Learning Beyond Perspectives: Towards a Multi-dynamic Sense of Competence
This article highlights the constraints within popular notions on learning and industry and their manifestation, and offers a solution that encompasses multiple intelligences.
“Is mastery a specific set of skills, a definite scale of enterprise, or a particular speed of performance?”
“Our ancestors must have found life in the jungle quite unsettling— wandering in search of food, surviving known and unknown threats, being on the defensive at all times.”
Someone went to a martial arts teacher and said: “I am passionate about studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it?”
The teacher quietly replied: “Ten years.”
The aspirant grew impatient at this answer: “But, that is a long time—I want to master this faster than that. I will work very hard; I can practice twelve hours daily, if I have to. How long will it take then?”
The teacher thought for a moment and said: “Twenty years.”
The Zen story above raises a few questions germane to ‘competence’, and ‘sustainability’ – two seminal terms in the contemporary global discourse on competitiveness. It has become quite common today to view and understand life as a comparative market experience. In this context, how do we understand ‘mastery’ in any field? Do we, or can we, have an absolute tool to measure it in any domain?
Is mastery a specific set of skills, a definite scale of enterprise, or a particular speed of performance? Or, is it a combo-pack of all these, and only that? Is there anything beyond the comparisons of skill, speed and scale that makes one a master beyond competition? What characterise/s a master’s competence?
Another set of questions concerning sustainability that comes up here is linked to the term ‘hard work’. How do we appreciate hard work vis-à-vis the sustainability of an enterprise? Is hard work and its result/s directly proportionate to each other? Is hard work the time spent in executing a task, or is it the energy one has used in completing an assignment?
Is hard work the totality of material resources invested in a project? Can someone who tends to find shortcuts to achieve high success with less work be described as hardworking? Conversely, if the result of one’s industry is short lived, does it devalue the effort advanced? So, what kind of hard work contributes to making and sustaining individual and organisational level competences?
These queries, non-linear as they are, may unnerve some of us with their ominous implication: our claims of competence and its sustainability have more fissures than what we have imagined, or accepted. But, our anxiety of fragmentation itself, ironically, may lead us to realise that these questions point to our modernity’s intrinsic potential to find peace with/in itself, too, thus further orienting our thoughts in the direction of finding some resolutions.
Our ancestors must have found life in the jungle quite unsettling—wandering in search of food, surviving known and unknown threats, being on
the defensive at all times. Their emergence onto
the riverbanks must have been triggered by the development of a special consciousness which eventually marked them as homo sapiens sapiens – wise beings. A self-reflexive consciousness made them aware of their own capability to receive and store stimuli in their heads, categorise impressions and process them with their faculty of associative thinking, and respond to life with sustainable planning, rather than impulsively.
The arrival of this new mindfulness resulted in an unprecedented human exodus in deliberate quest of a dream land, a space under human control. Human beings had, thus, from their earliest days, opted for an ‘urban’ destiny—the vision of a settled life as different from the unsettlement the jungle offered (Latin urbs evokes settlement and refinement), a space where their plans could be executed and developed.
What I wish to bring home to my readers is the integral connection between the said development of reflection and the movement of human beings towards settlement. This connection will, pertinently, reveal to us the circumstances under which human culture came to become a site of warring self- interests. The distant vision offered by the riverbank settlement, also gave a retrospective insight to humankind: the forest was never completely seen from within; one needed a view point to understand how a setting as complex as the wilds worked. Ironically, it is this steady vantage point of objectivity available to the initial settlers that facilitated the
first seminal shift in human response, making us privilege the wave-like mode of reflective thinking rather than the particle-like impulsive reaction upon encountering different stimuli.
However, gradually, this path-breaking adoption of perspective revealed itself to be a trap. It radically limited the multi-dynamic potential of human thought, as it exercised itself at a linear, safe and too comfortable distance from the point of actual participation of the human self in an event. The emergence of perspective marked a turning point in the history of human civilisation, and its goods and bads still continue to rule the world in equal measure. It is astonishing how the same drug leads to renewal of life or death depending on the dosage used. One here notes, parenthetically though, that the grave ills caused by many a linear human perspective indeed betray some tragic cases of thought abuse.
Let us return to our Zen story to see the role of perspective in shaping the apparently conflicting ideas of the master and the aspirant about the relationship between ‘mastery’ and ‘hard work’.
The aspirant seems to have a perspective of/on ‘mastery’ in the martial art system with respect to a normative understanding of skill, speed and scale, and their interrelations. On close reading, one finds that he is, unwittingly, trying to match up to an amorphous norm of competence. There is a vague projection
of ambition regarding the destination, as well as
an unhistorical, customary promise of industry. The grand passion here is not presented in any continuity of his actual practice or verifiable past experience.
The master evidently is not using the aspirant’s perspective to understand mastery. Why did the former think one required more time to acquire mastery, if one worked harder? Towards answering this puzzle, one needs a radical re-understanding of the term ‘competence’ in relation to the existential individual’s experience on the one hand, and the norms of the society on the other. It is only fitting to begin this quest from a felt need to understand competence in relation to an individual’s distinctiveness. And, it must enable a participant for a transformative experience: to review her individual differences from others in any given context, and reinvent these as integral features of her distinctiveness, which will in turn help her assess the nature and scope of her hard work. At this multi- dynamic level of engagement with competence alone would one’s unique aspirations, individuality and growth trajectory be channelled into ground- breaking innovations, resulting in better designing, building, functioning and sustenance of one’s life in a society.
This would mean that competence has to be understood beyond the abstract self-referential individual ambition and normative social codes as the aspirant in the story has done. It has to be understood at an honestly experiential level of the participant’s own engagement with his senses as well as in terms of his transformative contribution to the society. And one’s hard work has to be placed, measured, interpreted and conserved within this context of sustaining one’s competence through the passage of time, alterations of space and ramifications of culture.
Any industry that links up with anxiety and stress about the desired results would create further distances between the aspirant and his dream of success. And focussing too much on one perspective is limiting, as it is an exclusionary and insecure practice by its very nature and location. The Zen master thus points to a ‘deperspectivised’ learning with his seemingly anachronistic correlation between mastery and hard work.
In order to thus associate and interlink the competence of the individual with the continuities of natural and civilisational phenomena, one needs to pass oneself through, what I term, a prismatic training for life appreciation, refracting one’s performance in a situation, the relevance of one’s competence vis-à-vis one’s context, the profundity of one’s sense of innovation as well as the scope of its sustainability, and one’s ability to handle multiplicity, in terms
of ideas and their applications. Such an intensely engaging training that brings together the personal and the societal, alone may be able to address
the challenges faced by professionals handling management and governance-related responsibilities today in our institutions—governmental, non- governmental and corporate.
Let us first consider the most common and crucial concerns affecting our work spaces:
Limits on Creative Freedom: One’s inability to fully appreciate and employ one’s creative freedom in a professional situation, leading to dissatisfaction
Skill-Aspiration Mismatch: The mismatch between one’s skills and aspirations/ambitions leading to fluctuations in performance and peer relations.
Lack of Rewards/Growth: Discontentment regarding material, professional and financial rewards vis-à-vis the time and effort given
Corrupt Work Culture: Unhealthy competition and personal conflicts among peers leading to bitter work environment
Lack of Transparency: Lack of organisational transparency regarding the route of professional growth, leading to rampant sycophancy and loss of focus
No Personal Evolution: Inability to build on one’s talents, tastes and other enjoyable interests within the context of one’s work
No Sense of Contribution to the World: Acceptance of a mechanical work culture, leading to the feeling of resignation that one has no meaningful way to use one’s work to contribute to the world at large.
The above background necessitates the urgent development of a methodology of learning that goes beyond popular perspectives. While mastering this enjoyable process of enrichment that transcends limited perspectives, like the Zen master, every participant in learning becomes at once a child at a delightful play, and an engaging inspiration, model and guide for others.