Living and learning
It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said that what does not kill us makes us stronger, and he was nearly right. Only nearly? Yes, because much of what does not kill us has no effect on us whatsoever – it simply passes us by. Our life experience has the potential to make us stronger, but only if we capitalise on the opportunities presented. So, a more realistic aphorism would be: what does not kill us has the potential to make us stronger if we take the trouble to learn from that experience.
But much will depend on our understanding of what learning is all about, how the model of learning we adopt conceptualises it. For example, if we take the traditional model of learning as one of gathering facts and figures, filling our heads with information that may or may not be useful at a later date (the ‘banking‘ model of learning that Paulo Freire was so critical of), then that presents us with little scope for learning from life experiences.
What can also hold us back in terms of models of learning is the tendency to see learners as having fixed personalities (or ‘essences’, to use the technical term) – for example, when people say things like ‘it’s my nature, it’s just the way I am’, as if change is not possible. Such a model of learning assumes that the individual remains untouched by their learning, except for perhaps having added a few more bytes of information to their hard disk or giving them the opportunity to practise skills.
An alternative model of learning that can get us away from these limitations is what is known as existential learning, rooted in existentialist philosophy. According to this approach learners are not fixed entities to be topped up with additional information or more well-oiled skills. Learners are people on a life journey, changing in response to the circumstances they find themselves in. We are constantly faced with situations where we have to make decisions, where we have to choose which branch in the road we go down. Those decisions shape not only the direction we go in, but also who we are. That is, we are not fixed entities on a journey, we are that journey; the journey is a central part of our spirituality, our sense of who we are and how we fit into the wider world. For many that sense of spirituality comes from religion, but, whether religious or not, we all have a spiritual path we are following.
Not so long ago any mention of spirituality outside of religion would have been met with muttered barbs of ‘tree hugging’ and being ‘wired to a moonbeam’. But, increasingly now it is being recognised that spirituality is an important part of being human and that we have to get past any reluctance to engage with spiritual matters. Existential learning recognises this.
Existential learning is learning that changes us in some way, that empowers us to do things differently, to see things differently and, importantly, to feel things differently. Existential learning transforms us in some way. As Nietzsche would see it, it makes us stronger.
There is a parallel here with leadership, particularly self-leadership. A leader is not just someone who keeps the organisational wheels turning, but rather transforms the situation to make sure that they are turning in the right direction (following the best path). Self-leadership is about making sure we are clear about where we are going with our work and our lives more broadly (our path) and what decisions we need to make to follow that path and get where we want to be. Existential learning means making the changes we need to in order to be able to get the most out of our journey.
Existential learning is a key part of the Avenue Professional Development Programme: www.apdp.org.uk