Monday, March 28, 2011

Learning, and the opportunity and risk of living publicly

We are in the age of living publicly.

Social media has enabled us to broadcast and publish our work, our thoughts, our pictures, and our "updates" not just to people we know, but to the entire world. This brings with it an enormous opportunity and also tremendous risk, sometimes at the same time.

Take, for example, Rebecca Black.

If you haven't yet seen the Friday video by Rebecca Black, or heard all of the news stories about her and the video, take a minute and watch it now.

Its not a good song or video (although I would bet you money you'll find yourself singing the catchy hook later today) fact, its pretty awful. BUT SHE'S 13. I never fancied myself a musician, but I did think I was a pretty fantastic writer when I was a teenager. When I look back on what I wrote? Wow, I was terrible. I'm thankful that all of my writing was confined to spiral notebooks and the broadest audience was my friends and family who encouraged me to keep writing, but never gave me false praise or soul-crushing criticism. I was allowed to practice and improve, and in some cases, realize that I wasn't all that good and I didn't have the passion to work harder to become good.

That's the beauty of learning. To really learn something, to become an expert, you have to practice. You have to have a safe place to try and experiment and fail and improve and stick with it and, eventually, get better. Becoming really good at something requires dedication and practice. Sure, some people start out with natural abilities or inclinations that might make learning something easier. But there are very few things that you can't learn and be really good at if you keep practicing.

Rebecca Black may have never become a great singer, songwriter, or musician. Maybe she would have (maybe she still will). But what impact has the public lambasting of her video had on her learning, her motivation, and her development?

Criticism is hard to hear. None of us really like to hear that we're bad at something...we thrive in environments where we get positive reinforcement. On the other hand, constructive feedback is necessary if we want to get better at something.

We live in an age that allows us to get instant, unfiltered feedback on anything that we do. It may be a realistic environment, but it can be hostile and often not constructive. Now, more than ever, we need the ability to practice, to find opportunities for constructive criticism in safe environments, and to refine and hone our skills before we put ourselves out in the public eye.

In learning terms, this means that coaching, mentoring, and communities of practice will play increasingly critical roles in our development. It means that immersive and experiential learning environments will become those safe havens where we can practice safely before we're ready for prime time. It means that we all need to develop the ability to manage our public versus private identities in ways that we haven't had to even think about in the past.

I hope Rebecca Black has a long, happy, and successful life in whatever she decides to pursue. At 13, she has learned, and illustrated to many, the power of social media. But with great power comes great responsibility...and we all need to be taking (and teaching) responsibility to ensure that the opportunities afforded by social media outweigh the risks. 

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