What Michelangelo Taught Me About Learning & Development

I visited Florence, Italy this past September. Seeing the unfinished statues by Michelangelo was one of the highlights. He called them “Prisoners” because they were unfinished, unrealized. Some people think that Michelangelo deliberately left them incomplete to represent the eternal struggle of human beings to free themselves as they discover more about themselves and who they want to become.

I thought about the people I’ve worked with over the years who have left companies, mostly in search of opportunities to learn more about themselves — opportunities no longer available at their current jobs. I also thought about those people who are still working at a company, but have essentially “left” because they stopped growing and learning. They have become prisoners within their own system.

What if we think about learning as sculpting — the sculpting of new and better versions of ourselves? Then our day-to-day activities could become learning opportunities that help us chip away at the raw stone that contains our hidden potential.

If we view work as a daily opportunity for self-development, we will develop great leaders, organizations, and ultimately, great people. We can make this happen by shifting our context of work. This means intentionally finding opportunities to be a better listener, being open to feedback, being more present in 1:1s, and asking better questions. It’s learning how to focus on the important stuff at work vs. the crap that pulls us into the same old patterns and routines until we burn out and decide that we need something else — and that something else usually includes the next job.

The moments when our buttons get pushed, the flaming emails we get at 11 PM, the times when we find ourselves repeating the same thing that we did in last week’s meeting — these are the times when we can either react or we let them shape us to become better and more effective the next time.

I’ll share one of those “shaping moments” for me. After a particularly intense cross-functional meeting, one of my colleagues wanted to talk with me. When he said, “I’d like to give you some feedback,” I knew this was an opportunity.

I could shift how I listened and how I was in that meeting, ultimately creating a different outcome.

He shared his perspective. He asked me to understand more about why he’s doing what he’s doing even if I didn’t agree with it. Instead of coming up with a counter-argument for each of his points, I listened, asked questions, and really tried to understand where he was coming from. It worked. He noticed. Then, magically, he shifted. He started talking about my perspective and how frustrated I must be. We both agreed to a new set of objectives and also a cadence of when to check in with each other on the project. Not only did we create a more effective way to work together, we also established more trust with each other. This is what everyday learning is all about. I used a challenging situation to practice being a better listener, being more open to another point of view, and to gain a better understanding of how I’m being perceived.

If we start to intentionally and courageously look for ways to learn more in meetings, in 1:1s, and in those situations that we know will not be easy, we can start becoming more like the leaders and people we want to become.

Our job is to chip away and leverage opportunities so that we never become prisoners within a system, trapped in a block of stone. Rather, we can use our work experiences to help us chip away and find opportunities to become ideal versions of ourselves. If we do this as a daily, conscious habit, we will become better spouses, better friends, better executives and better people.

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

-Michelangelo

I’d love to hear how you’re turning challenging moments at work into learning opportunities. What did you learn and how has that helped shape you?

Let’s tweet about it. #learnthruwork

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