A Living System is a Learning System

“In biology, living and learning are synonyms, indistinguishable processes that keep life growing and moving forward. A living system is a learning system.”

 – Margaret Wheatley, “Who Do We Choose to Be?”

Living and learning are synonymous. What is so powerful, so remarkable about this statement is its utter obviousness. Of course they are synonymous! You can’t live if you can’t learn. You can’t grow, you can’t fulfill, you can’t become, you can’t materialize, you can’t evolve. You can’t be.

What is so challenging, so frustrating about this statement is that we need to be reminded that it’s true. Not at the biological level, of course, but at the rational, executive-mindset level of being. We get stuck, entranced, entrenched, enchanted, enamored, beguiled, bewitched, completely consumed by what we’ve done before. And so we do it again. Even though it doesn’t work. Even though we know better. Learning something new simply overwhelms our distracted, safety seeking selves.

I am having a very hard time preparing to teach a new course this semester. I am not seeing how the pieces fit together. I am not comforted by an organizing principle. I only see fragments, ideas and concepts floating around my head. I want it to feel – to be – a replica of what I already know how to do but it can’t be that because I’ve never done it before! What’s required then, is the slow and steady discomfiting discipline of learning.

I could say, “How frustrating!”

Or, in the words of Ben Zander I could say, “How fascinating!”

“When thinking falters, a living system is at risk. If it continues unchecked, the organism dies. Think about it. Now you know what to do.”

 – Margaret Wheatley, “Who Do We Choose to Be?”

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

Before Asking Others to Change

How will you change first? How must you change first?

It’s a radical question because it puts the responsibility back on you. And few people, few leaders are willing to take that kind of responsibility.

Or ask it this way, from The Art of Possibility , “Who am I being that my player’s (my colleague’s, teammate’s, direct report’s) eyes are not shining?”

“Who am I being?” is not just a call to self-awareness but to a humility that opens you to another way of being.

And those “shining eyes”? If they are “windows to the soul” they confirm that those we are privileged to have on our team are fully with us. Even more than that, from our sincere commitment to learn those eyes shine with the anticipation of their own learning.

It is in our very nature to grow, to learn and to make more meaning.

Effective leaders make that possible because they go first.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.


Do not ask someone to be something you are unwilling to be yourself. Leadership is living your vision so completely that others cannot help but do the same.

There are easily hundreds of things I could say about the experience my family had last night. I am only going to focus on one. Consistently in my career I have seen this one quality demonstrated by a small number of leaders to great effect but never more powerfully or totally than in the language, body and presence of Ben Zander.

Mr. Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and the co-author of “the book authored by Roz Zander” (his words), The Art of Possibility. I read this book ten years ago. I have taught its principles, attempted to live its precepts, recommended it to countless individuals and groups, and referenced it in some way in every talk I have given and every class I have taught. Further to that I have watched video of Ben Zander speaking, both on Ted

and elsewhere and have become deeply familiar with his style, his stories, his patter and his expressions. Until last night I had never seen him in person and it was exhilarating.

Without overstating it it’s important to say that quite literally there was nothing he said that was new to me. I’ve been paying attention to his work for ten years and the trunk of his tree, along with all of the primary branches are almost precisely the same as when I first read and heard him. He is a living monument to the extraordinary power of redundancy done right.

And the only way to do redundancy that way and that well is by bringing an energy to it that is born of a vision so clear that he cannot help but to shout, sing, cajole, laugh, conduct, clap, dance, contort and otherwise give over his entire physical and emotional presence to the manifestation of it. That vision, simply put, is this: that we will all live from the place of possibility.

My kids were stunned by him. “What is this thing we are going to?” “Why are we doing this on a Tuesday night?” “I have homework. A LOT of homework?”

My fifteen year old: “that wasn’t so bad.” (HUGE praise!)

My nine-year old: “that was awesome.”

And while they were certainly talking in some way about his content they are really talking about the infectiousness, the piercing arrow of his energy.

For a seventy-six year old man to take an audience of that demographic range from laughter to reflection to tears, turning us into a serenading birthday choir in the early going and into a master chorale singing “Ode to Joy” in shattered phonetic German at the top of our lungs later on – all from the compelling force of his vision – is a model so profound that one is left with only one option: to do the very thing he asked of us.

To imagine what else is possible.


The Lost Years – James Michener

For anyone, especially in the immediate post-undergraduate years, who has struggled to figure it out, this one is a must. Get inspired yourself and, by all means, share it with others.

The Journey – Mary Oliver

This is the poem that changed my life. If you follow your heart’s desire the path to get there WILL NOT be easy. Which is precisely how you know you are on the right path.

Kenyon College Commencement Address – David Foster Wallace

What if we stopped and considered that the person in front of us right now has greater needs, greater pain and greater fear than we do? I fail at this ALL THE TIME. But then I remember DFW’s comment that is “unimaginably hard to do this” and I take it easy on myself and start again.

Sonnet 29 – William Shakespeare

“With what I most enjoy contented least.” Aka, the grass is always greener. Amen, brother.

The Transformative Power of Classical Music (TED talk) – Ben Zander

If only for the last 5 minutes you MUST watch this. Say it with me now: “Who am I being?”

Divided Brain, Divided World – Jonathan Rowson & Iain McGilchrist

I did better with this .pdf than I’m doing with the full length book but the power of this insight about our overwhelming reliance on the left brain in a world so desperate for right brain thinking is, well, overwhelming.

Putting Leaders On the Couch – Manfred Kets de Vries

Really, anything by Kets de Vries is extraordinary. Until leaders develop the courage to look more deeply at themselves and until we both expect and help them to do so, we’re going to struggle mightily to thrive in the face of ever quickening change.

Mindset Matters

“I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures…I divide the world into the learners and the nonlearners.”  Benjamin Barber

As I was being introduced at a recent speaking engagement I had an “iffy” feeling in my stomach. That feeling had actually been building for the hour or so before I started my talk. Something was welling up in me about this particular group; I had a growing uncertainty that my message and their interests were not well matched. Assured though I was by the coordinator of the event that my topic would be well appreciated, once I was on scene that was not my read of the situation. And yet, there I was and it was time to go to work.

It would be unfair to describe this group as “hostile.” They were really just skeptical or, as time would prove out, uncertain and maybe just curious in a removed sort of way. That they felt “hostile” to me is less indicative of them and more indicative of the mindset I was holding when I engaged them. My first pangs of doubt, my intuitive sense of being too much an outlier for their liking, set my judging, evaluative and critical self into high-gear. As Carol Dweck describes it in her terrific book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, I was in the grip of my fixed mindset, allowing my negative feelings to evolve into a full-blown perception of the event as a test of my worth.

As I began to talk the first thing I noticed was that I was talking too much. My pacing was off. I was serious and stilted. I also noticed that I most definitely was not saying what I had planned to say. I heard myself making very strong and rational arguments that were doing nothing to endear me to this crowd whose negative judgment was surely coming, hastened rather than slowed by my own doing. Most importantly, the physical realities of my mindset were uncomfortably present: dry mouth, rigid posture, racing mind. These rarely show up when I speak – it’s been a while since I felt them this acutely – but my concerns about this event brought them fully forward.

Carol Dweck’s alternative to the fixed mindset is the growth mindset. This is the mindset of learning, of openness and of good old-fashioned hard work. It’s the mindset that says our abilities and impact are not fixed in time but rather capable of expansion commensurate with our willingness to do the work. The growth mindset relishes experience, learning from failure and progression rather than fear, judgment and loss. It’s alive with possibility rather than dulled by the inertia of perfectionism. It is what Ben Zander (please read The Art of Possibility) teaches his orchestra players to say when they make a mistake: “How fascinating!” (There’s a lot more possibility in that than in: “How stupid!”)

Interestingly, when I first read Dweck’s work I felt ashamed that in the instance of this talk, and a lot of the time, I default to the fixed mindset. In and of itself that feeling of shame is indicative of the fixed mindset. 

What if I had simply challenged myself to get as curious as possible about the uncertainty I was feeling? What if I had detached myself from judgment and considered what I might learn from speaking in a “hostile” environment? What if I had chosen to make my feelings as present as possible and considered how I might use them in service of the experience rather than continue to fight them?

For 40 minutes or so, I fought the doubt, the fear and the self-judgment. It wasn’t my best work but it was enough to get me back on solid ground. Finally, I hit my stride. And, guess what? The talk hit the mark. They engaged, they appreciated and they even, dare I say it, got inspired. They just needed time. And so did I.