By Eddie Pipkin
Last week I wrote about resolutions, but I left an important one out – which, of course, means that I left last week’s blog entry, you might say … unresolved! (We shall take a brief pause while you wipe up the coffee you just spewed all over your laptop. In my defense, I did not resolve to be less corny.) However, I did make a firm resolution to learn something new every day. I’m a curious person by nature, so I’m always asking questions and fascinated by original ideas, but this is something more – not just adding new layers of trivia to juice my Jeopardy score. This is an attempt to recommit to adding new skills to my toolkit. Or at least in the realm of abstract ideas to concentrate on new information that can be applied in practical ways (not just info that’s entertaining or intriguing, but useful in ways that have measurable impact).
When thinking about the year ahead (and the years beyond that, however many there may be), there is a stark choice between a desire to hunker down in the familiar ways and a willingness to embrace the new and unfamiliar. This is true for both individuals and institutions, and the whole question implies the existence of a certain level of maturation before it even needs to be asked. We have to have formed established habits and rituals in order to get locked into them in unhealthy and limiting ways. Although I have known some 22-year-olds who are already ossified in their preferences and some new church starts that began with an intransigent mindset from the get-go, youth generally implies a natural pliability.
Later on, however, we get set in our ways, both because it’s comfortable and because it’s easier. Why change?
In the NY Times opinion section, a piece written by Jonathan Malesic, a professor at the University of Texas, offers an insight. The essay, “The Key to Success in College Is So Simple, It’s Almost Never Mentioned,” delineates the defining factor between four years of drudgery and four years of meaningful engagement:
[The answer] seems almost too obvious to mention but, in fact, deserves far more attention and discussion: a simple willingness to learn. In more than 20 years of college teaching, I have seen that students who are open to new knowledge will learn. Students who aren’t won’t. But this attitude is not fixed. The paradoxical union of intellectual humility and ambition is something that every student can (with help from teachers, counselors and parents) and should cultivate. It’s what makes learning possible.
I love how Malesic sets up that essential phrase, “the paradoxical union of intellectual humility and ambition”:
- Ambition: Wanting to learn new things; wanting to grow.
- Intellectual Humility: The attitude that we still have plenty to learn; the certainty that the people around us will always have something worthwhile to teach us.
He delves into the culturally imposed roadblocks that make us resistant to learning.
[One] big obstacle to the willingness to learn is the urge to present yourself as always already informed. The philosopher Jonathan Lear calls this attitude knowingness. He regards it as a sickness that stands in the way of gaining genuine knowledge. It is “as though there is too much anxiety involved in simply asking a question and waiting for the world to answer,” he writes.
Local churches are notorious bastions of know-it-allism. Think about the last local church you knew of whose reputation centered around energetic curiosity. It’s not generally a thing. Community churches may be known as safe, welcoming communities (a very good thing). They may be known as activist centers of doing good works in their cities and towns (also a very good thing). They rarely have a reputation as a locus for the radically curious.
Historically speaking, the knock on the church as an institution has long been as a source of indoctrination and moral code enforcer rather than as an oasis of genuine curiosity. At the local level, even as we offer ‘classes’ and other opportunities for ‘learning’ what it means to be a Christian, the model has often been a one-way imparting of sacred wisdom (most frequently presented in the driest form possible by a fervent Bible nerd) rather than an experience of open-ended exploration. But just as Malesic argues is true for the college experience, the local church experience sells us short if it’s only about making sure we know all of the ‘right’ answers:
School [or church] isn’t a quiz show; the first person to say the right answer doesn’t deserve the greatest reward. Rather, school [and church] should cultivate students’ [and disciples’] curiosity and let them feel the thrill of finding something out.
When was the last time you thought of discipleship as a joyous quest to learn new and exciting things? As thrilling? We too often think of it, present it, and promote it as a joyless, mandatory slog. (One of the things we work hardest on at Excellence in Ministry Coaching is making our discipleship resources as non-sloggy as possible. We believe discipleship should be a dynamic, life-changing adventure.)
Of course, whether or not to embrace learning new things as a mantra is a personal choice, and one can make an argument for being content with preserving the status-quo of the comfortable habits and habitats we have worked so hard to craft for ourselves. (Those of us who are wired for curiosity have a hard time being content with the stagnation that can come from that stance, as evidenced by the title of Professor Malesic’s most recent book, The End of Burnout.) But regardless of what we decide as individuals, it’s a different story for the church. We have frequently argued in this space that as an institution, the local church must embrace change, update techniques, and joyfully pursue new approaches. That attitude by leadership is essential if we are to survive and thrive.
As for me, personally, I was feeling a little sloggy at the end of 2022, so a challenge to learn some new tricks seemed in order. Less than a week into the new year, the payoffs are already evident. I already learned some technology hacks that have made life fractionally easier and have immediately opened some interesting creative portals.
But what has really struck me – and what I want to share with you to close out this blog entry – is a powerful ancillary benefit of this revised attitude. Embracing an attitude of learning/trying new things for 2023 has helped me develop a newfound patience for and perseverance in the face of things that would have frustrated me just a few months ago.
I originally climbed aboard the “new approaches” bandwagon because I was feeling behind the curve on some things, mainly technology, but also because there are some glaring basic holes in my life experience resume. Maybe I’ve been hanging out with too many young people! (Contextual disclosure: I’m 59, but I have the opportunity to regularly hang out with some dynamic 20-somethings.) I’m inspired by how effortlessly they navigate the latest iterations of the technology that anchors their lives, and I’m also heartened by their fearlessness in taking a shot at whatever catches their interest. Cooking is an excellent example: they aren’t scared to try anything. They have other compelling hobbies, too, from rock climbing to blacksmithing to elaborate card making to barista level coffee creating.
I have some absorbing outside interests myself, but I tend to want to stay in my lane, doing what I know the way I know how to do them, and I’m intimidated by things I’d like to try but am not intuitively good at (hello, cooking!). Technology is definitely in this category.
So when January 1 rolled around, I was all pumped up about learning something new every single day, and in my mind I meant that literally. Every single day I would learn how to do one new thing that I had not known how to do on the day before.
Well, that got old on about January 3rd. The problem, as frequently happens with pie-in-the-sky resolutions, is that the aggressiveness of the goal became instantly oppressive. It quickly became an onerous chore, thinking up what the new thing would be, figuring out how learning the new thing would happen, and budgeting the time for this instant apprenticeship. Bleh.
In the process of thinking this through, however, I inadvertently gave myself a gift. And it’s turned out to be a wonderful gift. I have learned to turn roadblocks into learning opportunities.
Technology (and my prickly relationship with it) has been a great incubator for this revised attitude. I have lots of hardware, programs, and apps that I use on a daily basis for which I employ workarounds: moments when I know I am not using the technology in quite the way it was meant to be most efficiently used, but I had a skills gap that forced me to figure out a clunkier way to proceed just to get a task done, and the clunkier approach has become the permanent approach.
New-attitude me has been saying, “Wait a minute. Let’s take a few minutes to pause and learn to do this thing the correct way.” This simple investment in humbly improving my skill set has already made my daily task list less frustrating and more rewarding, and it’s already paid creative dividends. Simply put, I’m making progress in reframing moments of frustration as moments of opportunity. Episodes of exasperation which usually cause stress, sometimes even anger, can be thoughtfully reframed as pathways to learning new skills and thinking in new ways – natural pathways to embracing my resolution! This is proving to be a far more satisfying approach to my goal than artificially manufacturing a new skills ‘bucket list.’
Of course, we’re not even to Epiphany yet, so we’ll see how it goes. But if it’s true that individuals are so caught up in schedules and daily drama that we miss these built-in opportunities to learn and grow, it’s even more true for the institutions which we serve. It would be a worthy goal for our teams to rethink workarounds (or settling or avoidance or postponing) as occasions to learn something new together. It’s an aphorism as old as the ages to talk of thinking of problems as opportunities, but it’s an aphorism because it is true. We have the power to rewire our thinking to embrace the principle or not.
Let’s learn some new things together in 2023! And let’s make the very challenges that have intimidated us and held us back be the catalyst for those new things we will be learning.
If you could learn a new approach for a frustrating old problem in the next few months, what would it be? What’s holding you back? How might rewiring your basic approach and thought processes be useful in getting you over the hump? Share your own challenges, ideas, and inspirations in the comments section. And “Go Dawgs!”