Last month I gathered in Athens, Georgia with thirteen of my former fellow graduate students to reconnect, reminisce, and enjoy each other’s company again. One thing we reflected on was the challenges and difficulties of getting through graduate school and how grateful we were to have gone through that experience with colleagues who we could lean on, learn from, and laugh with. It reminded me that one of the ways to maximize learning from challenging experiences is to connect with others who are on the same journey.
What’s happening in these shared journeys that stimulates learning?
- We develop a sense of camaraderie that opens us up to sharing what we really think and feel.
- We are more likely to seek and to give advice with those whom we know are dealing with the exact same challenges that we are facing.
- It’s easier to learn from someone else’s experience if that experience is very similar to our own.
- We empathize with others whose “shoes we are in.” Empathy breeds support and encouragement.
- Seeing other people like us succeed boosts our own beliefs that we can succeed, too. So we work harder.
Organizations recognize the power of shared experience and often work to connect people who are facing similar challenges, for example,
- Communities of practice bring together individuals working in the same domain to share experiences, learn from one another, and create new knowledge. A great example is CompanyCommand, an online peer-to-peer collaborative of Army company commanders.
- Development programs designed for specific roles create a space for peer-to-peer learning. In evaluating a leadership program for school superintendents, I found that individuals learned as much from their fellow participants as they did from the “experts.”
- Affinity groups provide forums for employees with a common social identity (e.g., women, African-Americans, LGBT) to connect, share experiences, and work together to create a more inclusive workplace.
There’s no doubt that one learns a great deal from difference—from people in other functions or careers, from those whose life experiences are far from our own, from colleagues whose job challenges are different. Difference can challenge our thinking, offer untapped sources of wisdom, and stimulate innovation. But I can also make the case for the power of similarity—the ease of connection, sharing, and support among those whose current experiences reflect our own. What I learned in Athens was that the connection, sharing, and support can last well beyond the joint experience. Go Dawgs!