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Collective Learning | Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Isaac Newton once famously remarked, “…if I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The statement has been generally accepted to mean that worthy pursuits are only advanced through the progress created by continuing the work of great minds of the past.

David Christian is a Professor of History at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia and is currently collaborating on a venture called the Big History Project with Bill Gates. He gave a talk about the Project at a recent TED conference. Within Dr. Christian’s presentation there was a topic that might be of particular interest to performance psychologists and researchers, which is the concept of “collective Learning”. Dr. Christian credits collective learning as being the catalyst that has allowed humans to flourish, but he also warns that this power might not be completely in our control – highlighting our species complexity and fragility through historical and current events.

Much like DNA is the system that stores biological information, collective learning is a global system that stores our vast body of knowledge. It began to exist the moment human language was created and was immensely empowered further with the advent of the Internet. Collective learning outlasts the knowledge of any one individual and evolves with the passing of each generation. Our ability to share and improve information is what makes humans different than every other known species. It has allowed humans to improve performance and achievement with each passing generation. Honoring the idea of collective learning one is able to learn for others and contribute to the greater good.

Creativity and Imagination

New research shows that creativity and imagination are two important qualities in human performance and are often overlooked attributes. Today, most employee performance evaluation checklists show metrics that measure one’s analytical skills, job competencies, interpersonal and communicative skills, but creativity and imagination are often not revered and/or evaluated.

Jonah Lehrer discusses in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works that it is creativity and imagination that are seminal in generating ideas that can lead to innovative solutions in the marketplace. For instance, a simple example is project presentations that leverage these two attributes, which (when used) usually have a higher likelihood of winning over skeptics both internally and/or externally to get a particular project started or funded. Imagination and creativity are often what differentiates a mediocre performance from an outstanding one — not just regarding presentations, but many facets of various work.

Along the same lines as above, imagination and creativity also allow people to prepare and plan for future actions by creating creative solutions that can only happen when imagination and creativity are working together. As business processes get more and more complex, it is often our imagination and creativity that saves the day. Using imagery and imagination allows us to prepare, rehearse, and perfect our future actions. This type of planning and practice is a consistent pattern for peak performers in both business and sport. As we get older in age, we unfortunately often get less imaginative. Imagination and creativity are also important aspects of brain plasticity, and maintaining these skills help us sustain our cognitive reserve as we grow older allowing us to operate optimally late into life.

There are simple things we can do to maintain our imagination at any age. One exercise is to draw a peaceful landscape that does not exist in reality. The definition of “peaceful” is unique to each individual, so you have creative license to draw whatever you want as long as the environment is completely imagined (i.e. not drawn from memory). The way we perceive and operate in the world is personal to our respective selves. The world as we know it is defined by our experiences and developing our creativity also allows us to expand our capacity to understand our human experience. In short, these are important but often overlooked skills in both one’s professional life, as well as one’s personal life.