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Learning as Wealth

Knowledge is one of humanity’s most precious treasures. Yet throughout history, it’s been a treasure reserved for the elites of human society. Today, the tools for generating and applying knowledge generally reside in the universities and research facilities of “developed” nations. But this approach just intensifies the vast gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”.

hand sketched note about capturing and sharing learning

What would happen if these tools were available to all people everywhere—from the African farmer to the Illinois warehouse worker, from the Tibetan villager to the Argentinian rancher? What kinds of solutions would we come up with if we were all involved in the process of creating knowledge? These are the questions that compel me forward.

It all started one day when I sat down and re-read The Prosperity of Humankind.  I felt like I’d been struck by lightening—I finally got it! Prosperity is nothing less than the spiritual and material well-being of every single person on the planet. Anything short of this will never bring peace.

A week later, my Dad died. As I stood in his house, I was struck by how insignificant all these possessions were compared to the generosity and kindness we received from his friends in this tiny astronomy village in Arizona. They told us story after story of how Dad was always ready to lend a hand, how he greeted everyone with a friendly wave, how he was always there, just keeping an eye on things. I felt these stories changing me. I grew more patient with myself and gentler with others. This was Dad’s true wealth.

So, being a writer, I set out to find more stories. I figured I could start to paint the picture of what prosperity looks like when we are doing it. I interviewed people from all different backgrounds, doing all sorts of things: from technology to food, from working with people in the streets to working with children in the classroom. I posted these stories on this website, with the intention of creating a book. But the more stories I collected, the more I realized how inadequate a book is for this work: it’s static and limited. Once a book is printed, it cannot be changed. And you can only capture a handful of stories between its covers. But there are millions and millions of stories—people and organizations working earnestly for a better world. Clearly something else is needed.

Then a friend told me about the U.Lab course on transformational systems change through M.I.T., and it set me off on an intense journey of learning. This course was created by Otto Scharmer and his team, who are part of Peter Senge’s systems thinking group at M.I.T. For the past 20 years, they’ve been studying how groups and organizations make the changes needed to move us toward a sustainable world. What they realized is that this change requires a fundamental shift in thinking and belief. There is no road map. Traditional planning won’t work because it creates more of what we already have. What’s needed is to let go of what we know and sense what is emerging. Then learn by doing: try something, learn, adjust and try again.

So I set my own intention: to facilitate learning within groups and between groups. And suddenly my life exploded—opportunities and connections started popping up everywhere. People started asking me to help their group capture what it is learning.

So I’m working with:

  • Tool-makers—to come up with tools and systems that facilitate learning between groups.

  • Organizations—to learn which processes and methods are most effective.

  • Individuals—to discover how the environment and culture of a group shapes learning.

In all of this, there is a sense of calm urgency. This work can’t be rushed, but it also can’t be ignored. We are living through a momentous and pivotal period in history. Humanity is indeed at a threshold. We are being called forward from our tumultuous adolescence into our age of maturity as a human race. The forces that hold us locked in our backward ways are strong, but the forces drawing us forward are even stronger. As we connect with each other and learn from each other, we build on those positive forces and our progress accelerates.

It’s going to take all of us. And that, indeed, is our wealth.

If you are working with a group and have a need to capture what your group is learning, let us know what your thoughts are in the comments below. What issues, tools, ideas are you grappling with? We’d love to hear from you.

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