A Sense of Wonder & Awe

You have paused and reflected. You are grounded. Now you can initiate some structured thinking which activates your learner mindset. As a learner, you are willing to explore the edges of what you do know and do not know.  Your goal is to turn on the curiosity and wonder in your brain.

We use the word wonder because curiosity can seem a bit flat for what we’re trying to describe. You might be curious about a fact or a detail, but what we really want people to say is, “I wonder what if . . .” and “I wonder how . . .” There’s a deepening, an expansiveness, when you talk about wonder. It has an open, childlike feel, with few limitations on your thinking, few restrictions limited by past experience or even assumptions. What you’re really trying to do by activating the learner mindset is turn on that internal sense of wonder and then help turn it on in others. (In the next chapter, we’ll talk about what you can do to orient your team or audience to the same way of thinking.) That, in a sense, is what Walt Disney did.

When people are in this state of mind, the traditional boundaries of seniority, roles, and rigid social structures disappear. When everybody’s looking at the sky in a sense of wonder, they’re not thinking about who the boss is and who the employer is. They are truly on the same side of the table because they’re peers in what they’re exploring.

A leader certainly has some responsibilities that are different from followers, but the truth is that, when we’re being creative and curious, we’re all equals. A leader’s humility can help create that sense of creative wonder, which allows everyone to move forward and think differently about a given circumstance. When that leader is in the learner mindset, something wonderful happens. We’ve said before it’s like a positive virus. Status evaporates. Hierarchy evaporates. The differentials evaporate. All of a sudden, you’re in this place of incubation, where everyone is focused on finding solutions and possibilities.

There are specific actions you can take to get yourself ready for broader thinking. The following are four things you can do to activate your learner mindset.

1. Challenge Your Assumptions

Start by looking at the assumptions you bring to a situation. Push the edge of those assumptions to see if they’re real, or if they’re just things that you’ve quietly or tacitly agreed to, only to find that they have narrowed your potential.

When business leaders fail to question these assumptions, they cannot break through to new levels of performance in their organization because they shut down organizational thinking. The act of questioning assumptions creates energy and has been demonstrated to achieve significant engagement and increased performance.

2. Bring in Fresh Eyes

The second technique for activating a learner mindset is to involve what we call fresh eyes—that is, outside people who have a different point of view, or equally important, customers who are receivers of the work. It’s amazing what can happen when you listen to outside people who don’t know all the rules and haven’t been soaked in your work tradition. They’re willing to think completely differently about problems and solutions.

Bringing fresh eyes to a situation can activate a creative learner mindset because the last one to see water is the goldfish. When you’re in the goldfish bowl, everything looks fine. You don’t notice you’re in water.

3. Involve the Group

A third technique is to have that fresh-eye conversation by means of a group rather than a one-on-one discussion. The knower might use the idea of gaining another perspective in a one-on-one interview. He’ll gather a bunch of facts and come to a conclusion on his own. By doing it that way, the outcomes are limited 1) by the leader’s ideas, and 2) by the nature of a one-on-one dialogue.

A learner leader, who’s not trying to control the situation or own the outcome, will bring a group of people together and create an active dialogue. What happens is that participants start feeding off each other. The set of ideas people come up with expands. One small comment gets amplified by a second person, and it zooms out much further than it ever would have in a series of one-on-one interviews. The whole thing just amplifies itself, like a deeply-resonating drum.

4. Be Open to the Answers

When you ask questions in a learner mindset, you are open to other people’s answers and even open to the fact that people’s answers and ideas may be better than your own.  These techniques are part and parcel of respecting others and what they have to offer.

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