In 1994 I found a letter in my office mailbox. It closed with, your services are no longer required. I panicked, hearing "Would you like fries with that?" as my new strategic plan. It turned out to be the best career move of my life. In fact, I hope you get fired immediately.
I found work -- actually, it found me -- soon after. As part of a White House initiative to provide HIV/AIDS awareness training for federal employees, I delivered 30 half-day sessions over several months. I fell into the role easily as I'd been a classroom teacher in the 70s and I knew how to teach.
Then the initiative collapsed. A few days later, my phone rang. It was one of my contacts from the sessions. Could I provide team-building training for a group of managers? I said, "Of course." The contractor didn't ask if I had actually done any team-building training.
I threw together as many activities as I could think of, some borrowed, some invented. They asked me to take the session on the road to their 10 regional offices. I wound up working with more than 400 people.
It wasn't until later that I realized what made the training so successful. Yes, I'd been a well-credentialed English teacher. Yes, I'd taught sailing, with years of experience and papers to prove it. Yes, I'd given guitar lessons after playing for 20 years. But my team-building training was a big hit because I knew nothing of the subject.
It was a revelation. I'd never thought of learning that way before. Since my knowledge (or lack thereof) was no longer a factor, I could design my work from the participants' end. I considered all the training I'd had done to me. Most involved sitting in rows, listening to someone read words projected on a screen -- since dubbed Death by Slide -- followed by the obligatory evaluation form. The presenter was the expert, knew all the basics about eye contact, voice modulation, injecting humor, blah, blah, blah, and was interchangeable with numerous professionally dressed clones.
Their expertise effectively stood in the way of my taking any responsibility for my learning. Maybe knowing how to teach was the problem. What if I abandoned, "I'm the teacher"? It made such intuitive sense that I couldn't deny it. Now all I had to do was apply that concept to my work. I also had to do it in such a way that I could pay my bills.
I kept working and re-working the sessions I delivered, never doing them the same way twice, often making changes during breaks. I would tell my audience what I was doing and why. Their handouts would no longer match the presentation, and they loved it, in spite of the warnings of some of my fellow trainers. I started questioning and breaking rule after rule about instruction.
I found my work more and more exciting. My business card said training , but the whole concept of "training" bothered me. It didn't fit what I was doing. I needed to do some research. So I went to the beach.