We tend to forget most of what we’ve read. Of course, we can do something about that:

Taking notes, skimming, understanding the structure of a book/argument, asking questions before diving into a chapter, summarizing the argument afterwards, talking to friends about what we’ve read (for more, I recommend the book ‘How to Read a Book’ – not a joke – by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren).

These are all ways to deal with Ebbinghaus’ ‘forgetting curve’: we forget information over time but can retain more of it, if we review it at key moments of the curve, what is also referred to as ‘spaced learning’.

There is another way to approach forgetting what we’ve read: acknowledging that it is normal, perhaps even necessary.

Neuroscientists are studying forgetting not as the opposite or failure of remembering but as a separate and essential component of our memory system. We forget so much, because so much of what we encounter is irrelevant to decision-making. Our memory is designed for intelligent decision-making, not storing as much information as possible. Our brains have mechanisms to help us forget.

So, we can do something about forgetting, all the while knowing that our brain does us a favour forgetting much of what we register.

But also: what if reading is not solely about recalling information in the first place?

If reading fiction for the joy of it makes us happier, then that’s a goal in itself. And if happiness itself is not a worthy goal, we can at least appreciate the many positive effects of being happy.

What is more, reading (fiction or non-fiction) enriches our world by giving us a chance to see the world through new perspectives. We feel what it’s like to be a tragic hero, we get a glimpse of a scientist’s madness or get a chance to float in Earth’s orbit. We do not need to recall anything particular about these experiences for them to be meaningful and add to our lives.

Finally, being exposed to novel ideas, contemplating whether we agree, seeing how an argument is developed, how it could be expanded, all adds to our own critical thinking and problem-solving muscles. We are going to the gym, whether we recall what exercises we did or not.

When I started my coaching training, one of the first exercises was on listening. It’s an essential skill for a coach. And I believe it’s a skill we can all use more and better to make an impact.

I found that the way I listen as a consultant is very different from how I listen as a coach. As a consultant I listen to pinpoint, while as a coach I listen to explore – most of the time.

Listening to pinpoint is all about getting to the bottom of things as efficiently as possible. You have a hypothesis, an educated guess and you listen to confirm or disprove it (often with an unconscious bias toward confirming).

When we listen to explore, we are curious. We are not attached to preconceived notions on the topic. Rather than running down the first rabbit hole, listening for a particular rabbit to climb out of a particular hole, we wait to see what else there is. For example, we do not jump into giving someone advice on ‘time management’ because we believe that’s the issue and we believe we’ve been there, we’ve seen it. Even if someone asks us to give advice on time management, it’s worth first exploring what that means: What’s challenging about time management for you? When have you managed your time well in the past? How did that look like?

And when, while listening, thoughts pop up (as they will), we know that we have a choice in whether to pursue them further or let them go and keep our attention on listening to what else the other has to say. A mindful state is probably what comes closest to this kind of listening.

Listening to explore can be difficult for someone used to giving advice, always wanting to have an answer. It takes discipline to not give in to saying what’s on our mind and rather hear what the other has to say. Just for a moment longer.

Magic happens when we use both ways of listening, and use them in the right situation. Early on in a project, a consultant may want to listen to explore rather than following the first hunch. And a coach needs to pinpoint when a client is saying one thing but hesitating on following through.

NASA has a peculiar career path for some of its ‘top performers’. Rather than progressing in the organizational hierarchy, it's about progressing one's contribution to the mission. And those two might not always be the same thing.

A generic sketch may look like this:

What if your career progression looked like this? Would you consider it a success? A bumpy road to the top? What if at the last station of your career you were not back at the top? Would it then be a failure?

NASA astronauts take this career path. They may start out focused entirely on training, taking up additional operational and managerial responsibilities, perhaps being the CAPCOM (Capsule Communicator), i.e. direct point of contact for astronauts to the ground team, along the way. Of course, at some point they may be lucky to go to space.

On their return, they are not put on a pedestal; instead, they debrief – for months – to help make the next missions better. Then they take up an operational or managerial role to contribute to the organization with their new experience; perhaps they go on to train a new generation of astronauts, all while working on their own readiness for a potential second space flight (which may never come).

NASA astronauts would not consider that career path a failure.

And so perhaps the first chart was misleading. In the ‘NASA model’ it’s not so much about progressing from bottom to top in the organizational hierarchy, but about progressing your contribution to the organization’s mission, so better captured like this:

You are moving up and down in the hierarchy. But in the process you continuously increase your contribution to the organization's mission.

In the words of Chris Hadfield, retired astronaut and author of “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”:

“[A]stronauts continuously move up and down, rotating through different roles and ranks. From an organizational standpoint this makes sense: it keeps the space program strong at all levels and also reinforces everyone’s commitment to teamwork in pursuit of a common goal […] that’s much bigger than we are as individuals. […] At NASA it’s just a given that today’s star will be tomorrow’s stagehand. […] And sooner or later you realize that it’s better for everyone, including you, if you climb down the ladder graciously.” (p. 268)

The quote highlights multiple benefits of the model:

  • Experience & knowledge circulates within the organization, making the various functions stronger for it

  • Humility is a cornerstone and expectation in the organizational culture. Putting one’s ego in check for the benefit of others

  • Purpose-driven individuals contribute to more than their own careers

What if this model was more widespread? What if a CEO’s next role was that of a business unit manager or a key account manager? What if a member of parliament did not run for another term but chose to support the next generation of political leaders instead?

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