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.