I’ve been in the learning and development training space for over 12 years and I’ve been no stranger to critical feedback from my colleagues and clients alike. There are some real gems that stand out and one of my favorite I’ve kept for my own arsenal is “soul-sucking vortex.”
That wasn’t always the case. When I first heard it, it stung. In a deeply personal way. The kind of Joseph-Conrad-Heart-of-Darkness self-reflection pain that makes you want to rock in a corner. The sort of emotional pain where Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence is the soundtrack to one’s personal sucktitude. The truth, it would seem, really does hurt.
The origin story begins in the desert of North Las Vegas on an Air Force base. I was developing learning and development training programs for the Air Force, specifically e learning, for Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) personnel and leading a video shoot to support what I knew was going to be a very cool and impactful course on large scale munitions disposal. We’d shoot stuff blowing up, go home and edit the video, piece together the course, and deliver to an anxious audience whose lives would forever be changed by the greatness of this e learning course.
I truly enjoyed the subject matter. I found EOD personnel to be super cool. I also felt like I was really good at my job and I was managing the heck out of the project. My leadership would look from on high and adorn me with a cloak of Job Well Done-ness. Shredded paper confetti would rain down on me and soon I’d no doubt be presented with a modest incremental salary adjustment (slightly over the rate of inflation) like all great world leaders receive after glorious missions. My pride and competitiveness oozed from my pores like jam from a squeezable bottle.
So, during one of our breaks when Master Sergeant He Who Shall Remain Nameless held up a similar e learning CD (yes, stand-alone e learning was once on these things called “compact discs” #datingmyself) waved it up in the air, described it as a Frisbee and then “colorfully” detailed that going through this learning was “a soul-sucking vortex…” I have to tell you, I had a real MOMENT.
You could substitute this story for any time in your life when you worked extraordinarily hard on something only to have someone look at it and say, “Meh.” For me it was the hours of prep, storyboard writing and managing a team that gave me the perception that I was contributing positively to someone’s learning. This is what I didn’t get. I confused “hard work” and well-written content with “this is going to be a super meaningful learning experience.” (Mind you, I probably could have used this self-generated insight in all facets of my life but it just happened to apply to my work at the time).
It took a lot of chipping away at my own stubbornness and entrenched behaviors to realize that for career men and women who have a day job AND are required to do XYZ number of hours in continuous education that some types of learning and development training are often perceived as a soul-sucking vortex. Clicking from page upon page of content followed by the intermittent road-stop of a knowledge check plum full of corny canned feedback was akin to the absurdist groundhog-day landscape so brilliantly illuminated in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
This isn’t an indictment of e learning by any means. It’s more about the time and place as well as the need of the user persona. Back then, human-centered designed didn’t roll off the tongue and our focus was to meet the ask of the buying center and not the learner. How many times has that happened in one’s career? I’ve long promoted the use of a simple job-aid as a solution if it hits the mark. Modality has long been one of the great debates in our field but today, we like to start with the user.
Fast forward a bit and I’m no longer rocking in a corner. At least, not today. I primarily build leadership development training programs, business simulations and consult with people with some very serious strategic challenges. Like my colleague Marshall might tell you–people like playing “games” and exploring realities that make your brain…well, they make your brain work!
Auditing. Analytics. Engineering. Managing nuclear operators. Fighting wildfires. I’ve built leadership development training programs for all these diverse areas and too many more to name and I have to tell you that reflecting on life and the traps we all fall into (whether they are the oh-so-complex human dynamics of interacting with each other or modeling the ramifications and complexities of financial levers in multi-billion dollar organizations) is far from soul-sucking. But I do like that phrase and I will use it at a dinner party.