Learning, Development, and Distinctions

A Thing of Beauty

Ishihara color perception test plates, named after Japanese ophthalmologist Dr. Shinobu Ishihara, who designed them in 1917.

Ishihara color perception test plates, named after Japanese ophthalmologist Dr. Shinobu Ishihara, who designed them in 1917.

A thirst for learning is part of what makes us human, and quenching that thirst is what feeds our continued growth. Like the rest of nature and the universe, there is no such thing as stagnation for us. William S. Burroughs put it bluntly: “When you stop growing you start dying.” This sentiment is close to my heart. I named the business Only to Grow because of the vitality I believe learning brings to our lives.

How people learn is my passion and obsession. I spent a good chunk of my professional years in K-12 education, and in the latter part of my career I shifted my focus to adults, first through professional learning for leaders in the K-12 space, and now through leadership development coaching and consulting. On this journey, I’ve repeatedly bumped into the question: Why learning AND development? and found it to be territory worthy of exploration.

These terms are often joined without much thought, or they are treated interchangeably. However, in the field of coaching, when we speak of learning, we generally mean “horizontal,” competence-based growth related to building knowledge and skills, while development refers to “vertical” maturation: gaining wisdom through increased self-awareness and reflection.

In both cases, we come to see things we have previously been blind to, or acquire language where we had none before, and this is where the third important term comes into play: distinctions. In coaching, distinctions describe what a client is able to see and do that s/he wasn’t able to see and do before; they are what help a client become more conscious, more awake. Or as Proust says, “to possess other eyes.” My favorite analogy for describing distinctions is hunting for morel mushrooms. Most of us are blind to them until we have the gift of exploring with someone who knows where to start, what signs to look for, and how to see. What was previously invisible becomes visible, even though it was there all along. And once we develop knowledge and sight, it changes how we journey through the woods.

How do learning and development differ, and why does it matter?

The distinction is easy to see when we think of children. As kids learn, they build entire vocabularies around topics. When they discover dinosaurs, they thrill over the specifics of Apatosaurus, Triceratops, and Velociraptor. And in the natural world, the vocabularies children grow are endless: “clouds” become cumulous, cirrus, stratus and more; they learn to look at the moon and describe it as waxing and waning from crescent to gibbous. They gain skills, and hopefully create things of consequence and beauty. Regardless of whether or when children learn certain vocabularies and skills, they also mature, or develop. They become increasingly independent, resilient, able to make choices based on their preferences and passions. They make meaning of the world differently.

It is now common knowledge that development continues throughout our adult lives, but this is a relatively new notion. Until the 1960s, the field of developmental psychology focused on infants, children, and adolescents. The commonly-held belief was that maturation was complete sometime in our 20s for most people; adulthood was a destination. Though we now know that maturation continues, the majority of adults plateau in their development. (See the work of Suzanne Cook-Greuter for depth on this topic.) This is a major reason people work with a coach. Increasing complexity in the world calls for both learning and development, and it’s helpful to have a partner to walk the path with, someone to aid in identifying distinctions and making sense of the world differently.

Development is internal work, yet it changes how we show up to others. When we develop, we see new choices, change our stories about ourselves and the world, shape and choose our habits with intention. Development isn’t just about “possess[ing] other eyes;” it ultimately results in different behaviors that are noticeable to others, which takes time and practice.

An Example: Creative vs. Reactive Leadership

You are likely to run across the distinction between creative and reactive leadership in many contexts, but I learned it most profoundly when I became certified in administering the Leadership Circle Profile (LCP). The LCP is a 360° assessment tool for leaders (a person receives feedback from a group of people who know their work from all different angles), but more importantly, it’s a framework for leadership development. Though the full model has incredible depth, the most fundamental distinction is that of Creative Competencies and Reactive Tendencies.

  • We all have varying amounts of REACTIVE TENDENCIES: controlling, protective, and/or complying behaviors that reflect limiting beliefs and assumptions. Though we developed these beliefs and behaviors for good reasons in the past, they limit our leadership effectiveness.

  • When we consciously channel our energy into developing CREATIVE COMPETENCIES instead: being authentic, relating well with others, and achieving a vision—the more effective and fulfilled we become as leaders.

Here’s a terrific super-short video (> 2 minutes) to illustrate how this distinction plays out in the LCP.

Having new language (especially shared language) is a first step in learning this (or any) distinction, but self-awareness, reflection, and deliberate practice are the stuff of development. It is profound to learn to see something new, and the invitation of development is to continue looking, to deeply investigate your own actions and motivations to inform making intentional choices about how you show up.

This is why I coach. For me, there is no greater gift than to act as witness and guide to others’ learning and development, recognizing that despite our differences, we are all on similar journeys as we struggle and grow.

“The only true voyage of discovery…would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is….”
~Marcel Proust