Since People Don’t Learn (very easily), We Need Lots of Kitchen Table Conversations (Insight from Margaret Heffernan and Amanda Ripley)

So, here’s a problem.

We know some of our problems, big problems… but we have not solved them.

This is true for our country; our companies and organizations, and our own lives. We – I – you – have not learned and changed in the ways we could.

I have recently revisited what I now call an essential book, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, by Margaret Heffernan. This time, one short line jumped out at me… It’s worth a good long stare and ponder:Willful Blindness

“Do people learn? People don’t.”

That’s just disturbing, isn’t it? People don’t learn…

Now, in one sense, she is wrong. Of course, we learn… The number of lessons, and new practices, people have learned over the course of my lifetime is breathtaking. Take this simple one: a heart attack is now treated vastly differently than it was in the 1950s. Immediate medical attention; paramedics and emergency personnel knowing what to do… The change has saved countless lives. Our entire medical community has learned this essential new approach to heart attacks.

We could make a very long list of such advances.

But, on the other hand… in Willful Blindness, Ms. Heffernan documents how hard it is to get from here to there. In one story (she includes a number of such stories), she recounts the resistance doctors put up to the finding that X-rays could be harmful to unborn children. When X-rays came along, it became routine to X-ray pregnant women. This proved to be a very, very bad idea. And yet, the heroine of this story, Alice Stewart, who clearly demonstrated that X-raying pregnant women caused leukemia in a frightening percentage of the children born after such X-rays, was resisted, ridiculed… People were so very slow to learn.

So, maybe we could put it this way. (Borrowing from a thought in the book The Second Machine Age about technological advancement), we learn very, very, very slowly – and then, all at once.

Smartest KidsIn reading the smartest kids in the world by Amanda Ripley, I read this (notice the part in bold, and then underlined):

History shows us that great leaders matter, and so does luck. Politics are critical, as is power. All major shifts, though, also require a feeling that spreads among people like a whispered oath, kitchen table by kitchen table, until enough of them agree that something must be done.

In other words, when it becomes no longer “acceptable” across the kitchen tables to have not learned and changed, then we learn and change.

So, take a look at your life. Take a look at your company or organization. Let’s take a look at our country.

What have we not learned?

Maybe we need some kitchen table conversations – lots and lots of them.


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