Future Readiness and my Personal Learning System: Collected Knowledge From a Former Senior Army Strategist
This is not what we expected…
In October of 2007, I entered a world I had never before experienced — combat operations in Baqubah, Iraq. I had spent the previous two years in the academic world of graduate school and, subsequently, Army Command and General Staff College. Knowing I would end up back in the operational Army within a counterinsurgency environment, I poured over anything I could read about Afghanistan and Iraq, Islam, Pashtoon and Arab cultures, and counterinsurgency warfare.
Yet all this study could not prepare me for the reality we experienced. Immediately upon our arrival in Iraq, I recognized that our daily experiences failed to match up with what we had expected to see. Casualties began to amass in great numbers. Our previous assumptions all began to a fail. Innocent civilians died by the hundreds. Uncertainty and ambiguity reigned in all we tried to do to curb the violence. The more we tried the more we failed. We, and more importantly our Iraqi partners, were falling short of our mission to lead the people of Baqubah out of the cycle of violence. We struggled to explain it to ourselves and to our leadership.
When all of our training and education to succeed prepared us to fail, we forced ourselves to suspend our previous understanding of the nature of society, conflict, and war. We began an urgent quest for new perspectives and new approaches.
We knew that we needed a different system for understanding and a new logic of action to become future-ready. All across Iraq, we began to implement the now famous Clear, Hold, Build strategy through a partnership with the Iraqi security forces and the people. We called it By, With, and Through.
How I think drives how I act
That experience taught me many things. First and foremost I realized that we live in a constant state of change that requires a constant state of learning. I now live and work outside the military domain, but that principle has stuck in my thinking.
For me to be what I consider future-ready, I have created a personal learning system that guides my day to day life and pursuits. Within that system, it is important to understand I utilize three different levels of thinking in my everyday interactions and relationships.
The OTM: Ontological, Theoretical & Metaphysics
Thinking, or cognition, happens at a variety of levels. On the surface, we observe our environments and match what we sense to existing patterns within our memories. We use those patterns to confirm each observation as something useful, safe, dangerous, unknown, etc. That information is then stored and/or acted upon based on a previous experience, memory, or emotion. This observe, orient, decide, act cycle happens continuously and mostly at the subconscious level. Some call this the ontological (the O in OTM) level of thinking. It is the level most used by the human brain.
However, when we sense patterns that don’t match our previous experiences, we are required to elevate our thinking to the creation of new mental models or theories to explain the differentiated patterns. We’ve just entered the theoretical level of thinking (the T in OTM). In this level of thinking, we seek new ways to explain the patterns emerging in the observable world. This requires deliberate and conscious thinking on our parts. More directly, it requires purposeful learning.
As we interact with new patterns, we begin to synthesize theoretical perspectives to explain those patterns. We look for other observations to test our emerging theories.
However, the more complex the phenomena, the more we are forced to elevate our thinking to the next level. I call this “thinking about my thinking.”
My primary goal in this level of thinking is to identify any cognitive bias I’m projecting into my learning system. I continually ask myself whether these biases hinder my ability to see from a new perspective? If so, I must suspend these biases and seek out new interactions in order to challenge my previous assumptions. This level of thinking can be difficult, as it is really the realm of philosophy and metaphysics (the M in OTM). However, elevation of thought is absolutely necessary in order for true insight to occur in our thinking.
As the story above illustrates, my western-trained mind had to suspend beliefs, assumptions, and judgments about the citizens and adversaries with whom we interacted during my time in Iraq. Once my colleagues and I did this, we discovered a new perspective and approach that allowed us to change our behavior and actions.
We began to work towards a common goal with insurgents whom we had previously categorized as “the enemy.” Security became a partnership. This partnership enabled essential governmental services to be delivered more readily to the very people who needed them. The economy of the city came back to life. Children once again walked to school and played soccer outside. This transformation began simply because we changed how we thought about what we observed and the people with whom we interacted each day.
A Personal Learning System
Learning comes naturally to me. It always has. Just ask my parents who nicknamed me the “Why Boy” or my wife whose first impression of me was “the guy in the front asking all the questions.” I can remember taking apart toys and electronics just to see what the insides of those amazing contraptions looked like. I wanted to know what made them work. I wanted answers.
At my first introduction to the concept of having a “formalized” learning system, I couldn’t quite grasp what this “learning system” really looked like in action. I just did it. Yet experience told me that purposeful learning led to true personal (and subsequently professional) growth. My attempts at formalizing such a system seemed forced and complicated. They looked good on paper but didn’t really turn into a praxis of learning.
However, after several years of deliberate prototyping, thought, reading, and interaction I began to realize I made my “system” too complicated. The OTM model provided the key to unlocking this learning mystery. I realized the reflective cycle between the levels of thinking provided me the best opportunity for true learning.
My continuous learning system is built on three interactions I have with the world and the reflective cycle of thought among the three levels of thinking. First, I interact with people themselves. The relationships and conversations I have with individuals greatly influence how I perceive the world, so I deliberately seek out variety in this area. I believe it is absolutely essential to surround myself with people I know will disagree with me. Most importantly, I try to approach all such relationships in a spirit of humility so that I am prepared to learn from the perspectives of others.
The next aspect of my learning system involves my physical environment and the cultures in which I engage. This sometimes comes by deliberate exposure to new cultures through travel, as well as study of history, literature, art, architecture, and cuisine. In addition, I try to vary the patterns of my day so that I am forced to interact with different people and situations. This may be as simple as driving to work a different way or stopping by a coffee shop I don’t usually frequent. I even built a standing desk in order to force myself to leave my office and regularly interact with my environment.
This leads to the third area of my learning system about which I am very purposeful — the media I consume, from the written word to the movies I watch. Even if I’m watching Star Wars with my 5-year-old son, in the back of my mind I’m asking what it can tell me about people, organizations, strategies, emotions, etc. Often I will delve deep into a learning cycle about a topic or area of study for months at a time with no real objective other than exposure to something new.
In all these interactions, I put myself through continuous cycles of reflection about my core beliefs and the theories I use to explain the world. It is through this reflection that I move my cognition between the different levels of the OTM model. Practically, I do this in two ways. First, I do it in relationships with select people who are willing to have open, reflective conversations about whatever I’m learning. Additionally, I do it through a quasi-journaling process of concept mapping and modeling of ideas. Sometimes when I’m in deep reflection, you’ll find me staring at a whiteboard for hours on end to work through a particularly challenging supposition.
Humans are designed to be learning beings. Yet most people give very little thought to the relationship between thought, learning, and action. I’ve found that in order to be ready for the future, I must continually be aware of my learning system, regardless if it is through a formalized process. Through the years, this has become more fluid and natural as I’ve moved the system into my subconsciousness. However, I do deliberately bring it to the forefront of my mind when faced with new and unexplained situations in my life and the world around me.
My personal practice of Future Readiness begins and ends with my personal learning. In my experience, when a person is able to change even one area of their thinking through instituting a deliberate learning system, they will be on their way to becoming Future-Ready.