Group of young professionals looking at a white board.

Define Your Path

Learning from the World Around You

Three professionals converse in a meeting.

Thomas Carlyle says, "Every man is my superior in that I may learn from him." This is a very powerful statement provided we give ourself the opportunity to follow through on the learning aspect of Carlyle’s intent. All of us have experienced a problem or situation of which we had no mastery of the skills required to drive it to completion. Confronted with this situation, we have one of two options: gain the mastery required or allow another to take control and assist. The former may take more time than realistically available; the later requires one to take a back seat to the situation at hand. However, admitting not knowing everything is the first step to true learning. I think about an experience in my life. The effective use of Excel comes to mind! I could struggle through the help functionality screens or simply find/ask the resident expert in my group. The former is much like playing the lottery, the latter is far easier. This resident expert now serves as my superior and allows me the opportunity to learn.

As young aspiring students we looked to our teachers, the resident experts, to impart their knowledge and in the end test our competency. As we advanced in our studies we began to specialize in an area of interest. This two edge sword gave us the freedom to become experts in one area but also limited our breadth of knowledge in other areas. One may ask — Is this a bad thing?

In today’s complex business and technological environments the answer must be a resounding no! Today’s organization is a puzzle of sorts, requiring various interlocking pieces to complete the task at hand. Various experts compile their collective areas of expertise to transform inputs into outputs (deliverables). As the various parts of the organization come together all players take on the role of superior at some point in time. As the process moves forward there are ample opportunities for learning. Small bits of knowledge flow freely, ready for the taking. Like a sponge taking up water, learning consumes knowledge.

The need to globalize is a business priority. Even though a business plan may be centrally formulated, the need to execute this plan requires participation from a community. Today this community extends far beyond our borders to places we can barely pronounce and people we have yet to meet in person. However, if we remain humble and show a bit of respect we can meet our objectives and more importantly learn at the same time. It is acceptable to say, “I don’t know, please show me.” This is not a sign of weakness but one of open mindedness!

You see Carlyle’s concept is one of give and take between various individuals. Each of us is superior in many ways. How we use these gifts whether inherent in our genetic fabric or learned drives human progress and benefits society at large. As you search for solutions to various problems whether of a personal or professional nature you must keep in mind that you will find golden nuggets of knowledge in the most unlikely places. All individuals should be given the chance to participate and show their superiority. The best results are normally not evident at the onset of the march to a solution. Allowing others with a better knowledge the opportunity to take control is in itself learning!

So keep an open mind and a humble spirit in both your professional and personal worlds. You will be astonished at how much you can teach others and more importantly how much you can learn from others!

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About the Author

Pete Papantos is an operations director at a Fortune 500 company. He is responsible for the global execution of their strategic plan and driving operational excellence using lean methods. In addition, Pete is a graduate instructor with emphasis in operations and strategic management — both in traditional and online settings.