Walking is a skill that every able-bodied human being acquires usually around the end of the first year of life.
Few of us realise who taught us to walk and the implications this holds for how we learn in the world of work.
When it comes to learning to walk, humans have an interesting challenge. Unlike other animals with four legs, we humans have to learn to walk on two legs, without the assistance of a second pair of limbs to help us balance. And unlike other animals, we also learn to walk relatively late. Compared with animals such as foals and calves which start walking within hours of being born, we humans take almost a year to get going.
Scientists have spent many hours pondering over how we humans learn to walk and the process we go through to become mobile on two legs instead of on the proverbial “all fours”. There are some interesting perspectives that emerge that can teach us a lot about how to learn for life.
The immediate response to the question, “Who taught you to walk?” is, “I don’t know. It must have been my parents.”
The fact of the matter is that your parents did not teach you to walk. Sure, they definitely provided an example of how to walk – by walking in your presence – but if you think about it, you’ll realise that they never once gave you a lesson in how to walk. With the limited mental capacity of an almost one-year-old, you actually taught yourself to walk!
Never once did your parents sit down and explain to you why you needed to learn to walk, outlining the benefits of walking and the mechanics of how one goes about walking.
What they DID do was acknowledge your attempts to get off your butt and try to walk on your own. Why babies become dissatisfied with crawling, no-one knows. It seems to suit them fine for a while then one day they decide it’s no longer enough and they stand up and take those very shaky first steps to the excitement and approval of all present.
Not only did you teach yourself to walk, you also demonstrated the willingness to take a significant risk by attempting to stand upright on two legs. You took the risk of falling and failing, something all humans hate. Whether you knew what a fall was or not was irrelevant. You fell many, many times while learning to walk. But you didn’t let that put you off walking. Imagine if we all stopped trying to walk after our first fall ...
Now let’s apply some of the principles we applied as one-year-olds to the concept of life-long learning, something vitally necessary if you want to stay relevant throughout your working career.
Principle number one: you are responsible for what you learn. In the same way that you took responsibility for learning to walk, take responsibility for your own learning in your career. You did it as a one-year-old so do it at whatever stage you are at right now in your life. While the schooling process is critically important for our development, it has one major drawback – it creates the impression that someone else is responsible for our learning. As we go through our primary, secondary and tertiary education, we form the impression that others are responsible for our learning – our parents (they send us off to school and see that we go to school), our teachers (they have to ensure we learn what we’re supposed to learn), our lecturers at varsity, our coaches and any other person who teaches us some or other skill.
The fact of the matter is, they are not responsible for our learning. We actually are. And if we go through life thinking someone else is responsible for our learning, we will miss out on major opportunities.
Principle number two: learning involves risk and failure. When we start to walk, we fall – often. When we learn anything new, we run the risk of failing or getting things wrong. Take that risk. You’ll never learn new things if you’re not prepared to risk getting things wrong. That’s one of the reasons why adults take much longer to learn a new language than children. We’re afraid of making mistakes. Children aren’t.
You’ve heard the saying, “Dance as if no-one’s watching.” What that refers to, among other things, is the fact that, even though you might get the dance steps all wrong, dance. So, even if you get things wrong at first, learn new things. Learn new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing things, new ways of doing things.
As you take responsibility for your own learning, as you take risks to try new things while learning, you will grow yourself in ways that will surprise you. You can’t lead people further than you’ve gone yourself. If you want to be a leader who actually leads (and doesn’t just talk about leading), you have to be a leader who learns.
Alan Hosking is the Publisher of HR Future magazine, www.hrfuture.net, @HRFuturemag. He is a recognised authority on leadership skills for the future and teaches business leaders and managers of all generations how to lead with integrity, purpose and agility. In 2018, he was named by US-based web site Disruptordaily.com as one of the "Top 25 Future of Work Influencers to Follow on Twitter".