Education vs Learning. On being Useless,Dangerous and Effective. A culinary tale of corporate change

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So the usual life plan is to go to school, get good grades. Get good grades will get you into better schools. Better schools will provide with more tools, better education. Better education will equal better job opportunities. Better job opportunities, better life. It’s all part of the process.

I went through the process. Not always successfully, but for the most part, I made it to the other side somewhat unscathed. Graduation was a moment of “ok World, I’m ready”. World did not answer back. Education is an aspect of learning. Learning is taking experiences and transforming them into knowledge and skills to improve our life. I learned this the hard way. In 2005 I went to Beijing to assist a Chinese company to transform itself into a more western like company. I knew the mechanics of change from university textbooks. I knew what SOPs to implement, what to change, and how to go about it. That was the education I received. The real learning was about to begin.

My education told me that I was ready; yet I learned that I had to be useless, before I became dangerous, so I could become effective. I called this the Kumpao Chicken experiment.

As a new addition to Beijing, my Chinese was zero. I had to rely on my assistant for everything, including lunch orders. If you have been to China, food is an important part of their culture. As such, variety and choice are almost infinite. Ordering from a menu with 150 dishes was a daunting feat, so I said to my assistant, just get me something with Chicken. Big mistake. For the first 6 months, I only ate Kumpao Chicken. I just did not have the time to go over the menu. I was useless at ordering.
After my first six months, I thought I was ready for the big league. I understood a bit of Chinese, I was better prepared to understand the pictures on the menu, and I felt I was ready to move away from the Kumpao Chicken safety blanket. So I tried. Dangerous.

It was a hit or miss. Some days I would spend the afternoon in agony. Some days, I would experience a culinary revelation out of a Styrofoam container, and some days I would literally look into the dish and have no idea what I was eating. Those were the dark days.

After about 1 year, I had enough common sense to stick to the known commodities. Few surprises, but for the most part. I knew what I was doing. Mondays was Kumpao Chicken Day, but I was able to detect the different flavors, and even to ask for a milder or hotter version. The 200 menus in our office were not longer a deck of colorful cards, but a window into a world of culinary experiences. Lunch became a joy.

The Kumpao Chicken experiement taught me that assuming you understand something because you have received an education on something similar will never replace actual learning. My first 6 months I was useless, not only in ordering food, but in my role as an agent of transformation. I needed to learn the corporate culture, and more importantly, the motivation behind decisions.
My second 6 months, I was dangerous. I felt I knew enough to affect changes, yet I was not ready to move the needle. Much like the menu, I knew enough to get in trouble. Some choices were great, others, not so much.

After my first year, I became effective. I understood the fabric of the company, the actors, and the subtle different styles. Much like the food menus, I learned to differentiate the good menus from the bad menus, the consistent cooks from the moody ones, and It became obvious to me which type of food was better for me. At that point, I began to really enjoy my lunches, along with the impact in the company that I was creating.

Some people would say that the food ordering process was “an education”. I would argue that it was a learning process. You experience and learn. It’s something that is not written in a book, or can be taught in a classroom. Learning should be your lifelong goal. Sure, have an education. But never assume that being book smart is a guarantee for success. Intentionally put yourself out in situations where you learn something new, and don’t be afraid to feel useless as you are learning, for that is the prelude to success.


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