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Title: On-the-Job Learning: The Workplace as Karma Yoga
by Leslie Ehle
magazine article originally published in Insight Northwest, Vol 4, #4, August-Sept. 1985.


“Help Wanted: Minimum two years related work experience required.”

While it would be wonderful for the new graduate to walk out of the classroom into a high-paying, satisfying job, for many of us finding that first full-time position was a frustrating, and perhaps agonizing process. Led to believe that the education we gained in the classroom would prepare us fully to step into the world of work, it came as a rude shock that the world was NOT beating a path to our door to offer us exciting positions.

The reason for this is fairly simple: formal education can provide us with the broad basic skills and knowledge we need as a foundation for work; learning how to use those skills and knowledge within the context of the world of work requires learning in the real world. We leave school with learning that represents work potential; it is only on-the-job that we can fine-tune that potential into real work performance.

Much like the guild structure of Medieval Europe, we must begin as apprentices, then progress to the relative skill of journeymen, in order to reach the level of master craftsperson. At each step we refine our skills and acquire new ones, particularly those less tangible abilities to lead, to participate as part of a team, to work well and comfortably with all kinds of people, to do our best with the available materials and time. We refine and deepen our capacities as we learn to respond to the changing requirements of our jobs, the organizations in which we work, and the cultural environment which provides the framework for business of all kinds.

On another level, working and participating in the world of business provides us with some of the most difficult and significant challenges to our spiritual growth, by presenting us with lessons that we might otherwise choose to avoid. While working we have many unique opportunities to “practice what we preach,” particularly as we must form satisfactory working relationships with people we would not choose as friends. We can test our capacity to love those we disagree with; to maintain our own balance in the face of stress and pressure; to work with joy and enthusiasm regardless of how boring or frustrating the work seems to be.

Effective learning in the workplace calls on particularly attitudes and skills that both learners and teachers can cultivate. Keeping in mind that we take on both the role of teacher and the role of learning in the workplace, I’d like to list briefly a few suggestions for each role.

Suggestions for Workplace “teachers”

* Individuals vary in the ways they process new information. Some people learn most quickly with oral instruction; others need to be able to look at diagrams or see it in writing. Pay attention to your learners, and be prepared to present your information in many different ways. In general, the more senses your instruction involves for the learner, the more effective your teachings.
* Learning-by-doing is usually more effective than lecturing. Provide hands-on demonstrations, followed by opportunities for learners to do it themselves with your supportive supervision. As you demonstrate, describe each step you take and explain why you take it.

* Give learners opportunities to make mistakes and to practice without fear of punishment. Focus on what they did right and what they could do better next time. Ask questions to help the learner to identify what they could do differently next time to improve their skill—don’t provide all the answers. Learning to keep your hands in your pockets and your mouth shut is vital to effective teaching and effective learning.

* Encourage learners to ask questions, and give them your full, caring attention when they do. Creating an environment that says, “It’s OK to ask questions” will go a long way to preventing unnecessary mistakes down the road, and to empowering employees to peak performance.

* Approach the learning process as the fun, light-hearted adventure that it can be. Provide encouragement and rewards for improvement, nut just for perfect performance. Informal celebrations can help defuse old negative attitudes about learning.

* Be willing to learn from your “students.” Many procedures in the workplace can be done differently and be more effective or efficient than “the way they’ve always been done.” Be open to the suggestions of your subordinates, by remembering that everyone has something they can teach us if we’re willing to listen attentively.

Suggestions for workplace learners

* Focus your fill, undivided attention on what is being taught. Participate in the process by asking questions, trying out new skills, feeding back what you’ve just been told or shown.

* Identify the ways you take in new information most easily (e.g., visual demonstrations, oral information, written instructions). Take notes or draw diagrams. Review and practice what you’ve just been learning as soon as possible while your memory is fresh.

* Look for similarities to other things you know, and for pattern in what you’re learning. Effective learners develop an array of “mental hooks to hang things on”— other things they know about that relate to what they are learning now. Ask yourself, “What are some other places in my daily life that I could use this skill or idea?” and, “What non-work experience and knowledge can I bring to my work?”

* Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes can be special opportunities to learn something new or improve skills—if we approach them as such. Accepting our mistakes, then asking how we could do better next time keeps us out of the paralysis of self-criticism.

* Share your learning with someone else—a friend, a family member, someone at work. This can help you solidify your learning and identify where you need further practice or information.

Spiritual Learning in the Workplace

When we work, it’s easy to get locked into viewing our jobs as something we do in order to make money so that we can do things we really want to do with the rest of our time. If we’re fortunate, the script reads, we might get to do something we like to do and make money at it.

There is another way to view the process of working that can make it an integral part of our lives and continuing growth: work is what we do to reveal in form the energy we have available to us. Much like a lump of coal, we are each only latent potential until we allow the fire of enthusiasm, caring and concentration to focus that energy into form. We can, if we choose, view virtually any job as providing us with challenging opportunities to learn how to direct our energy, how to focus it, how o turn potential into actuality.

While doing workshops, I frequently hear people complain about their jobs, their bosses, their co-workers, noting how “unspiritual” their workplace is, how drained they feel at the end of the day. It is my own perspective that, like flower seeds, we’re each planted in a work environment where we can grow and learn, if we first learn to approach it as the opportunity it in fact is. All too often, however, we slip into the trap of feeling that, because something seems difficult or unpleasant, the best solution is to withdraw our energy, to be half-hearted about what we’re doing, or to quit the job and look for another one. While that may be the best option at times, we can short-circuit a major learning/growing opportunity if we’re too quick to back out of a trying situation. Consider this as a guideline: “when it makes a difference whether you stay or go, stay. When it doesn’t make a difference, go.”

There are several questions you can ask yourself that can help reveal the spiritual lessons in a difficult work situation (or for that matter, in any difficult situation):

* How could I view this situation differently?

* What opportunities are hidden in this situation? How can I make lemonade out of this pile of lemons I seem to be faced with?

* What do I need to let go of in order to see this as a worthwhile experience?

* What can I learn from this?

Regardless of what our job is, the world of work can be a richly rewarding opportunity to learn to focus and direct our energy and love into form. Like Michaelangelo, we are faced each day with a block of marble. Like a master sculptor, we can choose to learn, with concentration and caring, with attention and openness to the unexpected, to reveal the possibilities hidden within the marble of ourselves and our circumstances. The living figure imbedded in the stone awaits our discovery; the choice to see and act is ours.

© 1985 Leslie Ehle

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