You can learn something from anybody

I hear gos­sip about col­leagues every­day — in the sub­way, dur­ing lunch, etc. . I don’t real­ly lis­ten to peo­ple chitchat­ting but inter­est­ing­ly those peo­ple around me seem to always be the ones being in the right to com­plain about oth­ers. Until today I have never over­heard a con­ver­sa­tion in which some­body told her peer that she her­self was unfair, illoy­al or focus­ing on her indi­vid­ual suc­cess instead of the team’s. Isn’t that funny? It seems that peo­ple like to detect defi­cien­cies in oth­ers and talk with their peers about them to assure them­selves of being in the right.
What about turn­ing the table? Let’s not try to detect defi­cien­cies in oth­ers, but to dis­cov­er their abil­i­ties and indi­vid­ual skills!
You can learn some­thing from any­body. Yes, from any­body. Even if you are a very smart guy with a PhD and/or truck­loads of cash. You can learn some­thing in sit­u­a­tions and from peo­ple you don’t assess as impor­tant or of any value for you.

Wise men are able to make a fit­ting use even of their ene­mies. (Plutarch)

This is how wise peo­ple see it, and this has been my expe­ri­ence, too. Typ­i­cal­ly, some of the peo­ple we com­mu­ni­cate with through­out the day, appear to be inter­est­ing, who add to our well-being by moti­vat­ing us or who are just very nice. Oth­ers we would eval­u­ate as “neu­tral” where­as from time to time we speak with peo­ple who waste our time, who are mere ener­gy suck­ers: we talk with them, they com­plain about this and that, and at the end we feel exhausted.
Con­ven­tion­al wis­dom rec­om­mends to shun those guys and I do not dis­agree in gen­er­al. But espe­cial­ly those neg­a­tive peo­ple, prob­a­bly lament­ing about their own prob­lems and unfair treat­ments, can serve as (anti) role mod­els: i.e. how not to behave, what to eschew.
Then we meet peo­ple who work in lower posi­tions than we do, who are less edu­cat­ed or who sim­ply dress in bad style. And you know what? Each of those indi­vid­u­als can do some­thing bet­ter than we our­selves! Per­haps the check­er — who left school at the age of 16 and whose month­ly salary is your din­ner bill — is deeply in love with her man while you’re busy man­ag­ing your divorce. Or, take the bean counter from your con­trol­ling depart­ment — a man with thick glass­es and with­out the light­est sense of humor — did­n’t you see him last night play­ing the lead vio­lin in the sym­phon­ic orches­tra? Every human being is a mas­ter of some­thing. And to iden­ti­fy these spe­cial skills is what we should do.
My per­son­al expe­ri­ence is that I can learn some­thing from any­body. This is a very inter­est­ing expe­ri­ence espe­cial­ly if you don’t expect it. But if you are an open-minded type and you look active­ly for skills in other peo­ple, you will be sur­prised about how well those skills are distributed.
The other (not: flip) side of these dis­cov­er­ies is: learn­ing what oth­ers are capa­ble of makes you hum­ble. It illus­trates that you aren’t Mr or Mrs Per­fect — and that look­ing down at peo­ple is not only unso­cial but does­n’t make any sense at all: if any­thing, by dis­cov­er­ing skills and strengths in oth­ers we only learn from them. And this improves our own lives.
Learn­ings can be big things like learn­ing to have patience, or small things like not to react imme­di­ate­ly when some­body crit­i­cizes you, but to pause for a sec­ond, breathe — and react after­wards — in a much cool­er way than you would have done with­out this men­tal break. The oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn come unex­pect­ed­ly — in many cases you real­ize it much later. But that does­n’t mat­ter: the most impor­tant aspect is that you do real­ize it, any­way. If that hap­pens, you have been suc­cess­ful — that’s your learning.
Just try to learn from your friends, col­leagues, neigh­bors, and espe­cial­ly from chil­dren (many adults would never imag­ine that they could learn from chil­dren at all)! If it works out for you the same as it does for me, you will expe­ri­ence less anger, you enhance your over­all feel­ing and your life becomes more colorful.
You might be inter­est­ed in read­ing the reply to this post, by @lenerl.
The photo was shot in Herrsching at Ammersee, a beau­ti­ful lake south­west of Munich.

2 Replies to “You can learn something from anybody”

  1. […] This is a guest post by Janine Pfahl, a com­mu­ni­ca­tion and learn­ing expert. Janine replies to my ear­li­er post. […]

  2. […] This exer­cise – to real­ly take on your opponent’s per­spec­tive and act respec­tive­ly – is one of the more demand­ing ones. To change my spots has been quite dif­fi­cult, today. But, it worked. I suc­cess­ful­ly imag­ined some sce­nar­ios based on his argu­ments. The result: as always, I learned a lot by doing this exer­cise. First: the anger I felt after hav­ing left was anger about myself – not being able to cope with the sit­u­a­tion in a good way. And – with­out going into detail, I now know that I real­ly could – and should – opti­mize my own views and behav­ior regard­ing busi­ness strat­e­gy and sales. I still regard some of his views as flawed but these are details: my key take­away from today’s dis­cus­sion is that I learn most from dif­fi­cult, unpleas­ant com­mu­ni­ca­tions. In a wider sense, that reflects that we all can learn some­thing from anybody. […]

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