Grateful Wayfinding: The Gratitude Connection

Recap by Harry Waldron:

“Don shares the challenges that professionals face in acquiring wisdom and improving their leadership skills.  As illustrated through teaching day verses night classes, maturity and experience make a difference in receptivity for new ways of leading others.  For example, a new manager may follow existing patterns and traditions so they fit into the system well, just like day students clock into their classes each day.  However, over time professional growth take place, as leadership is more of an “art” than “science.”  That time-based maturity allows leaders to better integrate affirmation and gratitude. The sooner we “find our way home” in terms of creating better human relationships, the better for all concerned.”

No tool is omnicompetent. There is no such thing as a master-key that will unlock all doors.

– Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History

For several years I supplemented my very decent consulting income with its irregular paydays by teaching evening classes. Overall, students who also attended daytime classes were weaker than the mature students who only showed up for night school. Naturally, the day students had a better grasp of how classroom norms, assignments and testing work in today’s systems. Many had recognizable talent for mastering the courses I was teaching. But being adolescents, they entered the classroom with multiple self-limiting attitudes.

Motivation, a broad sense of purpose and persistent curiosity are more important to effective learning than familiarity with established routines. Yet boards of education discount those conclusions. Despite claims to the contrary, pro forma supersedes. Even for those university courses best suited to mid-career professionals, educational administrators prefer to appeal to younger people within the mainstream system than older students with their broader understanding of life, greater drive and grit. Teacher pay and benefits differentials reflect the official bias as do the diverging cultures of the two streams. It struck me then as it still does now, that our society, for a variety of path dependent reasons is deeply skewed in how it evaluates its investment in learning. Specifically, our culture underestimates the enormous value of gratitude in how we regard learning potential.

As the word’s Latin roots make evident, and we are constantly told, education is supposed to be about leading minds out of an undesirable state not attraction towards a more enlightened one. My adult students had obviously left their primal state of juvenile ignorance, so presumably there was nothing to lead them out of except perhaps gaps in their early learning attempts or new adjustments to changing environments. But despite the mindsets of educators, adult learners, with few exceptions, are grateful for a chance to learn. Their teachers are grateful to lead them not because of any assumed deficiency but because they can’t avoid seeing a hunger to know.

Agency, the most dynamic face of freedom, is the gift mature adults (and many underappreciated children too) grasp – the ability to learn with owned purpose: to be drawn towards something worthwhile, not merely shepherded away from intellectual stagnation or worse. Countless scholars as far back as Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th Century and earlier outliers have advocated the confident, positive mindset. The research of positive psychologist, Barbara Fredrickson emphasizes the vital importance of a future oriented growth mindset to successful learning while confirming hunches of previous pioneers. Her famous “broaden and build” advice not only augments and strengthens retention of lessons learned, but also creates self-assurance in the learner which becomes the foundation of lifelong independent thinking. The teacher who prioritizes such enabling outcomes embodies authentic grateful leadership in practice.

New discoveries in neuroscience are demonstrating how we think of ourselves as conscious actors in the theatre of self-discovery. The new models dissolve the hard boundaries, we used to take for granted. Your brain has decided the road you take or bet you place while “you” believe you’re still mulling it over. The physical landscape you travel through is somehow inexplicably integral to your thinking processes, although it’s doubtful you picture it that way anymore than you pause over how your dog knows exactly when someone’s coming home well before you do. Then there’s the “spooky” entanglements of quantum mechanics. Bottom line: the self has no discernible bottom line, or top line either. If any of the above is true, you have a strength to be profoundly grateful for. Curious? Read Michael Spivey’s Who You Are: The Science of Connectedness or Vikram Mansharamani’s Think for Yourself: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence. You’ll be surprised.

There are two sides to the flat fact we are surrounded by unknown unknowns. Being problem oriented as part of our natural preference to survive, we tend not to dwell on the recognition that some of those unknowns might stay forever unknown. Yet maybe, some of the biggest unknowns may not only be knowable but show us what is really important. Human beings are not only growth-oriented, but also blessed with a dogged optimism to keep moving until they stumble on what matters. We should remember that and be grateful for it. It too is the stuff of leadership.

Long ago (historians suggest it has something to do with agriculture) humankind decided to take a cue from the social insects and divide labor along lines of aptitude and, of course, power. The move made stationary settlements more defensible and secure. It also allowed the well-placed and clever to accumulate something we call wealth. If that was not a disturbing enough bit of foreshadowing, the new more ensconced social order also divided up the pursuit of knowing along lines more favorable to the interests of the state.

“Siloism” as we call it, is one additional side effect in the isolation of individuals according to the work they do and the peculiar things they learn so they can do it. Unfortunately, those very task divisions make it very hard to see clearly the overall purposes for doing virtually anything. To stop this, you must develop cross border understanding. In his book Range: Why generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, author David Epstein calls for breadth not just depth.

Specialization has its value, but if we want to be aware of the broad context of our lives, we must also generalize. Otherwise, the outsourcing of our thinking that Mansharamani warns about will continue to imperil us.

Cultivate the courage to be grateful for what you have learned so far and appreciate those who led you there. Otherwise you risk becoming so timid you no longer wonder whatever else may be just beyond the horizon and totally open to your already expansive understanding.


What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning Senior Vice-President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment, will help you see the possibilities.