Sharing & Learning & Interfaces, Such as Maps

When I was really little, like maybe 10 years old, I remember making the conscious choice to start using new words before I was quite sure what they meant.

I would encounter a word in a book somewhere and, knowing it might just immediately evaporate from my memory, as most information does, I would drop it deliberately into a conversation with an adult, taking the new vocab out for a spin. Often, this probably sounded really silly, like a 10-year old trying to use the word “apocryphal” in a description about how his weekend went. But at the cost of the tiniest twinge of occasional embarrassment (and the opportunity to inoculate myself against discomfort) came a pretty capricious benefit. My vocabulary exploded. I picked up newer and bigger words rapidly as a result of having attempted to use them.

I applied the same approach to learning new words and grammatical forms when I attended the Defense Language Institute in 2006 to learn Chinese. I knew that the quickest route to mastery was to actually put new words and constructions into practice. I would craft sentences with new grammatical forms and words as soon as I learned them, and would try them out loud with teachers and classmates. The instant and repeated corrective response to any misuse solidified rules and definitions in my head. I left DLI with a 3.8 GPA, which is pretty good for that school. We could attribute much of that to a natural propensity for language-learning, but the fact is I’m in the habit of using new information as a method of… I don’t know… moving it from short-term to long-term memory? Establishing connections between it and existing conceptual structures in my mind through repeated engagement with it and related concepts, deepening/strengthening those neural pathways? Whatever scientific or pseudo-scientific explanation you prefer, I think that this habit of using information, even incorrectly, contributes significantly to my success at learning in a few domains.

I was just kidding when I used the word “capricious” in that previous paragraph, lol. I’d imagine someone reading this might have felt a surge of excitement at seeing the incorrect application of that word (hopefully they didn’t just feel outrage and stop reading). The opportunity to correct others is energizing… a fact which actually explains a lot of the internet, especially Twitter. This is an important thing to understand, and highly relevant to what I’m talking about here with regards to sharing information to learn it–people are naturally motivated to engage with one-another when their internal model of the world or a particular thing doesn’t match what’s being expressed. If you provide people with the opportunity to correct you, they will bring energy and alternate perspectives that can help you enhance your understanding of the topic at hand. That’s important to know… and it can be really useful for us to capitalize on. It also means that sharing flawed information might be more strategically useful sometimes than sharing air-tight arguments. Two things that I like to jokingly say can help you really kill it on social media:

  • Say things that others already believe, but more eloquently than they can.
  • Say things that leave you wide open for beneficent educators to swoop in and “help” you

In my efforts to learn things, I could be described as alternating between three modes: consuming, reflecting, and sharing. By consuming, I mean reading, watching, and absorbing other peoples’ conceptual content. By reflecting, I mean spending time with that content internally and through reflective interfaces like writing and visualization. By sharing, I mean packaging up information and offering it up to others, often remixed and reformatted for my own purposes. Often, I share things because I think they will be useful to other people. Almost always, I share things because it creates likely pathways for me to learn more about the topic at hand from those with differing perspectives and strengths.

I could be described as alternating between consuming, reflecting, and sharing, and almost universally, I learn the most from sharing.

In situations with complex information (in which objective truth isn’t the ultimate goal) I learn the most by oscillating between consuming and sharing, and by stimulating these oscillating patterns between myself and others by creating chains of sharing, consuming, reflecting, and sharing those reflections.

  • It’s how I learned new words as a child, by sharing apoplectically (I’m kidding again. I know what apoplectically means, lol) and using adults’ responses as a correction/codifying mechanism.
  • It’s how I learned new words and grammatical forms at DLI, by sharing unstintingly (let’s allow it) and using teachers’ and classmates’ responses similarly.
  • It’s the reason that I often share half-baked ideas on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, often fully aware of some flaws in what I’m sharing but knowing that it’s the flaws that will motivate and energize some people to engage with me and enhance my understanding on the topic at hand.

I don’t share just to educate. Much of the time, I don’t even fully believe what I’m putting out there (again with objective truth not being the ultimate goal). I share to learn, to test, and to gather reactions and responses to help refine my own thinking.

Upon further reflection, I actually think my habit of premature sharing might come from my identity as an artist, specifically in the domains of writing and music. From a young age, I remember sharing works-in-progress, drafts, and first passes specifically with the intent to garner feedback and use others’ reactions as a method of generating new content. As a musician, there’s this collaborative process that sometimes involves sharing something as small as a musical riff or a piece of a verse or some tiny clip of something you’re hoping to grow into something larger. Sharing with other creatives sparks a collaborative process that can produce amazing outcomes, and the process itself is a joyful one–a shared experience. I don’t ever compete with other creatives. I share things that I know are bad because I think they might hold the key to turning it good, or at least bad but interesting.

I have recently started to explore, along with collaborators at Agitare like Austin Wiggins, how the act of collaborative mapping can help create, guide, and contain similar rapidly oscillating patterns of consuming, reflecting, sharing, etc, which I’ve described so far as being enabled on a slower cadence through posts on social media.

You might have seen a few recent posts from both of us in which we create a visual representation of something we’re consuming or thinking about, often employing Wardley Mapping or some derivation of the approach. Austin made a map about a book he was reading. I made a map about a podcast episode with Dave Snowden. I made another map about the design of meetings. Austin made a map about the futures of bureaucracy. We have both gathered significant and meaningful responses to posts in which we mapped something, sometimes only partially, and then invited others to reflect on the direction we were headed.

I first learned about the power and usefulness of visual thinking from Dave Gray in his book Liminal Thinking. He very simply introduced to me the idea that instead of pitting the information in my head against the information in someone else’s, in a face-to face, competitive posture, where it’s all tied up in our identities, we could build a common artifact together and any disagreements that came up could be between us together and the co-created artifact that we were both facing, shoulder-to-shoulder. There are a number of reasons why visual thinking can be powerful, and I think in part it comes down to enabling that oscillation between those modes of expression and reflection, further enhanced by acting as an interface for sharing. We reflect deeply before and then as we express visually, and then reflect on what we’ve expressed, triggering even deeper reflections, and on and on it goes. Even alone, the act of creating visual artifacts to represent concepts can be enlightening.

Attending the Joint Special Operations University’s “Design Fundamentals” course (SOC 1440) solidified for me the power and usefulness of visualizing exercises and artifacts. Even just in the creation of an initial visual artifact, I’m forced to think about how I think about something, which by itself offers pathways to much deeper insights, because if we can see how we think about something, it allows us to consider how else we might think about it, which is how we get past surface-level thinking. SOC 1440 had a number of activities like the Jaws Exercise, which uses visualization as an interface to engage in reflective design practices, alone and with others, and forces you to create, quite literally, a frame for your thinking. Framing is one of the most useful steps towards figuring out how to reframe a problem or system. I also thoroughly enjoyed our application of these practices in the Designing Space curriculum, which had us ask participants to watch a 10-minute clip of a film and try to represent what had happened with visuals only. The disparate outcomes from participants gave us loads to talk about with regards to diverse perspectives, effective approaches, symbology, ways of representing complex data, considering the incorporation of the observer as part of the system represented, deciding what information is most important, what changes when we iterate, and lots more.

I also had the chance to attend certifying training for Lego Serious Play, which only deepened my appreciation of the practice of building shared physical artifacts together with others to spark insights, deconflict perspectives, create alignment, and generate strategies. I can attest to the power of building together in three-dimensional space and employing metaphor as an interface for deep negotiation and alignment.

On the subject of alignment, I kinda went into more detail on the relationship between artifacts and alignment in this other piece “Alignment: Artifacts & Rituals“. Even on the scale of strategy, a visual artifact like an OKR spread or Kanban Board can be a game-changer.

Austin and I have gotten into the habit of drawing maps as we’re working on projects together at AF CyberWorx, to intentionally use as an interface for enhancing our interactions. We often sketch things together and reflect on what they mean, whether their current depiction is most useful and what moving things around might indicate strategically or conceptually.

If you’re curious how to get started with Wardley Mapping specifically (my current favorite flavor of mapping), I highly recommend you check out Ben Mosior’s Pragmatic Wardley Mapping and just start mapping things and see what happens. I have found it effective to start with simple rules and then just start bending them. Then of course join Agitare and be part of a community whose purpose is to act as an interface and container for practitioners (mapping, facilitation, futures, sense-making, design, etc) to share, reflect, and learn together. We’ve been meeting together regularly to specifically discuss our explorations and experiments with Wardley Mapping, but we also use other mapping, visualization, and other techniques found in the fields of Design, Facilitation, Strategy, and Sense-Making.

In the meantime, consider the act of sharing, in person or online, perhaps in a different way than you had been. Block the trolls who try and shame you for sharing the incomplete or the inaccurate. Surround yourself instead with those whose responses are curious and generous, and now that you’re safe, you can start sharing as an approach to learning. Sharing is not how we showcase the work when it is done. It is how we do the work itself. If you would like me in particular to reflect on something you’ve shared, tag me in and I’m usually happy to offer a few words and pass your ideas along if I find them useful or stimulating even if I happen to see some blaring errors or inaccuracies.

I know it’s supposed to be “glaring”. I’m just enjoying myself at this point.

(p.s. Do check out Austin Wiggins’ response piece to what I’ve written here:

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