What Makes Wisdom Workshops Work?

Sean Waters
Wisdom Workshop
Published in
11 min readJul 6, 2021

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Cohort #6 of the Wisdom Workshop on Writing the Good Life.

Last updated May 6th, 2023

“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” — Victor Frankl

We’ve explored Writing the Good Life for over two years with 12 cohorts, over seventy people, 19 to 67 years old, across seven countries.

These wonderful human beings have given us a wealth of qualitative data we’re still figuring out what to do with.

Each testimonial reflects a personal approach to the experiential and emergent learning environments we co-create together.

I’ve done my best to code and organize them into themes, initial codes that might lead to further writing and research.

(1) Clarity and Purpose

“This course helped me clarify what matters, helped me move through the challenges I have with my team…. this is the most special, unique and memorable learning atmosphere I’ve ever participated in… in work or school or anywhere.” — Chance Thompson, Co-Founder of Viridescent Consulting, Big Sky, MT

“The Wisdom Workshop finds you exactly when you need it. If you’re curious about this workshop there’s mostly likely a reason and something in your life that needs clarity or to be put in motion. It gives you the tools to ask the right questions and the community to be held accountable. Sean encouraged us to follow our interests and created an open environment to apply this course to whatever is relevant.” — Haley Westmoreland, eCommerce Associate, Boulder, CO

(2) Relationship with Ourselves

“This was one of the best things I’ve done for myself. I am more grounded, less angry, and filled with gratitude for all the beautiful synchronicities and serendipities in my life…. So, I want to thank you. You’ve made an incredible difference in my journey. I appreciate you.” — Leslie Taylor, Vice President of Enrollment, Gunnison, CO

“I discovered I have many things to offer, and I’m embracing the power of getting together for a purpose… it allowed me to show up and to get to know myself a little better.” — Diana Ruiz-Olvera, Dance Instructor in Boston, MA

“I can not believe how much I’ve changed in seven weeks. I started the course thinking that I would fix my life and career… and it turned out that I got back into a relationship with myself, and I realize that everything else will take of itself.” — Monica Aikman, Nurse in Saskatchewan, Canada

“The last two months have added a lot to my vocabulary of being. I learned that what we choose to listen to and what we choose to ignore is also an act of expression: what I choose to let into my space, my psyche, and what I choose to accept…. I know I need to listen to the parts of myself that want to be kind, to be nice, to be less afraid of shame and judgment, to just say fuck it. It gave me the space to listen to the sound of my own voice.” — Subarna Ganguly, Student and Artist in New Delhi, India

“This course has helped me understand my habits in a different way. What has worked for me in the past, why they’ve worked for me, and how I am giving them more weight. I am also now looking at how relationships and people can become containers for me to thrive.” — Luyi Wang, Head of Knowledge in Vancouver, Canada

(3) Community

“I have never not-wanted to miss class so much in my whole life. I learned I can create this kind of a community in my own life, with intention: give compassionate space to everyone to dig deep. I have a lot of admiration for the people in this group.” — Bennie, Retail Sales, Fort Collins, CO

“I really liked the fresh insight from different perspectives that I wouldn’t normally have exposure to, from people who are outside my age group and outside my region.” — Charlie Carey, Graduate Student, Cincinnati, OH

“I just like the joy, comfort, and laughter I get to share with these lovely people. The poet David Whyte says that we meet ourselves through another, and that’s what this reminds me of. Honestly it’s been fantastic.” — Mark Szretter, Senior Enterprise Sales, Boston, MA

“Every Wednesday I was looking forward to our sessions. From the connection to different people that challenge themselves and each other… fun and joyful to be around.” — Mindy Murphy, Director of Operations in Fort Collins, CO

“For me the biggest thing was going through the journey with others …. One of the biggest challenges of quitting my job was feeling like I was doing it alone. Going through this with other people made a huge difference.” — Samantha Scott, Accountant in London, U.K.

“ I wish I had the language to express how incredible this time was for me … wonderfully personal in such a short amount of time. What an awesome experience and such a diverse group of folks with so many ideas.” — Jeannie Sutter, Occupational Therapist in Fort Collins, CO

(4) Creative Inspiration

“I’ve loved this workshop so much. I feel a lot more grounded and encouraged to share my perspectives with others. I feel a lot safer and able to share my voice. All this free-writing unlocked something in me. There’s stuff in me that wants to come out!” — Luna Alice, Medical Student, United Kingdom

“I now have a practice of writing that I need, that I’ll honor, and that I’ll keep going.” — Kristina Cash, Event Organizer and Creator in Fort Collins, CO

“I feel like I can learn anything in an environment like this … I’ve done more writing and more art in the last seven weeks than I’ve done in my entire life.” — Danielle Chavez, Retail Sales in Fort Collins, CO

(5) Presence and Feedback

“I also noticed changes in my conversations with family and friends. I feel more present and took some of our daily prompts into great conversations with others … as much as I learned from the group, I started learning even more from the people I have around me whole life.” — Daniel Hernandez, Founder of Rebel-Teaching, Mexico City, Mexico

“I’ve gotten into an acceptance — a more relaxed and fun and allowing place… I feel much more in touch with my thoughts and my place in the world.” — Dana Spanjer, Senior Accountant in Fort Collins, CO

“I want to thank everybody in this group. You were all so present and aware. The feedback and the empathy that you all shared was super meaningful to me.” — Suzanne Rossi, Therapist and Coach in Philadelphia, PA

“I can’t tell you how much this course held a mirror up to my experience : it was revelatory.” — Matthew Dolezal, Yoga Instructor Fort Collins, CO

“I’ve been trying to rediscover myself and put myself together. Having this group to hang out with was like re-entering the world itself. It was powerful to see different personalities and hear different stories… has given me a whole new faith in people. This has been a personal blessing, a big one.” — Jonathan Peaslee, Landscape Specialist, Big Bend, CA

(6) Agility and Self-Reinvention

“The container we’ve created together has allowed me to focus on what I’m calling an abundance of agility. To look for opportunities, and not get bogged down by any one thing. To feel how exciting it is to be able to reinvent myself.” — Kyle Christensen, Facilitator in Denver, Colorado

“This course has made me feel so much more free and so much more calm. I don’t need to have my whole life figured out — I can just do my best today. I used to think I needed answers to my life, but now I’m more OK with uncertainty, and I’m OK with things changing.” — Josie Johnson, Elementary Art Educator in Sioux Falls, SD

“I’m not as afraid of failure because of the decision-making process offered in this course. It’s going to be life-changing for me.” — Kellie Robinson, Photographer in Madison, WI

“The combinations of being accountable, reading and talking about what’s important helps me put things into context sooner, to get back up over setbacks a lot more quickly. I feel more confident, in my own ways, of living the good life.” — Nick Cernera, UX/UI Designer in Philadelphia, PA

(7) Hope and Growth

“I appreciate the community, your support, and your insights. I’ve grown more in the last two months than I have for years, and I feel more hopeful about the future than I have for even longer.” — Sharon Pitkin, Writer in Fort Collins, CO

“This class has been really good for me professionally as well as personally. Our meetings have helped me speak up in work calls, and the free-writing stream-of-consciousness brain-dump has helped me understand work communication.” — Lindsay McNeish, Marketing Professional, Boulder, CO

“Serendipity as a skill has been a really cool practice … approaching my work with curiosity has helped me re-evaluate why I’m doing what I’m doing. I do this now probably everyday.” — Chris Goheen, Victim Service Coordinator, Fort Collins, CO

(8) Getting Unstuck

“I’ve come away with a lot these seven weeks. …This course gave me what I needed that I didn’t know I needed: permission to boldly make choices…. every time I’ve mentioned getting unstuck, I talk about the Wisdom Workshop, and recommended this experience as a format to everyone.”— Simi Lllowyin, Community Organizer, Toronto, Canada

“Everyone sees it slightly differently — even visually, we’re each in different spots! Going to the top of the mountain to see a broader perspective is really nice.”— Terry Waters, Retired Project Manager, LaPorte, CO

“It was like improvisational philosophy! The art of playfully saying yes to the wisdom of others and enhancing that wisdom with our own observations, insights, and stories … where we can laugh and play with deep ideas, develop wisdom, and reflect on what works for us.” — Brian Oney, Facilitator, San Francisco, CA

(9) Thinking Differently

“This class has jostled me into thinking differently — with a sense of spontaneity, you have to inspire yourself and find new ways of experiencing yourself. I loved this class.” — Maya Ortega, Writer in Fort Collins, CO

“This class helped me think about things in ways I haven’t thought about things in a long time.” — Vashti Rael, Real Estate Agent in Fort Collins, CO

“I am refreshed and inspired to know that school and micro-workshops aren’t just for people under 22 years old. … I think it’s a mistake to call older learners “non-traditional” learners.” — Kendra Spanjer, Artist in Fort Collins, CO

Discussion of Qualitative Research Findings

Yalom’s Therapeutic Factors of Group Psycho-dynamics

Paul, a semi-retired psychotherapist in New Mexico in the third cohort, said this:

“This experience has been the most educational one I’ve had outside of my education, and the most therapeutic one I’ve had outside of therapy.”

Following conversations with Paul revealed that my curriculum design had inadvertently embodied at least nine evidence-based therapeutic factors identified by contemporary psychological research: Instillation of hope Universality, Imparting Information, Altruism, Development of Socialization Techniques, Imitative Behavior, Interpersonal Learning, Group Cohesiveness, Existential Factors.

Further research needs to be done on coding qualitative participant testimony with these therapeutic factors: though each of these themes have come up in participant testimony.

Further, we will follow up with participants after years pass to measure long-term impact of any of these factors, if any.

7 Ps of the Good Life : Initial Learning Outcomes

I considered the stated themes of the seven weeks when coding the end-of-workshop participant reeflections. Here are those seven learning outcomes articulated on the workshop enrollment page.

MODULE 1: PRESENCE: Zen and Writing to Know-Thyself

MODULE 2: PURPOSE: Identity, Success, and Why You’re Here

MODULE 3: PLAY: Way-finding with Synchronicity

MODULE 4: PROJECTS: Existential Life-Design Experiments

MODULE 5: PEOPLE : Creating Healthy and Nourishing Connections

MODULE 6: PROCESS : Collaborating and Facilitating Growth

MODULE 7: PERSPECTIVE : Choosing Happiness

These more traditional learning outcomes miss something essential, however.

At least 20 participants have stated that while the content of the course was helpful, it was more the quality of the surprising connections with other people in the group. They were spaces they enjoyed being in.

You can’t manufacture those kinds of connections. But you can carefully create spaces where they’re more likely to happen.

Re-Imagining Wisdom Workshops

I started the Wisdom Workshop as a way to re-imagine higher-level education during and after the changes wrought by the global pandemic.

One way in, I thought, was to ask the biggest and best questions I had in groups who were also could be convinced to explore those questions with me. How does writing connect to living? Composition to philosophy? Life-design and healthy existential agency?

It was the course I needed to take to re-imagine my own mid-life emergence, re-commit to my writing practice, build a community of support, and find a practical outlet to do good for other people.

These initial intentions, interestingly, show up in the participant testimony (though, obviously, I may be biased in selecting testimony that reflects the intentions myself have for the educational experience). Mimetic desire is a more likely explanation that accounts for my stated biases: of course some participants wanted something similar to what I was wanting to get out of the course. (This was also true as we launched right in time for the great resignation).

Taking all of this into consideration, I’m closer to defining a broader archetype, format, model of what we somewhat haphazardly call our “wisdom workshop” that more reflects the serendipitous power of group dynamics and the philosophical and pedagogical frameworks we designed.

A wisdom workshop is a

(1) care-full container of a set group of people who want to

(2) engage with existential questions and

(3) build hopeful approaches to well-being,

(4) learning from and with each other

for (5) generative growth and nourishment.

This sounds more and more like doing philosophy in groups in a decidedly Epicurean style. An engaged and thematically driven self-directed and collaborate emergent learning that responds to participants’ experience.

Pragmatic in that we impart information about tools, frameworks, and ideas that help each of us construct the truth of what works in our own lives, where we deliberately practice what truly matters to us. In short, to help us do actual good in the world.

Existential in that they directly engage with questions of life and death, authenticity and freedom, responsibility and identity.

and Therapeutic insofar as the quality of connections that reliably emerge between participants engender and reflect hopefulness, universality, altruism, interpersonal learning, and group cohesiveness.

We still want our courses to an inspiring sandbox of ideas that encourage self-directed and emergent learning. And it’s working. And we’ll keep on listening to hear what our participants are saying.

If you’re feeling called to join a small learning community, or to practice mindful writing and life design, our seven-week courses on Writing the Good Life might be a good fit.

If you want to explore the aesthetic and creative dimensions of well-being, our new 12-week course on the Art of Living Beautifully might be an exciting way to create your life’s work.

If you’re curious, schedule a call with me or visit our website.

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Sean Waters
Wisdom Workshop

Educator and artist, I work with lifelong learners who want to build better frameworks for living the good life. www.wisdomworkshop.io