I firmly believe in experiential learning.
At its best, it takes the power of experience, which separates you from the familiar and places you somewhere else so that you may access new possibilities, but also gives you the framework to see them.
The experience is the content itself. The priming and training at the beginning, and the action plan at the end are the context.
When experience and more structured learning come together, they bring knowledge we couldn’t find anywhere else or in any other way into sharp relief. They pave the way for revelation.
I didn’t truly have the words to articulate this idea — one that literally guides most of my decisions — until I met Rich Johnson and Ryan Jeffery at Ignite. They have built an organization that develops immersive experiences in Chicago and around the world to promote community engagement, connection, and growth.
They’re two people who really understand the idea John McPhee describes in Draft №4:
“You will never land smoothly on borrowed vividness.”
We can’t learn the truth of the world around us or ourselves without living inside of experience. This was the undercurrent beneath all our conversations, but there was another idea at play, too. Not every experience is life-changing, even the ones that are meant to be.
Organically, life-changing experiences take place. But what if we could bring more of them to life and understand them more deeply when we do?
That’s what we set out to do with our Inclusion-focused Chicago program. We would take the experiences Rich and Ryan create to open minds and connect people, but introduce very intentional and specific tools at the same time to encourage new ways of seeing and understanding.
I think about the environments we’re developing together through the analogy of learning a new language.
After early childhood, we don’t pick up language so easily or naturally. I can hop on a plane to Japan right now with the intention of immersing myself in the language and culture. That doesn’t mean I will come back speaking Japanese or knowing much about the people or customs.
To learn the language, I need some basic context and some tools, instead of just relying on what I pick up from others. Tim Ferriss, master language-learner and fluent Japanese-speaker, recommends memorizing 20% of the most commonly used Japanese words to learn the language in an immersive environment. It’s too difficult to make sense of what’s happening around you, otherwise.
Interestingly, learning the language itself is a key to learning the culture. Without the language, it’s much harder to move beyond the surface when it comes to relationships and interactions with others. It’s a pathway to mutual understanding.
On the flip side, it’s really hard to master the Japanese language without going to Japan and speaking with natives and even harder to get a feel for the culture.
When we were designing the Chicago immersion experience, we were thinking about this interconnection carefully, especially in terms of the priming tools and skills participants would need to really get the most out of their time with us.
Practically speaking, just any sort of priming isn’t enough. Learning Chinese to understand Japanese most likely won’t be helpful. We must build the skills that will help us get the most out of an experience.
For example, we wanted to give our participants a chance to meet people from different cultures and backgrounds outside of their normal sphere of experience, but we also wanted to arm them with the active listening skills they needed to see the stories within that experience instead of imposing their own ones onto it.
After all, the key to creating inclusive environments that support diversity — at work or anywhere else — is seeing others as they are and taking care to truly know them, not as one particular social identity, but as full-fledged individuals.
Ultimately, we wanted to create a frame for the experience, an opening that would provide the skills necessary for elevated learning and a closing that would produce an action plan that would take those skills and their real-life application and ensure they last into the future.
Throughout this process, I thought a lot about Anthony Bourdain. He knew that experience was a necessary part of understanding food, culture, and people, but he didn’t stop at experience. While his counterparts focused on finding the most extreme destinations or unusual hosts, Bourdain spent time intentionally priming himself with listening skills, well-designed questions, and introspective thinking frameworks.
He armed himself with an intention to learn and an openness to reflect on a singular experience in the web of many others.
He showed us this was possible, and we saw that his way was more meaningful. That’s why we watched. It’s why I still watch.
And it’s the main reason I am so excited to get to work on this new Chicago program with Ignite.
Vividness should never be borrowed. We all deserve our own worthwhile experiences. But, we owe it to ourselves to see vividness in all its complexity and hold onto it as long as we can.