Sunday, July 6, 2014

Lessons from a Boucherie

In one episode of No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain travels to Cajun country and attends a boucherie, a massive party where families gather to break down and cook an entire hog over the course of a day. The tradition of the boucherie arose because there was no refrigeration, so fresh meat had to be prepared and eaten quickly.

The food and the live music at this particular boucherie is phenomenal. It seems as though every adult in the community is an expert at cooking at least one speciality dish and playing at least one musical instrument. You can see the kids in the community hovering around the action, their faces lit up as they try to absorb and learn as much as they can.

I believe that when my friend Alec talks about “everyday” learning, this is what he means. Learning is informal, immersive, and seemingly effortless. Alec recently shared two YouTube videos with me to highlight what everyday learning can look like. The first is from a documentary, Boxing Gym. The second is from a talk by Alan Kay where he shows footage of a tennis coach teaching a 55-year-old woman to play tennis in about 30 minutes.

Notice that I said, “can look like.” There is nothing everyday about these examples of everyday learning. The reporter who shot the footage of the tennis coach set up the shoot in order to discredit the coach because he was offended by the notion that almost anyone could learn to play tennis in a single afternoon. The reporter had been trying to learn to play tennis for years. And I haven’t seen the documentary, but I’m going to guess that the gym in Boxing Gym is quite a special place.

Alec has repeatedly argued that everyday learning is effective because we get what we need from it; I have repeatedly disputed that. For me, the footage of the tennis coach teaching the woman to play tennis in 30 minutes was not surprising. I have seen what people can do in the right circumstances. I have constructed some of those circumstances myself. When you know what people can do, then the everyday learning that we see everyday is far from “good enough.”

At most boxing gyms, I’m going to receive little tutelage unless I show promise as a boxer. The elite boxers aren’t going to take me under their wing. There is probably a clear pecking order and I will be bombarded with the message: “You're wasting your time and ours. You’re just not that good.” Some young boxers will persevere through that and still get what they need, maybe winning the respect of the other gym members over time. But I’d probably quit and try something else.

At the gym in Boxing Gym, I’m going to guess that, somehow, a culture of mentoring has taken root; everyone helps everyone, regardless of skill level. In fact, the members of the gym probably derive more pleasure from seeing a single unskilled boxer progress than in producing x number of world champions. And that probably isn’t due to self-selection. You start boxing there. You see the elite boxers, the ones you admire and want to emulate, patiently working with that clueless kid. You try it too, and you experience that pleasure. In another episode of No Reservations, an ex-con working at a community kitchen talks about what it was like to find a place for the first time where you checked your ego at the door because there was no need for it. These are life-changing experiences. When you know that these kinds of places exist, it is hard to argue that most of us get what we need.

The boucherie culture witnessed by Anthony Bourdain exists because there is a critical mass of domain and mentoring expertise in the community. That community will be self-sustaining only if that expertise is at a sufficiently high level. If the food and music produced at the boucherie is only mediocre, or if the kids don’t see themselves stepping into the roles of lead cook and lead musician in a few years, then you are going to hear a lot of teenagers asking: “Is it okay if I hang out with my friends at the mall instead?”

I talk a lot about the need to ratchet up our domain and mentoring expertise even higher, beyond what we need to sustain a learning culture. I want to find out what it takes to export a learning culture. It’s not that I want to see neighborhoods with boxing gyms at every corner or that throw boucheries every weekend. It’s that: before we can develop the domain and mentoring expertise we need to coach others effectively, we have to want it; and for most of us, before we can want it, we need to see it and know that it is possible. I want people to experience a boxing gym or a boucherie and wonder: “Gee, why doesn’t this exist for <insert your favorite domain here>?”

I live near Boston and Cambridge where there is a large and vibrant maker community. This maker community is making a determined effort to infuse its DNA into local schools. But the coaching available to kids growing up in the maker community sucks. Not most of it; all that I’ve seen. There is nothing happening that comes close to what I know that people can do given the right circumstances. How is this possible? If you have misconceptions about what people can do, then you will be limited by those misconceptions. The boucherie, the boxing gym, and the tennis coach can’t counter those misconceptions because not enough people have regular firsthand experience with them. If we do learn about them, we marvel at them instead of emulating them.

So here is the challenge as I see it. In order for learning to be effective, whether everyday learning or in-school learning, you need effective coaches. In fact, you need a large number of highly effective coaches so that everyone has regular contact with good coaching. But in order for people to even aspire to be a highly effective coach, they also need to come into contact with good coaching. It’s quite the chicken or the egg problem.

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