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Layers of learning

April 1, 2007
A white Christmas is something to be enjoyed, but for those of us living in the Denver area, Christmas 2006 was a prime example of “enough is enough!” Multiple blizzards, snowdrifts, and hazardous driving conditions affected everyone, including my granddaughter, Bailey.

by Doug Young, MBA

A white Christmas is something to be enjoyed, but for those of us living in the Denver area, Christmas 2006 was a prime example of “enough is enough!” Multiple blizzards, snowdrifts, and hazardous driving conditions affected everyone, including my granddaughter, Bailey.

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She and her family were visiting us from Canada, and we were thrilled to have them. Bailey is a fun-loving, enthusiastic and thoughtful teenager - a delight to be around! She also likes to shop. No, that’s not accurate. She loves to shop, and she was determined to do so until the rest of us dropped! But the snow got in her way, and so did a school geography project she brought with her to work on.

One day, as I was cleaning up the kitchen and she was working on her project, I asked her how it was going. That’s when she expressed her frustration. “I don’t see any point to this project,” she vented. I knew she wanted to be elsewhere - Abercrombie or Hollister - but after listening carefully to her comments, I couldn’t resist a reply. I acknowledged that she might never directly apply some of the facts and data in her project, but I suggested she was learning how to compile and analyze information, and how to effectively communicate it. I admitted she might not see any immediate value, but the skills she was learning would help her throughout her life. At that point, I laughingly said, “End of lecture,” to which Bailey smiled and replied, “Good lecture!”

Had some learning just taken place? I think so, and for both of us. I recognized that many specifics of my own education that I once considered irrelevant had eventually become meaningful and valuable to me. In some cases, however, it had taken years for this to become apparent. Have you had a similar experience?

Your container of knowledge

All of this reminded me of a concept I first spoke about 30 years ago. I called it “layering.” Exploring this concept requires you to use your imagination and creative powers of visualization. Imagine you are looking at yourself on the day you were born. Beside you is a clear, acrylic container, and with curiosity, you peer into this cylinder to see what’s in it. You see nothing until your eyes reach almost to the bottom, where you find a thin layer of a substance. As you look more closely, you realize that this substance is all the knowledge you have available to you at that moment of your life. There is a desire for food and warmth, a need to feel secure, and an unknown element called “potential.” What you don’t know is that achieving that potential is affected by your ability to add layers to your container throughout your life.

A bank of resources

Think about your early years, and visualize your container at age six. Each experience, each learning situation, every important event has laid down another layer. You learn to walk and talk, you play with friends, and you have some understanding of family relationships. The thickness of each layer varies according to its importance. To see these layers more clearly, visualize them in different colors.

Move forward a few more years, say to age 12. For me, those years were essentially carefree. School went well. Participating in sports was fun. I had few responsibilities, and life was uncomplicated. Certainly, I added layers, especially educationally, and most were positive. Then I turned 13! I did not move through my teenage years gracefully. It was a time of extremes … optimism and pessimism, happiness and sadness. Totally opposing feelings were a way of life. There were so many questions. Who was I? What did I believe in? What would I be good at for the rest of my life? Where was I going and with whom?

This roller coaster ride lasted into my 20s, and at times it was very painful. Although I would not choose to repeat those years, I would not want to be without them either. What I learned was invaluable! Layer upon layer was added to my container, and many of them were thick and meaningful. The good news is I can now see a purpose to those challenging times, just as my granddaughter began to see a purpose to her geography project.

Your experiences may have been very different from mine. Your layers may not look anything like my layers.

But we all have this imaginary container, and I see it as a savings bank of resources. In my October 2006 column, I referenced today’s world of “permanent white water.” I described it as difficult to read, constantly changing, and unpredictable. To navigate it successfully, this suggests to me that our learning must be continuous. Equally important, the more diversity we have in our layers of learning, the more likely we will have the right resource to manage a specific aspect of this transforming world.

The benefits are many

Our bank of resources is much more than a collection of concepts, facts, and skills. As we add layer upon layer, we contribute significantly to an essential personal-development concept, namely self-awareness. Our strengths and gifts are more clearly identified. So are our limitations. Our values are clarified, and our purpose is more clearly focused. With these insights, we can live life more authentically, more passionately, and more effectively.

But knowing something is not the same as being something. Intellectually, we may know we have a particular strength, but can we trust ourselves to use it effectively during a time of challenge? Adding layers of experience promotes ownership of that strength. When we know we can count on ourselves, our self-confidence soars and we execute at a much higher level.

PGA Tour golfers constantly face this situation. They know they have the shots to compete or they wouldn’t be on the Tour. But do they have the confidence to execute those shots decisively on the back nine on Sunday when the tournament is on the line? The more experience and layers they have, the more likely they will trust their ability to perform under pressure. It’s no different for you and me as we confront the challenges of life.

Have you looked into your imaginary container lately? What layers do you have that you can count on? Are there any you have forgotten about that you now see as valuable? Are there hidden resources that you never knew you had? I’ll bet there’s more in that container than you imagined!

A lesson learned

Please indulge a proud grandfather. Bailey received full marks for her project and five bonus marks for turning it in early. I asked her what she had learned from the project. She said she now knows that geography is more than “landforms and dirt.” It involves people, and affects how we live our everyday lives. Now that’s a worthwhile layer!

Doug Young, MBA, and his spouse Marlyn, MCC, have a professional speaking and executive/team coaching business in Parker, Colo. Contact them by e-mail at [email protected], by phone at 877-DMYOUNG, or on the Web at

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