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The Lifelong Learner

This description of a "lifelong learner" comes from Peter Senge's book, THE LEARNING ORGANIZATION. It is adapted to the concept of an individual, like an organization, which can constantly adjust to circumstances and achieve great successes.

How Our Actions Create Our Reality... and How We Can Change It

"...we are taught to break apart problems [this is called "analysis"]... This apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole. When we then try to "see the big picture," we try to reassemble the fragments in our minds, to list and organize all the pieces. But, as physicist David Bohm says, the task is futile -- similar to trying to reassemble the fragments of a broken mirror to see a true reflection... "The tools and ideas presented [here].. are for destroying the illusion that the world is created of separate, unrelated forces. When we give up this illusion -- we can [become a "learning person"].. continually expand[ing our] capacity to create the results [we] truly desire" (3).

People that do great things "didn't start off great -- [they] LEARNED how to produce extraordinary results" (4).

"Today, I believe, five new "component technologies" are gradually converging to innovate learning...


1. SYSTEMS THINKING. "A cloud masses, the sky darkens, leaves twist upward, and we know that it will rain. We also know that after the storm, the runoff will feed into groundwater miles away, and the sky will grow clear by tomorrow. All these events are distant in time and space, and yet they are all connected within the same pattern. Each has an influence on the rest, an influence that is usually hidden from view. You can only understand the system of a rainstorm by contemplating the whole, not any individual part of the pattern" (6-7).

People and "human endeavors are also systems. They, too, are bound by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions, which often take years to fully play out their effects on each other. Since we are part of that lacework ourselves, it's doubly hard to see the whole pattern of change. Instead, we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get solved.

"System thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that has been developed over the past fifty years, to make the full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them effectively" (7).


2. PERSONAL MASTERY. "Mastery might suggest gaining dominance over people or things. But mastery can also mean a special level of proficiency. A master craftsman doesn't dominate pottery or weaving. People with a high level of personal mastery are able to consistently realize the results that matter most deeply to them--in effect, they approach their life as an artist would approach a work of art. They do that by becoming committed to their own lifelong learning.

"Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively" (7).

"..surprisingly few adults work to rigorously develop their own personal mastery...

"The discipline of personal mastery... starts with clarifying the things that really matter to us.." (8).


3. MENTAL MODELS. ""Mental models" are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action" (8).

[Another term for this is "paradigms."]

"Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior... Mental models of what can or cannot be done.. are no less deeply entrenched...

".. they discovered how pervasive was the influence of hidden mental models, especially those that become widely shared" (8).

"The discipline of working with mental models starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny. It also includes the ability to carry on "learningful" conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others" (9).


4. BUILDING SHARED VISION. "One is hard pressed to think of any organization [or team or group] that has sustained some measure of greatness in the absence of goals, values, and missions that become deeply shared... [They] bind people together around a common identity and sense of destiny.

"When there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-too-familiar "vision statement"), people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to" (9).


5. TEAM LEARNING. "How can a team of committed managers with individual IQs above 120 have a collective IQ of 63? The discipline of team learning confronts this paradox. We know that teams can learn; in sports, in the performing arts, in science, and even, occasionally, in business, there are striking examples where the intellignece of the team exceeds the intelligence of the individuals in the team, and where teams develop extraordinary capacities for coordinated action. When teams are truly learning, not only are they producing extraordinary results but the individual members are growing more rapidly than could have occurred otherwise.

"The discipline of team learning starts with "dialogue," the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine "thinking together." To the Greeks dia-logos meant a free-flowing of meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually" (10).

"The discipline of dialogue also involves learning how to recognize the patterns of interaction in teams that undermine learning. The patterns of defensiveness are often deeply engrained in how a team operates. If unrecognized, they undermine learning. If recognized and surface creatively, they can actually accelerate learning.

"Team learning is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations. This is where "the rubber meets the road"; unless teams can learn, the organization cannot learn" (10).

"To practice a discipline is to be a lifelong learner. You "never arrive"... the five learning disciplines.. are "personal" disciplines. Each has to do with how we think, what we truly want, and how we interact and learn with one another. In this sense, they are more like artistic disciplines.." (11).

"It is vital that the five disciplines develop as an ensemble... This is why systems thinking is the fifth discipline" (12).

" without systems thinking ends up painting lovely pictures of the future with no deep understanding of the forces that must be mastered to move from here to there" (12).

"At the heart of [lifelong learning] is a shift of mind -- from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world, from seeing problems as caused by someone or something "out there" to seeing how our own actions create the problems we experience. [A lifelong learner is] continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it" (13).

Metanoia is an awakening, a fundamental shift or change of the mind, a transcendence.

"The word is "metanoia" and it means a shift in mind. The word has a rich history. For the Greeks, it meant a fundamental shift or change, or more literally transcendence ("meta" --above or beyond, as in "metaphysics") of mind ("noia," from the root "nous," of mind). In the early (Gnostic) Christian tradition, it took on a special meaning of awakening shared intuition and direct knowing of the highest, of God. "Metanoia" was probably the key term of such early Christians as John the Baptist. In the Catholic corpus the word metanoia was eventually translated as "repent"" (Senge 13).

"To grasp the meaning of "metanoia" is to grasp the deeper meaning of "learning," for learning also involves a fundamental shift or movement of the mind" (Senge 13).

"The problem [is that] "learning" has lost its central meaning in contemporary usage. Most people's eyes glaze over if you talk to them about "learning".. Little wonder -- for, in everyday use, learning has come to be synonymous with "taking in information."

""Yes, I learned all about that at the course yesterday." Yet, taking in information is only distantly related to real learning. It would be nonsensical to say, "I just read a great book about bicycle riding--I've now learned that"" (Senge 13).

"Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create..." (Senge 14). The basic meaning of the "learning person" or the "educated person" is that they are continually expanding their capacity to create their future.

Do You Have a Learning Disability?

Most people "cannot recognize impending threats, understand the implications of those threats, or come up with alternatives" (17).

This indicates an underlying affliction that causes mediocrity to be taken for excellence.

It is no accident that people learn poorly. "...the way we have all been taught to think and interact.. create fundamental learning disabilities" (18). There are seven of these fundamental learning disabilities. Here they are:



"When asked what they do for a living, most people describe the tasks they perform every day, not the PURPOSE of the greater enterprise in which they take part" (18).

"Recently, managers from a Detroit auto maker told me of stripping down a Japanese import to understand why the Japanese were able to achieve extraordinary precision and reliability at lower cost on a particular assembly process. They found the same standard type of bolt used three times on the engine block. Each time it mounted a different type of component. On the American car, the same assembly required three different bolts, which required three different wrenches, and three different inventories of bolts -- making the car much slower and more costly to assemble. Why did the Americans use three separate bolts? Because the design organization in Detroit had three groups of engineers, each responsible for "their component only." The Japanese had one designer responsible for the entire engine mounting, and probably much more. The irony is that each of the three groups of American engineers considered their work successful because THEIR bolt and assembly worked just fine" (18-19).

"When people in organizations focus only on their position, they have little sense of responsibility for the results produced when all position interact. Moreover, when results are disappointing, it can be very difficult to know why" (19).



"A friend once told the story of a boy he coached in Little League, who after dropping three fly balls in right field, threw down his glove and marched into the dugout. "No one can catch a ball in that darn field," he said. "There is in each of us a propensity to find someone or something outside ourselves to blame when things go wrong...

"The "enemy is out there" syndrome is actually a by-product of "I am my position," and the nonsystemic ways of looking at the world that it fosters. When we focus only on our position, we do not see how our own actions extend beyond the boundary of that position. When those actions have consequences that come back to hurt us, we misperceive these new problems as externally caused" (19).

""Out there" and "in here" are usually part of a single system. This learning disability makes it almost impossible to detect the leverage which we can use "in here" on problems that straddle the boundary between us and "out there"" (20).



"All too often, "proactiveness" is reactiveness in disguise.. fighting the "enemy out there.".. True proactiveness comes from seeing how we contribute to our own problems" (21).



"We are conditioned to see life as a series of events, and for every event, we think there is one obvious cause... Focusing on events leads to "even" explanations: "The Dow Jones average dropped sixteen points today," announces the newspaper, "because low fourth-quarter profits were announced yesterday." Such explanations.. distract us from seeing the longer-term patterns of change that lie behind the events and from understanding the causes of those patterns.

"Our fixation on events is actually part of our evolutionary programming. If you wanted to design a cave person for survival, ability to contemplate the cosmos would not be a high-ranking design criterion. What IS important is the ability to see the saber-toothed tiger over your left shoulder and react quickly. The irony is that, TODAY, the primary threats to our survival, both of our[selves] and of our societies, come not from sudden events but from slow, gradual processes; the arms race, environmental decay, the erosion of a society's public education system, increasingly obsolete physical capital, and decline in design or product quality..." (22).

Innovative and systems thinking needed by the lifelong learner cannot be sustained if thinking is dominated by short-term events.



"Maladaptation to gradually building threats to survival is so pervasive in systems studies of corporate failure that it has given rise to the parable of the "boiled frog."

"If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately try to scramble out. But if you place the frog in room temperature water, and don't scare him, he'll stay put. Now, if the pot sits on a heat source, and if you gradually turn up the temperature, something very interesting happens. As the temperature rises from 70 to 80 degrees F., the frog will do nothing. In fact, he will show every sign of enjoying himself. As the temperature gradually increases, the frog will become groggier and groggier, until he is unable to climb out of the pot. Though there is nothing restraining him, the frog will sit there and boil. Why? Because the frog's internal apparatus for sensing threats to survival is geared to sudden changes in his environment, not to slow, gradual changes" (22).



"The most powerful learning comes from direct experience... through taking an action and seeing the consequences of that action; then taking a new and different action. But, what happens when we can no longer observe the consequences of our actions? What happens if the primary consequences of our actions are in the distant future or in a distant part of the larger system within which we operate?

"Herein lies the CORE LEARNING DILEMMA that confronts [us]: we learn best from experience but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions" (23).

"The most critical decisions made in organizations [and society] have systemwide consequences that stretch over years or decades... [for instance,] promoting the right people into leadership positions... These are exactly the types of decisions where there is the least opportunity for trial and error learning" (23).



"All too often, teams.. tend to spend their time fighting for turf, avoiding anything that will make them look bad personally, and pretending that everyone is behind the team's collective strategy -- maintaining the APPEARANCE of a cohesive team. To keep up the image, they seek to squelch disagreement...

"..most managers find collective inquiry inherently threatening... (When was the last time someone was rewarded in your organization for raising difficult questions about the company's current policies rather than solving urgent problems?)" (24-25).

Prisoners of the system?... Or, Prisoners of Our Own Thinking?

This chapter contains "the Beer Game." It focuses on inventory control, and how things can get really OUT of control no matter how hard you try. The following lessons are drawn:

1. Structure influences behavior (systems cause their own crises)

2. Structure in human systems is subtle

3. Leverage often comes from new ways of thinking


Structure Influences Behavior

This is the first principle of systems thinking: STRUCTURE INFLUENCES BEHAVIOR.

"When placed in the same system, people, however different, tend to produce similar results.

[This reminds me of an article I read entitled "When you reward them for B, Don't get mad because they don't do A"]

"The systems perspective tells us that we must look beyond individual mistakes or bad luck to understand important problems" (42).

"We must look into the underlying structures which shape individual actions and create the conditions where types of events become likely" (43).

"The nature of structure in human systems is subtle because WE are part of the structure. This means that we often have the power to alter structures within which we are operating" (44).


"..success is possible. But it requires a shift of view for most players.

"What is required is to see how their position interacts with the larger system" (48).

"To improve performance in the beer game players must redefine their scope of influence" (49).

"There are two key guidelines:

"First, keep in mind.. the "Take two aspirin and wait" rule. If you have a headache and need to take aspirin, you don't keep taking aspirin every five minutes until your headache goes away...

"Second, don't panic" (50-51).

"Event explanations -- "who did what to whom" -- doom their holders to a reactive stance... event explanations are the most common in contemporary culture, and that is exactly why reactive management prevails...

"Patten of behavior explanations focus on seeing longer-term trends and assessing their implications... they suggest how, over a longer term, we can RESPOND to shifting trends" (52).

"The third level of explanation, the "structural" explanation, is the least common and most powerful. It focuses on answering the question, "What causes the patterns of behavior?"

"The reason that structural explanations are so important is that only they address the underlying causes of behavior at a level that patterns of behavior CAN BE CHANGED.

"Structure produces behavior, and changing underlying structures can produce different patterns of behavior. In this sense, structural explanations are inherently GENERATIVE" (53).

The Laws of the Fifth Discipline

1. Today's problems come from yesterday's "solutions."

"Often we are puzzled by the causes of our problems; when we merely need to look at our own solutions to other problems in the past" (57).

"Police enforcement officers will recognize their own version of this law: arresting narcotics dealers on Thirtieth Street, they find that they have simply transferred the crime center to Fortieth Street. Or, even more insidiously, they learn that a new citywide outbreak of drug-related crime is the result of federal officials intercepting a large shipment of narcotics -- which reduced the drug supply, drove up the price, and caused more crime by addicts desperate to maintain their habit.

"Solutions that merely shift problems from one part of a system to another often go undetected because.. those who "solved" the first problem are different from those who inherit the new problem" (58).  

2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.

"Systems thinking has a name for this phenomenon: "Compensating feedback"" (58).

"Examples of compensating feedback are legion. Many of the best intentioned government interventions fall prey to compensating feedback. In the 1960s there were massive programs to build low-income housing and improve job skills in decrepit inner cities in the United States. Many of these cities were even worse off in the 1970s despite the largesse of government aid. Why? One reason was that low-income people migrated from other cities and from rural areas to those cities with the best aid programs. Eventually, the new housing units became overcrowded and the job training programs were swamped with applicants. All the while, the city's tax base continued to erode, leaving more people trapped in economically depressed areas" (58-59).


3. Behavior grows better before it grows worse.

"..many..low-leverage interventions.. actually work, in the short term... Compensating feedback usually involves a "delay," a time lag between the short-term benefit and the long-term disbenefit...

"The better before worse response to many management interventions is what makes political decision making so counterproductive. By "political decision making," I mean situations where factors other than the intrinsic merits of alternative courses of action weigh in making decisions -- factors such as building one's own power base, or "looking good," or "pleasing the boss." In complex human systems, there are always many ways to make things look better in the short run. Only eventually does the compensating feedback come back to haunt you" (60).


4. The easy way out usually leads back in.

"...if the solution were easy to see or obvious to everyone, it probably would already have been found. Pushing harder and harder on familiar solutions, while fundamental problems persist or worsen, is a reliable indicator of nonsystemic thinking -- what we often call the "what we need here is a bigger hammer" syndrome" (61).


5. The cure can be worse than the disease.

"Sometimes the easy or familiar solution is not only ineffective; sometimes it is addictive and dangerous. Alcoholism, for instance, may start as.. a solution to the problem of low self-esteem or work-related stress...

"The long-term, most insidious consequence of applying nonsystemic solutions is increased need for more and more of the solution. This is why ill-conceived government interventions are not just ineffective, they are "addictive" in the sense of fostering increased dependency and lessened abilities of local people to solve their own problems. The phenomenon of short-term improvements leading to long-term dependency is so common, it has its own name in system thinking -- it's called "Shifting the Burden to the Intervenor"" (61).

"In [organizations], we can shift the burden to consultants or other "helpers" who make the company dependent on them, instead of training the client managers to solve problems themselves" (62).


6. Faster is slower.

"...all natural systems... have intrinsically optimal rates of growth. The optimal rate is far less than the fastest possible growth. When growth become excessive -- as it does in cancer -- the system itself will seek to compensate by slowing down...

"...characteristics of complex systems... Lewis Thomas has observed, "When you are dealing with a complex social system.. you cannot just step in and set about fixing with much hope of helping"" (62).


7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.

"Underlying all of the above problems is a fundamental characteristic of complex human systems: "cause" and "effect" are not close in time and space. By "effects," I mean the obvious symptoms that indicate that there are problems -- drug abuse, unemployment, starving children, falling orders, and sagging profits. By "cause" I mean the interaction of the underlying system that is most responsible for generating the symptoms, and which, if recognized, could lead to changes producing lasting improvement. Why is this a problem? Because most of us assume they ARE -- most of us assume, most of the time, that cause and effect ARE close in time and space" (63).


8. Small changes can produce big results -- but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.

"The.. problem is that high-leverage changes are usually higly NONOBVIOUS to most participants in the system...

"There are no simple rules for finding high-leverage changes, but there are ways of thinking that make it more likely. Learning to see underlying "structures" rather than "events" is a starting point; each of the "systems archetypes" developed below suggests areas of high- and low-leverage change.

"Thinking in terms of processes of change rather than "snapshots" is another" (64-65).


9. You CAN have your cake and eat it too -- but not at once.

"Sometimes, the knottiest dilemmas, when seen from the systems point of view, aren't dilemmas at all. They are artifacts of "snapshot" rather than "process" thinking, and appear in a whole new light once you think consciously of change over time.

"For years, for example, American manufacturers thought they had to choose between low cost and high quality... They didn't realize that they could have both goals, if they were willing to wait for one while they focused on the other. Investing time and money to develop new skills and methods of assembly.. for improving quality, is an up front "cost"" (65).

"Many apparent dilemmas, such as central versus local control.. only appear as rigid "either-or" choices, because we think of what is possible at a fixed point in time. Next mont, it may be true that we must choose one or the other, but the real leverage lies in seeing how both can improve over time" (66).


10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.

"Living systems have integrity. Their character depends on the whole. The same is true for organizations; to understand the most challenging managerial issues requires seeing the whole system that generates the issues" (66).

"Many European cities [for instance] have avoided the problems of crime, entrenched poverty, and helplessness that afflict so many American inner cities because they have forced themselves to face the balances that a healthy urban area must maintain. One way they have done this is by maintaining large "green belts" around the city that discourage the growth of subrubs and commuters who work in the city but live outside it" (66-67).


11. There is no blame.

"We tend to blame outside circumstances for our problems... Systems thinking shows us that there is no outside; that you and the cause of your problems are part of a single system. The cure lies in your relationship with your "enemy"" (67).

A Shift of Mind

"..the unhealthiness of our world today is in direct proportion to our inability to see it as a whole" (68).

"...organizations break down.. because they are unable to pull their diverse functions and talents into a productive whole" (69).

"There is no more poignant example of the need for systems thinking than the US-USSR arms race. While the world has stood and watched for the past forty years, the two mightiest political powers have engaged in a race to see who could get fastest to where no one wanted to go...

"The systems view of the arms race shows a perpetual cycle of aggression... Both sides respond to a perceived threat. But their actions end up creating the opposite outcome, increased threat, in the long run. Here, as in many systems, doing the obvious thing does not produce the obvious, desired outcome. The long-term result of each side's efforts to be more secure is heaghtened insecurity for all, with a combined nuclear stockpile of ten thousand times the total firepower of World War II" (71).

The underlying problem is that there are two types of complexity, and only one type is typically addressed in planning.

1. DETAIL COMPLEXITY is complexity resulting from there being many variables. This is what we typically address in planning.

2. DYNAMIC COMPLEXITY comes in "situations where cause and effect are subtle, and where the effects over time of interventions are not obvious. Conventional forecasting, planning, and analysis methods are not equipped to deal with dynamic complexity.

"When the same action has dramatically different effects in the short run and the long, there is dynamic complexity. When an action has one set of consequences locally and a very different set of consequences in another part of the system, there is dynamic complexity. When obvious interventions produce nonobvious consequences, there is dynamic complexity" (71).

"The real leverage in most management situations lies in understanding dynamic complexity, not detail complexity" (72).

"The essence of the discipline of systems thinking lies in a shift of mind:

  • seeing interrelationships rather than linear cause-effect chains

  • seeing processes of change rather than snapshots

"The practice of systems thinking starts with understanding a simple concept called "FEEDBACK" that shows how actions can reinforce or counteract (balance) each other. It builds to learning to recognize types of "structures" that recur again and again: the arms race is a generic or archetypal pattern of escalation, at its heart no different from turf warfare between two street gangs, the demise of a marriage, or the advertising battles of two consumer goods gomapnies fighting for market share... systems thinking.. simplifies life by helping us see the deeper patterns lying behind the events and the details" (73).

"Systems thinking.. means organizing complexity into a coherent story that illuminates the causes of problems and how they can be remedied in enduring ways... many managers.. assume that they lack information they need to act effectively. I would suggest that the fundamental "information problem" faced by managers is not too little information but too much information. What we most need are ways to know what is important and what is not important.." (128).

NEXT: Requirements for Effective Learning

Works Cited

Senge, Peter M. THE FIFTH DISCIPLINE: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. NY: Doubleday, 1990. ISBN 0-385-26094-6.

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Please send comments to: Colby Glass, MLIS

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