'What I Wish Someone Had Told Me...'

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One of the many compelling moments from the recent LABBS Directors Day was a comment made by Andrea Day in her short presentation on the training needs of assistant directors. 'You don't know what you don't know,' she said, and so organised her points around the things she has discovered that she wishes someone had told her before she started.

The thing that struck me here was how clearly and concisely she had articulated the experience of taking on a new challenge. Before you start, you know in general terms that it is going to be a whole new adventure, and - if you are choosing to take it on - you also know that a whole new adventure is something you are ready for. But by the nature of things, you have no idea exactly what it is that you are going to need to learn in the process.

So the phrase, 'I wish someone had told me...' is in fact a signal for your most significant discoveries in the early stages of the challenge. And the reason that nobody told you these things is not because everyone else wanted to hide these facts, or even that they didn't care about you, it's actually because they didn't know what you didn't know either. They probably told you all kinds of other things which turned out to be of varying levels of usefulness, depending on what you needed, but these are never as vivid to you as the things you had to discover for yourself on the fly.

Indeed, I have had the experience in teaching of having a student say in week 5 of a course, 'This is the case? Why didn't you tell me before?', when in fact I had said it in week 1. But in week 1, they were busy focusing on some other aspect of the subject and this detail passed them by. In week 5, they were on top of the other stuff that was new at the start and now found they needed the information that had not seemed so important a month before.

So, it is possible that people did tell you, but it only became important to you to know it in the light of experience, so you didn't grasp the significance at the time. I am reminded of the tales told by friends who have had babies - they all include phrases such as, 'I had no idea that...' and 'nobody ever tells you...' But they have all been to ante-natal classes, they compare notes on the books they have read, they have gone into the experience as prepared as they know how to be. But real life is always more vivid than a book can present, and it is different when it is happening to you.

So, what can the person taking on a huge new challenge do? (And both child-rearing, and choral directing count as pretty huge adventures in my book.)

Probably the best plan is to make sure we have a support group around us, access to peers who are going or have gone through similar experiences so we can share impressions and compare notes. It is in turning the jumble of experience into conversation that we discover what we have learned, and in hearing about others' journeys that we get a sense of perspective on it.

To an extent we can do this by ourselves - keeping a reflective journal is a time-honoured personal development technique, and I'm sure that Andrea learned things about herself through the process of preparing a short presentation. And, hey, you don't think I keep this blog just for you, do you? I do a lot of my learning in writing these posts!

But learning needs social contact as well as quiet thinking time. Merleau-Ponty wrote that 'expression is the completion of thought' - i.e. that an idea only really exists once it has been articulated. Having other people there to help you think makes this process more effective, though. The look of interest or doubt or comprehension in a friend's eye as you speak shapes the way your insight emerges. And hearing that everyone has an 'I wish someone told me...' list is just reassuring, even when we all have different things on it.

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