The best things I learn in life often come from unexpected places. There’s nothing more satisfying than suddenly seeing something in a startling new way. The pure pleasure when I have said the words “I never thought of it like that!” reminds me of the happy surprise on a young child’s face who has learned something new and exciting. It occurs to me that this feeling of recognition may be what engages us to be lifelong learners, beginning as little tots and continuing into old age.
One such experience came for me around that very word: recognition. At the end of a long research project, I was buried in the life stories of young adults who had shaped their lives despite overwhelming obstacles. As I pored over the mountain of data, I could easily spot the theories I was looking for – but I sensed that something important eluded my well-trained eye. As my curiosity deepened, I let go of my preconceived notions, and a hazy, but still unclear, picture began to emerge.
At that point, I shared my dilemma with a friend and colleague who helped me to bring that picture into focus. We brought our different perspectives and experiences to the conversation and soon re-cognized that these stories pushed my research thinking toward a new, important finding in the study. We speculated that the participants managed to shape their lives when they re-cognized a unique contribution they could make to the world. I saw their stories beyond the conventional interpretations and re-cognized the theories I had studied for years just as the individuals re-cognized the person they could become. We knew again what had been there all along.
The important changes in their lives – and in my own work – weren’t the result of rewards or praise or achievements (recognition in the conventional sense). They weren’t the result of education or mentors or even good luck, though those were important. They weren’t solely the result of hard work or determination.
One young woman in the study described how she came to know herself again in just this way. “I was just doing what I had to do to get into college,” she said. “I didn’t have any role model. I didn’t have any type of guide.” But a work study job that began when she was a freshman in high school changed how she saw her place in the world. “I was placed at Municipal Court. I started being on project teams, special projects around the court. I did get more responsibilities. Me and the jury commissioner actually ran the department. And one day the jury commissioner was out and I gave the jury orientation.” She was not a very good student, had limited financial resources and little family support, but she decided that life could be different for her. She recognized a new path that led her to graduate in four years with a degree in criminal justice, and now she has a fulfilling career in the justice system.
In my ongoing research, life story after life story describes similar experiences of recognition that lead to positive life trajectories. And I have come to wonder if these stories are the key to disrupting habitual or stale ways of thinking. Do our own stories, the stories told by others and the stories we read in books help us recognize what is possible? When we alter our understanding of stories, do we recognize new ways to navigate the world? And do stories have a greater impact when we share them with others with a fresh perspective and an open mind?
If I hadn’t traded life stories and discussed my research with a friend, I might not have broken my set patterns of analysis and discovered a new way to recognize the data I had explored for months. The insight gave me that childlike feeling of happy satisfaction. But more importantly, it brought new depth and theoretical understanding of the work I do in the field. In our product-driven efforts to get the job done, perhaps we need to take time to listen to and discuss the stories that surround us in order to recognize our work and each other in new ways – and to illuminate the path of lifelong learning.
Image: Edvard Munch, Moon Light, 1895, National Gallery, Oslo, Norway, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org