Good evening, I hope you are well and warm.  I feel like the weather has played a miserable trick on me, with the recent 60 degrees dropping back down and making today’s 22 seem colder than last week’s -7.  So it’s definitely still January-not just because of the weather, but because New Year’s resolutions haven’t disappeared yet.

This week’s New Yorker has a pretty lengthy article called “Resolutions: What if self-improvement is making us worse?” <>   The whole idea of self-help is something I got really interested in when I was working on my doctorate-as a result, I have spent a lot of time in thrift stores, where the greatest variety of self-help guides is to be found.  Much of the self-help genre is based on this idea that someone has figured out how to lose weight/be creative/find happiness/succeed professionally, and this person is going to share the fruits of his or her wisdom with you, and if you too do what he or she did/does, then you too will lose weight/ make more money/find the answer to life, the universe and everything.

What I don’t want to fall into here is the trap of being disparaging about the self-help movement-and there always seems to be a tinge of that, in both the New Yorker article and another similar one in New York Magazine from a couple of years ago: “The power of positive publishing: How self-help ate America” <> .  Unabashedly pejorative, no?  But what is education, after all, if not self-improvement?  Who are we to look down on others for wanting to become better in some way? Especially when the superciliousness seems tinged with sexism-all those business books sold at airports apparently don’t count as self-help, even though that’s exactly what they are.

Rather, what I want to focus on is this: what I was discovering in my own research was that we, as a general trait of being human, are pretty terrible at learning from other people’s experiences.  We enjoy reading about them, we often find them inspirational, but we are rarely able or willing to change our own behavior as a result.  Which, from a psychological perspective, makes perfect sense.  Our mind, and our sense of self, are a linked but not always coherent set of mental models coalesced from everything that has happened to us. This is not something that we can replace with something we read in a book-at least, very rarely.  There are plenty of books I would consider mind-changing, but not necessarily life-changing.  Ironically, I already knew that, but the experience of interviewing subjects for my dissertation made me doubt the story I told myself about how much I learn from reading, and re-evaluate the role of my experience in shaping what I believe, what I know, and what I do.

There are several different directions I could take this, and I hope to get to them all eventually, but I’m going to start with coaching.  There is a reason why coaches avoid telling stories about their own experiences, or telling you what to do.  It’s because there is a pretty low ceiling to its utility.  Coaching is about opening up options, getting you to think about what is possible, and lowering barriers to experimentation.   Life is an action research project, and there is a limit to what you can learn from listening to someone else’s.  Coaching is about helping people figure out what to try next, and how to capture the learning that results.

Let me know how I can help, and if you have any feedback on this or any other Coaching Letter.  Thanks.

Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Program Coordinator
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106
Office: 860.586.2340

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