Blog: Learning Curve

Becoming the Leader of a Learning Culture, part 2

“Why do we confront learning opportunities with fear rather than wonder?”

“Why do we derive our self‐esteem from knowing as opposed to learning?”

“Why do we criticize others before we even understand them?”

It’s been 25 years since these questions opened the seminal paper Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations by Peter Senge and Fred Kofman.

These questions persist today, as addressed in my last blog. I explored ideas by the authors and developed a framework that identified and examined some of the thinking and areas of focus for developing a learning organization.

In that blog, we discussed five disciplines for creating a learning organization: personal mastery, mental models, building a shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking. Additionally, we explored ways to dissolve three frozen thinking patterns: reactiveness, competitiveness, and fragmentation.

In sum, we noted the dimensions of a learning culture that require a different kind of leadership, beyond a single leader—leadership as a cultural norm. In a learning organization, leadership is expected from everyone and cultivated by the organizational leaders.

Commitment is Key

Before cultivating leadership can occur, a learning community or culture must begin with commitment. Recall the name of the authors’ paper. Commitment, in this case, is not an obligation, burden, or form of compliance. It is more than the time or finances invested, and it transcends goals, achievements, or sentimental compliments.

We often view commitment as something external or outside of us—something we do or accomplish. Our view of commitment requires nothing less than a new paradigm.

Buddhism’s view of commitment is a vow to embrace, as a way of life, who we are, how we live, how we show up. Commitment empowers us to act in the face of our fears and justifications to face whatever we are experiencing, now, in the moment.

In the Buddhist view, a commitment to something larger than satisfying our desires can provide us with a sense of purpose that can be very comforting and calming and can guide us.

Why Commitment?

The inquiry into learning initiates a profound and messy inquiry into the nature of being human in an organizational context. Learning is fraught with issues of fear and need, wrapped up with our identity. Much of this involves the way learning confronts knowing: what we know, who we know ourselves to be, and the openness required to be a beginner and to say, “I don’t know.”

The three hardest words for leaders to utter are “I don’t know.” Yet, until we can become comfortable with not knowing, we cannot fully discover, inquire into, or embrace the uncertainty that marks this time in our organizational lives.

Until leaders become more comfortable with not knowing, learning will occur as a threat. This is where cultivating commitment is a fundamental first step to establish a context bigger than our personality, or identity.

Commitment grounds the journey of becoming a learning community. It supports the leadership to 1) generate a shared commitment within the organization and 2) to tap the individual commitment of all participants.

Commitment provides a larger context to create the possibility of learning, offering a way to dissolve the fragmentation, reactiveness, and competitiveness (see last blog) that tend to impede learning.

Developing Commitment

I offer a three-dimensional view of commitment that supports what’s possible in a learning culture, community, or organization.

  1. A personal commitment can supplant any fear of learning or change or personal needs and desires, which can involve how we look or our need to impress, perform well, or do the right thing. In this sense, commitment taps into our character, which is more timeless and value-based than timely and style-based.
  2. A shared commitment offers participants membership in an organization or culture that provides a larger perspective to guide our individual concerns. In this sense, commitment is a matter of direction, linked to a purpose and a compelling future that we are co-creating together.
  3. A commitment to change is described by the authors as a commitment “to changes needed in the larger world and to seeing our organizations as vehicles for bringing about such changes.” In this sense, commitment forms a crucible for change, stemming from a shared understanding that reflects a willingness to communicate, be accountable, and take the action that results from growth and development.

Given the depth of a shared commitment, when things get rough or when we experience setbacks, a grounded commitment that we can practice and generate offers us this inquiry to live by: “What does my commitment want from me right now?

Three Dimensions of Leadership

To hold commitment in this way requires leadership. The authors of Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations offer a three-dimensional view of leadership to cultivate learning communities. These three dimensions include leaders as Designers, Teachers, and Stewards.

Leaders as Designers

This first dimension of leadership for a learning community involves “leader as designer.” This speaks to becoming a context-creator. Conventional learning involves content, but members in a learning community learn to appreciate context as follows:

  1. Designers build a foundation of purpose and core values (governing ideas) to create future. This future is not certain, or even predictable. It is an opening leaders design with others from a possibility.
  2. Designers develop policies, strategies, and structures that translate governing ideas into action. Designers co-create a shared commitment through enrolling others into a future in each activity, goal, and process they engage.
  3. Designers develop learning methods and practices that involve coordinating action and collaborating on high-performing teams to achieve goals or to serve others. This practice translates both to working together optimally and belonging to a shared commitment.
  4. Designers shamelessly integrate learning into the organization, not seen merely as the latest fad, tactic, technique, or fix. Today, the idea of learning is analogous to how we viewed IT two decades ago. Back then, the MIS department was in the basement with technicians we called when we had a computer or software glitch. Now IT is central to operating “smart” businesses.

Like IT today, the notion of learning must be fundamental to what’s possible in the organization. It is an organizing principle, integrated into all elements of strategy and structure, culture and practices, supply chains and marketing plans. The possibility of an organization’s growth and direction depends on its capacity to learn to learn, and to learn together.

The challenges of the second dimension, “leader as teacher,” are best presented in two parts: The Challenge of Teaching and Leaders as Teachers.

The Challenge of Teaching

Becoming a teacher is perhaps the area where many executives stumble. I’ve discovered many reasons for this. Teaching is simply not a priority for those in the C-Suite; it is typically outsourced to Human Resources or to other off-site workshops or retreats.

Teaching is not seen as a pathway to leading or leadership. The business ethos has adopted an idiom: “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” This ethos diminishes the value of teaching as fundamental to “running a business.”

To become a teacher is to become a learner. In a learning community, teaching arises from learning. This requires dissolving our identities as “experts,” letting go of “knowing,” and cultivating deep listening that manifests in openness. Moments of silence, confusion, or irritation are all moments for learning that guide teaching and ultimately, leadership.

Many view the art and practice of teaching as an optional style or technique or consider learning organizations as yet another organizational design. They perceive these as enacting different policies or missions. This is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Teaching requires practice, often without measurable or predictable results. Its effects can be hard to quantify, usually requiring an upfront investment. Initially, we even regress in performance until we build new capacity. Because it cannot be immediately measured nor predicted, it is frequently dismissed as “elective.”

Many executives and managers view leading this kind of organization from an “individual” role or perspective. Cultivating a learning organization requires focusing beyond any individual model of leadership. Indeed, it calls for servant leaders—team learners who cultivate service and commitment.

Leaders as teachers are required to reach beyond the hierarchal model where vision, information, and decisions are directed by, or funneled through, a single position or role.

Leaders as Teachers

After accepting the challenges of teaching, we can examine how to become that leader as teacher who cultivates team learning.

The art and practice of teaching and learning challenges us as individuals. It requires a team to support, guide, and experience the mutual understanding to create a learning culture. It invites members to support and challenge each other to new levels of awareness to increase capacity as follows:

Support people to achieve views of reality that are more accurate, insightful, and empowering.

Shift from a problem-solving model of learning to a possibility-inquiry mode that encourages us to live in questions rather than seek out answers.

Support people to think at the systemic structure. This includes surfacing the structures and practices we create that give rise to the patterns of behavior, or what we connect, and the events level, or what we habitually download (see diagram below).

      image credit: Northwest Earth Institute

Surface people’s mental models by challenging assumptions and beliefs to include worldviews (model of reality), frames of reference (points of view), and mindsets (orientations to reality).

Support learners through the challenges involved in “unlearning” to acknowledge and let go of outmoded perceptions. More subtly, this involves questioning and dissolving our conventional “normative” training that adopts a view of learning as problem-solving. As Peter Senge puts it:

The reactive stance in management is evident in the fixation on problem solving. Many managers think that management is problem solving. But problem solving is fundamentally different from creating. The problem solver tries to make something go away. A creator tries to bring something new into being.

To reiterate, leaders as teachers requires a grounded and accessible commitment, as distinguished above, to offset the fears and challenges we experience when confronted by the unknown.

A commitment to something larger than ourselves provides a larger context from which to view setbacks, frustrations, or struggles. We begin to reframe our setbacks from “something is wrong” that needs to be fixed to “something’s missing” inside of realizing a designated commitment or possibility.

Leader as Steward

Integrating the previous two dimensions—leaders as designers and as teachers—offers the humility, discipline, compassion, and possibility to support “leader as steward.”

The leader as steward is primarily responsible for both operationalizing and embodying the shared commitment, for deepening it, translating it daily, and cultivating it as a sustainable future.

The steward expands their commitment and responsibility for the vision—not as owned by the leader but as a shared-vision that lives in the community through its commitment. These trustees also manage this vision for the benefit of others.

Stewards are rare, yet if more leaders expressed stewardship in business and government, we would spend less time on individual gain and self-serving achievements and more time on care and concern about creating a sustainable future that serves peoples’ needs.

Having spent some time examining leaders as stewards, I suggest a previous blog on servant leadership and offer these books: Stewardship by Peter Block, and Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf. To begin the path of becoming a leader as teacher I offer The Courage to Teach and The Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer.

To begin . . .

Who we are as learners starts with the willingness to be beginners, to replace knowing with questioning, and to dissolve our identity as “experts.”

Learning occurs between a fear and a need. Only in a community can we accept the necessary challenges to grow beyond our assumptions, receive support to experiment, and learn the practices to sustain commitment.

A learning community is not a mere sentimental view of being human, although it often reveals that dimension. Designing this culture requires personal mastery and rigorous practices in areas of listening, focusing energies, developing patience, and seeing reality objectively.

Personal mastery also requires the willingness and openness to collaborate and serve on high-performing teams and to be held accountable in candid and clear communications. It is not something you possess—it is a practice, a lifelong discipline.

Who we are as leaders of a learning organization begins with our view of leaders as designers, teachers, and stewards. As a practice, these are the kind of questions that support the path to unlearning that creates the openness to learning together.

  1. Am I willing to suspend certainty to venture into the unknown?
  2. Am I willing to acknowledge my beliefs, discover the assumptions supporting them, and then question those assumptions?
  3. Finally, am I coachable? Will I try something new or different to discover what’s possible?

tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and contemplative practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism and contemplative practices.


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Becoming the Heart of a Learning Culture, part 1

“Why do we confront learning opportunities with fear rather than wonder?”

“Why do we derive our self‐esteem from knowing as opposed to learning?” 

“Why do we criticize others before we even understand them?”

It’s been 25 years since these questions opened the seminal paper Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations by Peter Senge and Fred Kofman.

These questions persist today.

With all our technical prowess, expanded connectivity, and ability to scale, these seemingly basic questions—at the heart of increasing our capacity for learning—remain elusive in organizational life.

I will devote two blog posts to the authors’ vision of a learning organization. This first blog details some of the elements and challenges. In my next blog, I will focus on the kind of leadership required to cultivate and sustain such an environment.

Commitment to Learning and Change

In their groundbreaking paper, Senge and Kofman envision a “Galilean shift” of mind that details challenges and changes in individual values and organizational culture.

The paper resulted from theories, models, and practices outlined in their 1990 management text, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, which presaged the 1994 release of The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization.

In 1997, Harvard Business Review identified The Fifth Discipline as “one of the seminal management books of the last 75 years.”

The inquiry into learning initiates a deep and messy journey into being human in an organizational context. The authors identify five disciplines for cultivating learning cultures and reveal three frozen thinking patterns we must dissolve rather than solve.

I will suggest that embracing this commitment to change also requires us to expand our view to include an integral, multi-dimensional approach to learning and organizing.

A genuine commitment to change questions the difference between changing a symptom and revealing a root cause. We open new inquiries, confront our ignorance, and question our assumptions. This view of learning ventures beyond problem-solving. Two of Senge’s 11 Laws of the Fifth Discipline alert us of the limits of reactive problem-solving.

  • Law #1: “today’s problems come from yesterday’s ‘solutions.’”
  • Law #4: “the easy way out usually leads back in.”

From this inquiry, we discover that learning isn’t a mystery, strategy or problem-solving technique. It begins with a commitment – a commitment to rediscovering what it means to be a learner.

Five Disciplines

These five disciplines serve to cultivate capabilities for creating a “learning organization,” as quoted briefly from the book:

1 – “Personal mastery is a discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.”

For Senge, personal mastery is fundamental: it points to our capacity for self-awareness, to observe and listen well, and be able to communicate our needs and expectations. Generally, people with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. Personal mastery is not something you possess—it is a practice, a lifelong discipline.

2 – “Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.”

Senge speaks to the effect that mental models have on our behavior. With this discipline, we start turning the mirror inward, learning to reveal our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny.

For Senge, mental models are essential to “focus on the openness needed to unearth shortcomings” in perceptions.

3 – “Building shared vision practices unearthing shared pictures of the future that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance.”

Senge’s word choices are significant: future, commitment, and enrollment.

  • The future is a possibility—it’s not certain, or even predictable. It is an opening we cultivate with others in a field of alignment.
  • We enroll others into a future by encouraging and inviting them to share this possibility as their own, in their lives, in their desire for a future.
  • Commitment, in this case, is not an obligation, burden, or form of compliance. The authors discuss commitments to something bigger than ourselves, “to changes needed in the larger world and to seeing our organizations as vehicles for bringing about such changes.”

“Shared vision” ventures beyond the notion of a leader telling his/her vision at others; it is the capacity to hold a shared picture with others of the future we seek to create together. When cultivated through others, a shared vision has the power to be uplifting and to encourage experimentation and innovation.

4 – “Team learning starts with ‘dialogue,’ the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine ‘thinking together.'”

Senge posits how a team of committed managers with individual IQs above 120 have a collective IQ of 63. The discipline of team learning confronts this paradox. He points to “dialogue” as the context for genuine “thinking together.” To the Greeks, dia-logos meant a free-flowing of meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually.

Senge’s thinking is informed by David Bohm, who has written beautifully about the “need to be able to communicate freely in a creative movement in which no one permanently holds onto or otherwise defends his own ideas.”

5 – “Systems thinking is the Fifth Discipline that integrates the other four.”

Senge now suggests a new view: systems thinking discloses that there is no outside object – that the causes of your problems are part of a single system.

We tend to think that cause and effect will be relatively near one another. Thus, when faced with a problem, we focus on the “solutions” that are close by. When we fail to grasp the systemic source of problems, we are left to “push on” symptoms rather than dissolve the frozen thinking of the underlying cause.

Three Frozen Patterns

While Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations predicts a future that has largely unfolded, it also alerts us to three “frozen thinking patterns.”

Our immersion in technology and focus on the economy has blinded us to the very thinking patterns that keep us from adopting an interdependent view for learning together.

Specifically, the authors suggest the need to dissolve three programmed and entrenched western worldviews—our reactive self, our competitive self, and our fragmented self—promulgated by our education system, trained by our professional development, and socialized by our cultural incentives.

  • REACTIVENESS. For most people, reactiveness has been reinforced since childhood. We solved problems identified by others, read what was assigned, and wrote what was required. Being accepted became more important than being ourselves.
  • COMPETITION. Overemphasis on competition makes looking good more important than being good. The resulting fear of not looking good is one of the greatest enemies of learning. Learning begins with saying “I don’t know.”
  • FRAGMENTATION. Humankind has succeeded over time in conquering the physical world and in developing scientific knowledge by adopting an analytical method—studying each component in isolation—to understand problems. We specialize in parts or content without appreciating the whole context.

Ideally, such a list provokes solutions, the very reaction that cements these patterns in place. In an almost Zen-like manner, the authors invite us to lean into the patterns in ways that reveal a dissolution rather than a resolution. They acknowledge “dissolution” as an unconventional strategy:

“We try to solve fragmentation by promoting systems thinking. To solve competition, we do team building and devise more sophisticated coordination mechanisms. To solve reactiveness, we apply preemptive strikes of proactive ‘leadership.’

However, our solutions don’t question the background assumptions that gave rise to these conditions. To address the roots of these problems we don’t need solutions but dissolutions.”

Dissolving Frozen Patterns

The iceberg model below reveals our view of reality that preserves our frozen thinking patterns.

Most of our lives occur at the tip, immediately observable and instantly solvable. “Dissolving” frozen thinking patterns requires slowing time and expanding space to observe reality at the third “design” level (“underlying structures”).

image credit: Northwest Earth Institute

Adopting an interdependent view of reality (at the “design” level) allows us to cease reacting to or anticipating expectations, needs, and desires (at the “events” or “patterns” levels). Instead, we become aware of the underlying structures that influence our habitual patterns; then we become conscious of our mental models – the beliefs and assumptions – that support those structures.

The solvent proposed by the authors is a new way of thinking, feeling, and being: an interdependent worldview accessible at this third level of reality.

  • Reactiveness becomes creativity when we see the “poetic power of language,” how language brings forth distinctions from the undivided flow of life.
  • Competition becomes cooperation when we discover the “community nature of the self” and realize that our role as challengers is to help each other excel.
  • Fragmentary thinking becomes systemic when we recover “the memory of the whole,” the awareness that wholes and parts operate in a circle of self-generation.

The dissolving of these frozen thinking patterns cultivates three core learning capabilities that are desperately needed today: fostering aspiration, developing reflective conversation, and understanding complexity.

The Nature of Learning Communities: It’s about humans

Cultivating learning (and specifically, a learning organization) is most challenging precisely because its manifestation discloses what it means to be human.

Learning reveals our vulnerability, occurring between a need and a fear. Fulfilling our needs often means confronting our fears, which reveals our second nature as reactive and competitive, socialized from fragmented views.

Senge admits as much in his next masterpiece, appropriately titled The Dance of Change: The challenges to sustaining momentum in a learning organization (1999), which outlines the obstacles to dissolving those three patterns.

I’ve come to realize that there are two fundamental views that make it more challenging to cultivate a learning culture.

First, a learning community must be culturally grown and strategically managed. No force of strategy, technology, or systems can make up for a lack of the cultural awareness and mutual understanding necessary to expand the possibility of learning past the need to know and adapt.

Beyond mere knowledge sharing exists the impulse to learn—at its heart, an impulse to be generative, to expand our capability, and to ennoble our dignity as humans. We are called to honor and cultivate that impulse.

Second, a learning culture is unlike any other business competency, transition, or mission. It requires attention in ALL four quadrants for perceiving human life and activity, as viewed from an integral perspective. We are called to become multi-perspectival beings.

The following four-quadrant grid from Integral Theory (in a previous blog) reveals the four dimensions to be applied to an inquiry into a learning organization.

The Nature of Learning Communities: Four Dimensions

Senge and Kofman’s paper addresses all four dimensions of creating a learning organization—a first for the literature of the day. Yet, since its publication, we’ve had little integration of these ideas, especially from the left side of the grid.

Generally, most ideas about learning focus on the upper right (performance) or possibly both the upper right (performance) and lower right (processes).

A quick review of some of the literature for learning and development professionals this past year reveals these issues:

Concerns about data and analytics and transitioning to data-driven learning; use of marketing to guide or scale learning; the impact and ROI of learning; questions of why we measure (and what we measure).

This notion of learning organizations has given way to networks connected by technologies with multiple platforms that transact business and share knowledge but fail to relate, co-create, discover, or truly collaborate. Performance and Process trump Self-Discovery and Practice.

This four-quadrant model offers an integral (four-dimensional) view of a Learning Organization.

Most developmental programs focus only on single dimensions: 1) knowledge sharing, 2) training and performance, 3) practice and community, or perhaps 4) personal mastery.

Absent from much of the current literature are those intangible issues (left side of the quadrant) concerned with cultivating the imagination, presence, and personal mastery that expand perceptions to shape how we relate, collaborate, and discover ourselves with others.

Organizational Learning Requires Leadership

The attention and intention required to integrate these four dimensions to cultivate a learning culture reveal a daunting challenge, profound realization about humankind, and willingness to both learn and lead.

Learning competes against economic survival, expanding technologies, strategic direction, and hyped-up concerns about scaling—items which result from our frozen thinking patterns to survive. Our relationship to them can be sourced to the view of learning held by those leading our organizations.

Some learning and development specialists take on more than one of these dimensions—rarely do they tackle all four. Implementing all four would require rethinking our entire notion of organizational life, belonging, and business.

The key to that kind of culture requires a different kind of leadership, beyond a single leader—leadership as a cultural norm. In a learning organization, leadership is expected from everyone and cultivated by the organizational leaders.

The next blog will explore Senge’s notion of leadership that can work to cultivate learning organizations.

tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and contemplative practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism and contemplative practices.


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These 3 Conditions Will Cultivate Our Attention

Space. Silence. Stillness. Three conditions that seem most valuable yet fleeting today.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, coping in a fast-paced and complex world of change requires doses of the inverse to recover our attention and sustain any equilibrium:

  • Space to counter an abundance of complexity and saturation of information.
  • Silence to counter the uncertainty (exterior) and ambiguity (interior) that result from changing realities that challenge our self-perception.
  • Stillness to cultivate openness and expand perceptions to be with the unpredictable.

Demands of Our Affective Life

Simply maintaining any sense of equilibrium first requires acknowledging our current pace of change and unease. The demands on our minds’ “affective life” today is akin to demands on our physical lives in the Agrarian or Industrial Ages.

Our current level of mental complexity begets a fragility that requires more than tweaking skills, adding apps, or coping better by adding vacations.

We are not seeking to become more efficient or effective with the quantity of output. Ours is an inquiry into the quality of input, of the contemplative practices that enhance inner ecology for living-in-the-world as we do.

The quality of our attention is the quality of our life.

Opening ourselves to be with demands—quantitative, emotional, and mental—without increasing anxiety requires an internal view that cultivates conditions such as space, silence, and stillness.

Space for Recovery

Quantitative Demands – We find ourselves doing more tasks in less time. The saturation of a 24/7 world—media, newsfeeds, and changing work functions—create a rolling overload. The added pressure result in a hurried and frazzled state at home and work. The issue involves seeing through time to space.

Leveraging every moment of time will give way to creating space by authentically reviewing your calendar. Begin by not booking back-to-back meetings, calls, or events. Ironically, the notion that time is money may be costing you.

The Stuff of Space

Grasping the importance of space requires exploring all the ways we fill space. Thus, we can begin to let go of items to cultivate our attention with new practices. Consider the following points, revised from a blog on freeing up mental space.

  1. Declutter Your Physical Environment. Stuff in our physical space pulls our minds to things undone, or things to do, which can overwhelm us. Items alert our minds to an endless list of things to do, causing exhaustion. Decluttering extends to your home, desk, office, car, backpack, briefcase, etc.
  2. Write It Down. Capture items with a tool (app, notepad, etc.), and use your calendar to place things “reliably in existence.” Using memory to hold items costs us critical bandwidth, creates frustrations and fixates our brains on remembering rather than relaxing or dwelling.
  3. Keep a Journal. Like #2, a journal helps us reflect on life, relieve concerns, and sort out thoughts and perspectives on daily activities, setbacks, accomplishments, or disappointments. A special kind of learning happens from reflecting on experiences and events to gain a fresh perspective on issues, capture new thoughts, and allow for insights.
  4. Let Go of the Past. Dealing with unexamined items from our pasts may cause provisional pain, but left unexamined, they can cause splinters of suffering through the day that slow us down and leave us diminished. Completing items (see this blog) can support us in letting go.
  5. Stop Multi-Tasking. Much has been studied about the fallacy that multi-tasking increases productivity or leverages time. At best, we remain at surface thinking, unable to focus deeply on anything, and at worst, we lose as much as 40% of our productivity. Multi-tasking normalizes a frenetic or frazzled state that leaves us needing to multi-task.
  6. Reduce Consumption of Information. This requires determining if your consumption adds to your quality of life. Spam junk email and trash anything not worthwhile. Unsubscribe from any blogs, newsletters, magazines or social media distracting you from your deepest commitments. Create a hard limit on news consumption.
  7. Be Decisive. Often, we have a simple choice in life: being right or being decisive. The need for the former often impedes the latter. Being decisive allows us to choose, move, and create. Even if we are wrong from time to time, we are nonetheless decisive and powerful. Practice choosing in the face of worry, considerations, or confusion.
  8. Put Routine Decisions on Auto-Pilot. Determine which routines can be made automatic. Small, routine tasks that occupy your brain space include deciding what to eat for breakfast or lunch or deciding what you’re going to wear. Create templates and lists for routine tasks such as grocery shopping. Use EFT/auto-pay to manage funds, payments, and bills, and use smart cards to fund or auto-refill cards or accounts.
  9. Prioritize. Often when confronted by choosing, we make the worst choice possible: avoid choosing. To support choosing, we learn to let go of to-do lists and schedule tasks on our calendar. We view tasks (all lists) inside larger goals (to prioritize tasks) and link those goals to a purpose that clarifies direction. Purpose and direction help us let go of unnecessary tasks and ungrounded to-do lists.
  10. Create Space. Place 15 minutes between long calls and meetings. Become a warrior for this space to regroup or reflect. It can help you to pace yourself and manage your needs before entering the next event. When we add space, we begin to appreciate the impact of clutter or compression on our attention.

Silence for Renewal

Mental Demands – This is the degree to which you must exert mental effort to complete tasks at home and work. The fast pace and overload of our distracting lives require us to sustain the effort to continually bring ourselves back to the present moment. This takes energy that can drain us.

Consider how language shapes our affective life as well. New terms, acronyms, symbols, and concepts impact systems, processes, tasks, and applications with more updates and upgrades—all of which have become essential just to “prepare to work.”

Emotional Demands – Our affective lives include absorbing an exacting saturation of information: an avalanche of opinions, ideas, and attitudes from different perspectives and viewpoints that cascade without the time to decompress or recovery to reflect.

Greater amounts of content trigger anxiety and emotions that require a release. The everydayness of life— meetings, reports,  traffic, packed subway, email/phone calls, researching items, and reacting to comments—triggers emotions that shape our “affective” lives.

Silence offers us the possibility of venturing beyond our preoccupations and fixations. Only quieting the mind can access the depth beyond the surface rhythm of life that shapes our views. Our imagination, creativity, spiritual connection, and deep learning arise from insights tucked below the surface waves of life.

Noise that Conceals Silence

Creating silence requires that we investigate the question, what is noise? Examining this question ventures beyond the auditory. Noise exists in many forms:

Continual bells, “likes,” dings, pings, snap-chats, and notifications distracting us from any intended task.

Pop-up menus confronting us on websites, along with emojis, signs, symbols, and texts that demand a response.

Commercials penetrating our minds through billboards, grocery bags, park benches, and even receipts.

Handbills scattered across construction sites, subway walls, or sidewalks announcing items, seeking roommates, or selling products.

Massive amounts of small print decorating any item we now purchase. Narrators on advertisements for prescription drugs listing all the side effects and conditions.

The lights—bright, flickering, and subtle—added to rooms to create “moods.”

Multiple TV screens and channels line the walls in bars, restaurants, airports, and coffee shops, “entertaining us” while eating, drinking, or resting.

Little trinkets thrown on shelves to fill space. Litter strewn about on streets or in one’s home.

Vile remarks in jokes or conversations that we consume casually.

In his book The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford offers silence as “a luxury good”:

In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport, what you hear is the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. There are no advertisements on the walls and no TVs. This silence . . . is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic airtight doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows itself, your neck muscles relax and after twenty minutes you no longer feel exhausted. The hassle lifts.

Crawford rightly notes that “because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it.”

Allowing Silence

Noise pollutes our mind, mesmerizes us, and steals pieces of our attention. Like the low hum of an air conditioner, it becomes normal. Then one day, the AC is off, and we experience clean silence: our eyes rest, listening expands, attention dwells, and something new emerges from within.

From silence emerges what is often ignored, unspoken, or not yet sorted out. Adding silence in a conversation often leaves others sorting through deeper thoughts beyond reflexive or automatic responses. Managing the silence can be a struggle, as it invites the ultimate surrender: to give up control and accept the unpredictable.

Most of us avoid silence in a conversation either to avoid the discomfort of another’s struggle or to satisfy our impatience for a quick answer. And yet, silence becomes a source of deep listening beyond our thoughts and observations. With practice, notice how listening becomes restful, new interest emerges, a connection is felt, and we are enlivened to be with another.

Teachers, health professionals, and managers can learn much here. If you want to connect deeply or receive something new, offer silence for others to sort through their often-concealed thoughts and for you to notice yours as well.

Stillness as Presence

Leveraging the space and silence from the above sections supports the possibility of stillness.

There is a quality of presence in which we find that something at our core that “stands still.”

This stillness is not simply an absence of physical movement or physiological sensation. It is a resoluteness of being, our beingness that remains unaffected by any movement, action, or doing, even though it moves, acts, and does. It is the core of being, unfazed by stressful situations, the depth of the ocean unaffected by its waves. It is the ability to surrender to our whole heart and mind and live from here in all that we do.

We can restore presence and a calm clearing by creating mini-pauses between daily events. Pausing will slow the river of emotions that flow from event to event and dam up at the end of the day.

Practice pausing by creating a discursive gap in your mind throughout the day. Placing these gaps in the chattering discursive mind interrupts and reveals the automatic noise, contrasting it with open space. Try connecting to the floor or to an object and counting 1-2-3, taking three conscious breaths.

Feel the stillness expand within.

The Knowing in Stillness

Pausing regularly and breathing consciously expand our ability to be physically calm and mentally clear. Calming the physical and mental realms supports creating presence by noticing what stillness reveals.

Behaviors that support a deeper practice of stillness include several from space and silence: find moments of stillness each day, disconnect from noise, relax your body, quiet your mind, be present, and learn to return.

Practice throughout the day by adding moments of stillness to discover your deeper self, emerging as new ideas, insights, and direction.

Bringing stillness to silence will unearth another space deeply within: your core, center, home. In this stillness now evolves an emerging “knowing” beyond rational views, instinctive sensing, or emotional thoughts or feelings. This knowing is a center that stands in the face of anything.

Bringing It All Together

“Doing nothing often leads to the very best kind of something” (W.T. Pooh).

These contemplative domains require a level of experience to discover how space recovers balance, silence renews the frazzled, fragmented “self,” and stillness surfaces the calm for recovering our memory of the whole.

Quantitative, emotional, and mental demands require space, silence, and stillness, to recover, restore, and renew our quality of life.

If we cultivate space, silence, and stillness, we can access these conditions to deepen our being and listening and to bring quality attention to others through our presence.

Remember, the quality of our attention lends to the quality of our lives.

tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and contemplative practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism and contemplative practices.


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