Lessons from learning to read Farsi at 35
A number of years ago and for a number of reasons I found myself wanting to learn Farsi. Farsi, or as some people call it, Persian, is an amazing language. It is the language of great poets Rumi and Hafez, it is highly expressive, it is intriguing and…it is written with non-Latin characters. Characters that to me looked completely alien, just squiggles strung together to make lines that didn’t look like sentences and even less like letters. And yet, there I was trying to learn to read.
I remember my first sentence, sounded out and haltingly pronounced. The sentence was — father is coming (home) on a horse — (for reasons too complex to go into here we were using a children’s book). As I sat there trying to tease out the letters I felt transported back to when I was six years old. For me, learning to read was not easy and I felt all the same embarrassment, fear, curiosity and frustration at thirty-something that I’d felt back as a child. I pressed on and continued to learn, and I continued to feel the discomfort. I remember thinking, come on, I’m supposed to know how to do this! I read really well, I write well, why is this so hard…I mean spelling?
Of course, I knew why it was hard, I understood it, but I FELT the same feelings when re-learning this skill as I had from those painful days as a six-year-old. These few Farsi lessons taught me invaluable lessons about what happens to adults when learning new ways to do things we thought we’d mastered as children. It’s been invaluable for working with change in organizations.
When I go into organizations, it’s because change is desired. A leader may need to put aside her desire to control problems unilaterally and instead and learn how to lead in a way that collaborative solutions can be found using the wisdom within the members of the organization. She may need to re-learn how to harness her curiosity and ability to ask questions about what is happening while suspending her own judgment. A team may be learning to put aside their logical thinking for a moment and trust in what they feel, regardless of what convention may tell them. A person may be learning to listen to her own inner voice about boundaries and say no to something when she is more used to making things work regardless of her needs.
All of these behaviors are simple on the surface, they make sense to people, they want to do it…and yet, it is difficult and often they feel helpless as they (re)learn HOW to do what seems like something so basic, just like spelling when all of sudden the letters change. And often I witness as people then come into contact with their old learning experiences and overcome the ones that bring difficult memories.
To give an example, the people I work with often got to leadership positions by being the sharpest thinkers and problem solvers. They’ve been rewarded throughout their education and professional career for being the ones who come up with answers. Seldom have they been rewarded for asking questions that were outside of their range of knowledge. In fact, for many, they grew up in education systems that frowned upon asking such questions. If you did, you may have been seen as less than intelligent, or lazy, or worse teachers and colleagues.
Another example is setting boundaries. So many of us have been taught to go over our most basic boundaries in order to be “educated.” To not fidget when your body wants to fidget, not to nap when you are tired. To be a good girl or boy, and don’t talk until spoken to, even if you have an opinion that you feel is important to express.
Is it any wonder then that it’s experienced as uncomfortable when we start to bring changes that affect these deep behavior patterns we have spent so much energy to learn behaviors. It takes courage to revisit those old uncomfortable feelings in our learning journeys as adults. My Farsi adventure reminded me of that, each time I opened a book. By letting myself feel that discomfort it also opened the door for me to feel the exhilaration and joy each time I realized I had mastered something new. I remembered how rewarding it could be to overcome difficulty, to make a small stride, to do a small step in the direction I wanted to go.
Using this experience to generate persistence, empathy, and courage to continue in processes of change
When I work with people facing individual and organizational change and see them struggle with new behaviors, practices, and conduct, I remember to be encouraging, to be mindful that just because they are adults, doesn’t mean it is comfortable to learn something that may seem basic.
I encourage persistence and make sure to acknowledge every small victory on the way to making the desired change.
Most importantly, I remember that they are making great steps even when it doesn’t look like they or when they’re complaining, and going way slower than I, or they, may wish. I hold the image with them of the beauty of the outcome that will come one day, maybe when they least expect it that all of a sudden, they realize how much change had taken place.