In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is acquired. In pursuit of wisdom, every day something is dropped. – Lao Tzu

Several years ago, I had the chance to hear a keynote speaker at a professional teaching conference who made a significant impression. In this time of COVID-19, the message is only more relevant. Karl Weick, professor of organizational behavior and psychology at the University of Michigan, told us why educators need to “drop our tools” in order to teach effectively in times of accelerated change. Using actual examples from firefighters and others, he built a case that educators can be better prepared to meet the challenges if we drop rather than acquire. “Learning to drop one’s tools to gain lightness, agility and wisdom tends to be forgotten in an era where leaders and followers alike are preoccupied with knowledge management, acquisitions and acquisitiveness. Nevertheless, human potential is realized as much by what we drop as what we acquire.”

Weick studied wildland firefighters and discovered at least 23 have died in four separate incidents since 1990 with their tools next to them. “In every case, they died within sight of safety zones that could have been reached if they had been lighter and moved faster.” He also studied fighter pilots and found that those “whose planes become disabled lose their lives when they hold onto what they call ‘the cocoon of the cockpit’ rather than face the conditions of an ejection from the aircraft.” NASA engineers on “the Challenger project failed to drop their launch routines in the face of increasingly severe burn marks on O-rings and approved the launch that killed seven astronauts. … The final report of the Columbia shuttle disaster investigation notes that NASA management was not able to recognize that in unprecedented conditions, when lives are on the line, flexibility and democratic process should take priority over bureaucratic response.”

This is the time when we need to “drop our tools” in order to be innovative, resilient and agile. This also takes a growth mindset. According to Carol Dweck in her book “Mindset: The Psychology of Success,” there are two main mindsets we can navigate life with: growth and fixed. With a fixed mindset, we try to prove ourselves and success is about winning, so we don’t take many risks. With a growth mindset, we are trying to improve ourselves and success is about learning, so we are more open to taking calculated risks.

We are witnessing a growth mindset and a willingness to “drop our tools,” with governors leading the effort. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the CEO of New America, pointed out in an article in the New York Times how quickly some industries, many resistant to change, were able to “drop their tools” and realize positive outcomes. Colleges and universities moved all of their classes online in a short period of time. Since travel has almost halted, the United States government has reduced plane and car emissions. While unfavorable for the airlines, this is good news for the planet.

Technology that used to separate and isolate us is now being used to connect us. Zoom and other web-conferencing software have become the new operating system. This is making many of us realize that working remotely and conferencing can save resources — time, money and energy. Yet, Slaughter also points out that these uncertain times magnify the inequities in our society. While knowledge workers can work from home, workers in restaurants and factories are being laid off, and this is painful. “But it’s also an opportunity to make the changes we knew we were going to have to make eventually.” 

She reinforces how we need to get more people into higher-paying jobs that can be done remotely with a computer. We need to invest in more “locally based, customized goods and services and supply chains less vulnerable to threats like cyberattacks, natural disasters and disease.” The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of how many of the higher-paying jobs should be in caregiving from the very young to the very old and everyone in between. We have learned how indispensable these people are in times of crises.

But innovation requires universal access to fast, affordable broadband. Just as our government is obligated to provide public education, Slaughter emphasized how it also needs to provide the broadband to enable that education. We now realize the impact and value of the internet to facilitate business, industry and education. She concludes, “We can use this crisis to create a better America.”

Jann Freed, Ph.D., is a leadership development and change management consultant with the Genysys Group and author of “Leading With Wisdom: Sage Advice From 100 Experts.”

Submitted by Jann Freed