social (uncovered) learning is the best learning model for conference sessions. Which means, to create the best meetings we need to maximize the social learning that takes place.

Humans’ true superpower

I’m reading Dutch historian and author, Rutger Bregman‘s absorbing and optimistic Humankind. The book presents a ton of evidence that — despite the torrent of bad news that daily floods our media — “humans are hardwired for kindness, geared towards cooperation rather than competition, and more inclined to trust rather than distrust one another.”

Early in the book, is this passage:

“What makes human beings unique? Why do we build museums, while the Neanderthals are stuck in the displays?”

“Chimpanzees and orangutans score on a par with human two-year-olds on almost every cognitive test. But when it comes to learning, the toddlers win hands down.”

Human beings, it turns out, are ultra social learning machines.

“…humans have another weird feature: we have whites in our eyes. This unique trait lets us follow the direction of other people’s gazes…Humans, in short, are anything but poker-faced. We constantly leak emotions and are hardwired to relate to the people around us. But far from being a handicap, this is our true superpower, because sociable people aren’t only more fun to be around, in the end they’re smarter too.” [emphasis added, illustration based on this research]
Humankind, Rutger Bregman

social learning superpower
Illustration from Humankind by Rutger Bregman

Or, as Seth Godin puts it:

“If you know how to walk, write, read, type, have a conversation, perform surgery or cook an egg, it’s probably because you practiced and explored and experienced, not because it was on a test.”
The revolution in online learning, Seth Godin

We aren’t superior thinkers. Humans don’t remember stuff better or longer or more accurately that other species. We aren’t better at causal reasoning. The one characteristic — our superpower — that distinguishes us from the other life on our planet is how we learn from and with others. (And how they learn from and with us.)

Social learning is how humans learn. We’re great at it, compared with other life forms. (Yes, there’s always room for improvement.)

So, for pity’s sake, don’t lecture and test. Eliminate all the one-hour (or longer) lecture sessions. Instead, build social learning into your meetings as much as possible.

So, how can I incorporate the power of social learning into my events?

It’s not hard to unleash the power of social learning at your events! Simply implement the participant-driven and participation-rich processes I’ve described and taught in my books and workshops for over thirty years.

What are you waiting for?

The liberation of ignoring sunk costs

ignoring sunk costsAre you stuck in a career or life that you are reluctant to leave because it would involve ignoring sunk costs? I frequently meet people who are, and I certainly understand the temptation. Here’s the story of how I liberated my life by ignoring sunk costs. Perhaps it will inspire you to do the same?

The first twenty-five years of my life

My early education environment fed me a fire hose of information that my schools decided I should learn. Somehow, I maintained an intense curiosity to understand the world. So it’s not surprising that I gravitated to studying physics. I ended up with a Ph.D. in experimental high-energy particle physics at the tender age of 25.

I could have stayed in the field, probably got tenure, and been a physicist the rest of my life.

Instead, having fallen in love with Vermont, I left the world of high-energy particle accelerators and multiyear Big Science experiments, never to return. Although some of my experience prepared me for subsequent careers in computer science and consulting, I spent perhaps five to ten years of my life studying and working in fields I have, by now, largely forgotten. Five to ten years of sunk costs.

But no regrets. Although nothing to do with my absence, the field of experimental high-energy physics yielded little interesting progress over the last forty years. I’m glad I left it.

A visit to Korea

In 1996, my family and I visited Korea. Everywhere we went, people asked my profession. They were astounded when I told them I had recently given up being a college professor to concentrate on information technology consulting. In Korea, being a college professor was the highest status you could have. (The two college professors with whom we were staying had their graduate students pick us up at the airport and ferry us around.) The idea that I would give up college teaching to pursue a different career was incomprehensible.

Perhaps if I’d been born Korean and followed the same educational path, my high status would have seduced me, and I would never have left academia. Status is a big reason why people cling to jobs that they hate. Knowing more about myself now, I’m glad I escaped such a fate.

Solar, teaching, and consulting

New careers followed. Abandoning each one required ignoring my associated sunk costs. Yet, in retrospect, there was always learning that fed my future. Managing a solar manufacturing company taught me much about business, which proved vital to my later consulting career. And teaching computer science for ten years helped me slowly become a better teacher, eventually discarding the broadcast-style teaching modalities I had experienced and unconsciously assumed.

Meanwhile, in my spare time…

Ever since I was a graduate student, I’ve felt drawn to bring people together around topics and issues they had in common. I spent most of the next thirty years doing this as an unpaid volunteer in my spare time. My only reward was the mysterious pleasure of feeling good about what I was doing.

What I didn’t realize was that, during these decades I was learning a great deal about successful and unsuccessful ways to facilitate group connection and fruitful learning. Figuring out ways to make the fundamental human act of meeting better, motivated by nothing more than the pleasure it gave me, led me to write a book about what I had learned.

To my surprise, when I published Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love in 2009, I found myself professionally involved in the meeting industry.

It took me half a century, but I finally figured out (for now) what I love to do. And organizations pay me to do it!

Are you stuck?

Are you stuck in a career or life choice that you are reluctant to leave because you would have to ignore sunk costs? Ultimately it’s your choice, of course. For me, being able to walk away from the learning, experience, and status I’ve achieved in various realms has been worth it. If my story hasn’t convinced you, I’ll close with Seth Godin’s thoughts on the subject:

“‘Ignore sunk costs’ is the critical lesson of useful decision making…

…Creativity is the generous act of solving an interesting problem on behalf of someone else. It’s a chance to take emotional and intellectual risks with generosity.

Do that often enough and you can create a practice around it. It’s not about being gifted or touched by the muse. Instead, our creative practice (whether you’re a painter, a coach or a fundraiser) is a commitment to the problems in front of us and the people who will benefit from a useful solution to them.”
Seth GodinSunk costs, creativity and your Practice

Have you ignored your sunk costs, and walked away from a career or life choice? Share your story in the comments below!

Image attribution: Flickr user Falco Ermert, under CC license Attribution 2.0.

Distracting ourselves from what matters

distracting ourselves from what mattersWe spend too much time distracting ourselves from what matters. Distraction is fine, up to a point. But when we spend two trillion dollars annually on entertainment, I’d say we are well beyond that point.

As Seth Godin puts it:

Marvel spent $400,000,000 to make Avengers: Endgame. Because there was a business model in place that made it a reasonable investment choice.

What if we wanted to cure river blindness or address ineffective policing as much as we wanted to watch movies? The business model would shift and things would change–in a different direction.

I’m not sure there’s an intrinsic reason that watching a particular movie is more satisfying than solving an endemic problem. We’ve simply evolved our culture to be focused on the business of amusement instead of the journey toward better. [Emphasis added]
—Seth Godin, In search of amusement

Seth points out that our business models have shifted away from those that satisfy needs, towards those that satisfy wants. These growing businesses make money by selling distraction from work, work that is needed to make things better.

Pandemic distractions

As I write this, the COVID pandemic has been raging for a year. We’ve had even more reasons to distract ourselves from the additional turmoil the pandemic has brought to our lives. Online streaming consumption has soared (while live event attendance has plummeted). The rise of online makes it possible to choose exactly the kind of distraction we want with a click or finger tap.

It’s hard to believe that in a (hopefully) post-pandemic future, we’ll spontaneously give up our newfound distractions. Especially since businesses are hard at work creating more distraction opportunities and temptations, making it even easier to avoid what matters.

After all, that’s where the money is.

Or is it?

A different choice

Each of us can make a different choice.

It’s going to need to be a conscious choice, because businesses craft their distractions to be as addictive as possible. They will continue to do their best to make us want things that aren’t what we need.

There are so many unmet basic needs in this world. Here are some important ones:

  • Shelter
  • Food and water
  • Healthcare
  • Safety
  • Adequate income
  • Education

None of these needs are impossible to satisfy. The human race is capable of significantly improving access to all of them right now.

Working to meet these needs is a global effort. No one person can singlehandedly satisfy these needs. But each of us can do something.

You can make a difference

Individually, you can make a difference. Each of has unique talents and energy to devote to issues that matter.

We can choose to distract ourselves a little less, and use our freed up time to make the world a little better.

Because, for our world to become a better place, we can’t keep distracting ourselves from what matters.

You get to choose. Reduce weekly Netflix watching? Stop solving quite so many crossword puzzles? Don’t play Solitaire so often? (Those are some of my choices.)

Use your freed up time to make the world a little better. (I choose to help run non-profits that provide support for healthcare and education, and to support other non-profits that work on improving the world.)

Make a conscious choice that works for you. One that supports a “journey towards better” for the world we live in.

 

 

You can’t make people change. But…

you can't make people change

“You can’t make people change. But you can create an environment where they choose to.”
—Seth Godin, Leadership

Change is hard. And you can’t make people change.

However, meetings have tremendous potential to change lives. Attendees have something in common: a profession, a passion, a shared experience together. They are with people who, in some way, do what they do, speak the same language, and face the same challenges.

What an opportunity to connect with like-minded souls, learn from each other, and, consequently, change one’s life for the better!

Unfortunately, most conferences squander this opportunity. Learning is restricted to broadcast-style lectures, Q&A is often more about status than learning, and attendees have little if any input into the topics and issues discussed.

Peer conferences support change

The peer conferences I’ve been designing and facilitating for 29 years are different. Yes, you can’t make people change. But, as Seth Godin points out, you can create an environment where they choose to!

Peer conferences create an optimal environment for supporting attendees in the difficult work of making changes in their lives.

Peer conferences do this by providing a safe, supportive, and participation-rich environment that includes the freedom to choose what happens.

  • A safe environment supports attendees taking risks: the risks of thinking about challenges and issues in new ways.
  • The supportive environment of a peer conference provides process tools that allow attendees to freely explore new possibilities.
  • A participation-rich environment ensures that attendees are likely to connect with peers who can help them or whom they can help, thus building networks and new capabilities in the future.
  • The freedom to choose what happens at a peer conference allows attendees to collectively create the meeting that they want and need, rather than be tied to the limited vision of a program committee or the vested interests of conference stakeholders.

These are the core design elements of peer conferences that make them so successful in creating change. Their very design maximize the likelihood that participants will choose to make useful and productive change in their lives.

The hive mind will see you now

Check out the above video. The hive mind will see you now.

In his post “The fourth cycle of the hive mind (and what to do about it)” Seth Godin explores how advances in computers are changing our world.

The first three of his revolutionary cycles are well established, the fourth is now arriving. Cycles one through three introduced calculation and data storage, connection, and shifting place and time.

Above all, Seth’s fourth cycle adds prediction.

“Call it AI if you want to, but to be specific, it’s a combination of analyzing information and then predicting what we would do if we knew what the computer knew.

…we’re giving those computers the ability to make predictions based on what thousands of people before us have done.

If you’re a mediocre lawyer or doctor, your job is now in serious jeopardy. The combination of all four of these cycles means that the hive computer is going to do your job better than you can, soon.

With each cycle, the old cycles continue to increase. Better databases, better arithmetic. Better connectivity, more people submitting more data, less emphasis on where you are and more on what you’re connected to and what you’re doing.

…just as we made a massive leap in just fifteen years, the next leap will take less than ten. Because each cycle supports the next one.”

In an earlier post, I wrote about how neural networks can now quickly learn to do certain tasks better than humans with no external examples, only the rules that govern the task environment.

Seth points out that when we supply computers with the huge, rapidly growing databases of human behavior, the fourth cycle becomes even more capable.

In conclusion, Seth ends with:

“Welcome to the fourth cycle. The hive will see you now.

Attributions: Clip of AI HR interview and poster image

Being truly heard and seen at meetings

When we enable people to meaningfully connect at a meeting, something extraordinary happens. We transform a conference from an impersonal forum for information exchange to a place where people feel they matter: their views, their experience, their ability to contribute become seen.

Such a transformation is the essential work needed to build human community around the event. It becomes something special, standing out like a beacon from the humdrum conferences routinely inflicted on attendees.

The meeting feels different, is different, because it allows participants to be truly heard and seen. Because being listened to is a gift. And, as Seth Godin puts it:

“We like to see. But mostly, we’re worried about being seenthe culture of celebrity that came with TV has shifted. It’s no longer about hoping for a glimpse of a star. It’s back to the source–hoping for a glimpse of ourselves, ourselves being seen.”
—Seth Godin, Mirror, mirror

It takes a few minutes at the start of a gathering to create agreements that help make it a safe place for participants to speak their minds, ask appropriate questions, and share possibly intimate yet important information about their work and lives that inform the entire event.

Immediately, the conference is subtly different, full of new possibilities, some of which might have been considered risky or even taboo. Everyone in the room begins to learn about each other in ways that matter. Everyone begins to discover how they can become a part of the gathering, how they can contribute and how they can learn about issues and challenges that personally matter.

Make it easy for participants to be safely and truly heard and seen. Your conferences will be all the better for it.

Image attribution: Flickr user paris_corrupted

Rethinking event formats

The other day I attended my lovely nephew Julian’s high school graduation.

Ah, the joys of graduation! Where graduates wait in long lines, sit for hours on uncomfortable chairs, get sunburn, and listen to (mostly) boring speakers someone else chose. All to hear their name read amid hundreds of others, walk across a stage, and get a blank diploma (the real one is mailed later).

And there’s more — your loved ones enjoy the same multi-hour experience, except they get to watch your fleeting stage walk from uncomfortable chairs a long way away!

A graduation is an Elementary Meeting: a social event that consists of obligatory, tacitly agreed series of actions performed by those taking part. I’ve written about the power of Elementary Meetings to create original event designs — but some Elementary Meetings are poorly designed by today’s standards. Because they are a historic piece of our culture, we tend not to critically evaluate or rethink them. Instead we take for granted and put up with the ritual one more time.

Which is why it’s refreshing that Seth Godin applied design thinking to graduations and suggested some improvements:

Read the rest of this entry »

Three creative event design tools that all #eventprofs should use

The creative event design tool that all #eventprofs should use

I’m about to share three powerful creative event design tools.

You can use these tools for every aspect of event design. Stylists working on the look and feel of an event often use it to stimulate fresh thinking about the venue, the décor, the lighting, the food and beverage, entertainment, and so on.

Rarely, however, are these tools used to design events that creatively incorporate, illuminate, and support core desires and outcomes for the meeting.

With them, you can generate something truly original — like in 2009, when Jill and Kevin Heinz invented a brand new trope: the wedding entrance dance.

What’s are the tools? Seth Godin gives us a clue.

What does this remind you of?

What does this remind you of?
That’s a much more useful way to get feedback than asking if we like it.

We make first impressions and long-term judgments based on the smallest of clues. We scan before we dive in, we see the surface before we experience the substance.

And while the emotions that are created by your work aren’t exactly like something else, they rhyme.

It could be your business model, your haircut or the vibrato on your guitar.

“What does this remind you of” opens the door for useful conversations that you can actually do something about. Yes, be original, but no, it’s not helpful to be so original that we have no idea what you’re doing.
—Seth Godin, What does this remind you of?

Seth is talking about getting feedback; we’re interested in being creative so let’s flip the focus. The word “remind” is the key; how do we remind ourselves to come up with something new?

Guided visualization
It turns out that guided visualization (aka guided imagery) is one of the most powerful modalities for tapping our creative and unconscious wisdom. A wide variety of visualization techniques exist and they can be customized to provide creative insights into specific challenges — like event design.

Surprisingly, there are few resources available on how to sculpt guided visualizations for exploration of a specific creative challenge. Most books and posts describe how to use guided visualizations for meditation, health, mental state change, and artistic creativity. Once you’re familiar with the basic principles, however, it’s not hard to adapt these methods for creative event design.

So here are three creative event design tools to use guided visualizations to take a fresh look at an existing event or create a vision for a new one.

Resonant imagery

One technique I’ve used is to display to clients a large number of the fantastical cards (sample shown above) from the popular game Dixit and ask them to pick a few that speak to them in some way about their current event and a few that say something about what they would like the event to become. I encourage people to pick cards without trying to analyze the attraction. We then look at the chosen cards in more detail and explore and uncover what the chosen cards reveal about the current and future potential of the event. Invariably, my clients discover powerful and enlightening perspectives and objectives they weren’t aware of: fertile beginnings for a fresh and relevant design.

Drawing

My colleagues Eric de Groot & Mike van der Vijver use another guided visualization approach: they ask a meeting owner to think of the meeting content as some kind of material and describe the “motion” of the meeting content. Clients draw pictures of their answers, which can then be mined for insights. A variant is to ask clients their answer to the question: “If your event had a mouth what would it say?” I’ve used this approach as well and highly recommend it.

Guided journey

Alternatively, an event designer can guide clients on a journey to and through the event in their mind. You can adapt scripts like this one to your needs. Replace traveling to a private garden with a journey to the event venue (if it’s already known and familiar) or an ideal venue that appears in your mind as you walk along the path. Guide your clients through the venue where your future event is in full swing and ask questions. If you are working with a single client, they can answer aloud, which may spark clarifying questions. Multiple clients on the journey mentally note their answers.

What does it look like? What does it sound like? Who is there as you enter the lobby? The meeting rooms? The social areas? What are they doing? How are you feeling? How are the attendees feeling? What are you experiencing that isn’t in your current event? What else are you noticing during your journey?

When the guided journey is over, lead a retrospective to discuss what the clients experienced and learned. In my experience there will be at least one key insight on how to create or improve the event.

Conclusion

Besides the power of creative event design tools to uncover great ideas for an event, another big benefit is that they generate persuasive client buy-in for the ultimate meeting design. Why? Because the clients “dream up” the ideas themselves! Anything that eases the adoption of a fresh approach to event design makes my (and your) job easier.

Does the world of events need more exposure to the new?

Does the world of events need more exposure to the new?Most of the event technology I’ve been using for the last quarter century is hundreds of years old. It works incredibly well. So, when you’re designing your next event, bear in mind this observation of Seth Godin’s:

You might not need more exposure to the new. Instead, it might pay to re-see what’s already around you.
—Seth Godin, What do you see?

Re-seeing technology is hard because technology is anything that was invented after you were born. Technology that’s older than you is mostly invisible, taken for granted like the air you breathe. Only when the wind blows you might notice, for a moment, that something important is all around you — but your attention quickly returns to the smartphone in your hand.

Yet none of the event technology that can drastically improve your events requires a smartphone or even spending much money.

Don’t ignore the wind. Instead, harness it and explore its possibilities.

Does the world of events need more exposure to the new?

Not necessarily!

Photo attribution: Flickr user 64700647@N06

How to get attendees to risk doing something new at your event

How to get attendees to risk doing something new at your eventGetting your attendees to do something new at your event can be hard. For example, Seth Godin illustrates the problem:

“Want to go visit a nudist colony?”

“I don’t know, what’s it like?”

“You know, a lot of people not wearing clothes.”

“Show me some pictures, then I’ll know.”

Well, actually, you won’t.
You won’t know what it’s like merely by looking at a picture of a bunch of naked people.
The only way you’ll know what it’s like is if you get seen by a bunch of naked people. The only way to have the experience is to have the experience.
Not by looking at the experience.
By having it.
—Seth Godin, Experiences and your fear of engagement

Now you’re probably not taking your attendees to a nudist colony for the first time — nudist associations, I did say probably. But introducing a new event format where an attendee has to do something different, like interact with other attendees or play a game, will usually evoke uncomfortable feelings for some or many attendees, ranging from mild unease to outright fear.

So how can we encourage attendees to take the risk to try something new?

By having them do something new together.
A caveat — allow attendees to opt out

Whatever we are asking attendees to do, it’s important to always provide an option for individuals to opt out. How to do this depends on the circumstances. For example, running an activity as a concurrent breakout or an add-on to the main program implies that participation is optional. But if the activity is a plenary session, then you should always give an opt-out provision after introducing the activity and before participation starts.

(This doesn’t mean that attendees necessarily get to pick and choose how they will be involved with the activity. For example, when I run The Solution Room I make it clear that those present who choose to attend can do so only as participants and not as observers. If they choose not to participate, I ask them to skip the session.)

Strong scientific research performed over fifty years ago has shown that groups are more likely to accept taking risks than the members individually (e.g. see diffusion of responsibility and level of risk taking in groups for supporting research). Seasoned facilitators know this. Working with groups we can routinely get members to do things collectively that they might baulk at as individuals.

Simply asking a group to do something perceived as risky is not all that’s required, however. Supplying or obtaining agreements on how the group members will work together helps create a safe(r) working environment for risk-taking. In addition, if the group members are mostly strangers to each other, it can be helpful to provide appropriate and meaningful activities for them to get to know each other before moving into new kinds of work. Finally, begin with low-level risk activities and then moving to those perceived as more risky. This will help a group obtain experiences that they would have resisted had I asked them to participate right away.

The power of group process
Change is hard. However, the potential of group process to successfully introduce people to beneficial experiences that might be judged beforehand as scary or risky allows us to create powerful new experiences for attendees at our events. Furthermore, new experiences that incorporate valuable learning and build new personal connections are one of the most powerful ways to make meetings relevant and memorable.

That’s why I love to design and facilitate group work at conferences. I’ll probably never get to facilitate the kind of exposure in Seth Godin’s example (and that’s fine by me). But group work has the power to engage and transform attendee learning and connection in ways that conventional broadcast sessions cannot match. It should be top-of-mind for every event professional who wants to hold engaging and successful meetings.

Image attribution: Lyndi & Jason, Dallastown Pa, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons