This year marks my 25th year of teaching. It's a good time to look back and ask that classic Alfie question, "What's it all about?"
For me, it comes down to vivid spine-tingling memories of those students who threw themselves at learning as if their lives depended on it. They stand out like Christmas candy from the many others for whom education was simply information transfer or a grab at spiffier credentials. What the standouts had in common was a willingness to soften their boundaries, open their arms wide, and let the transformational power of learning work its way with them. It takes guts, ardor, and faith to cobble a new path from emerging insights instead of simply defending the person-I-already-am on the path already known. Most just coast; only the brave surrender.
There was a willowy Chinese woman who sat through a semester barely uttering a word, yet clearly attending to every nuance of the discussion. Her final paper was a book-length masterpiece that documented her childhood memories of the Cultural Revolution. She hid in the tall grass behind her home, watching her family herded into open trucks as the contents of their house were set ablaze. She spent years in forced agricultural labor. "But now," she wrote, "I am discovering who I am and making the world anew." There was a ramrod-straight high-tech executive whose encounter with new ideas on adult development found him giving voice for the first time to a childhood scarred by a distant, abusive father. When I followed him out of class, he let me hold him in the rain as he wept. Only days later, he serenaded us with an exquisite tenor voice — the first time he had ever sang in public. There were many more, too. And then there was Edward.
Class time was drawing to an end, and I wrapped up my lecture on "becoming an individual" with some thoughts on Martin Buber and his writings on Auschwitz. Afterward, there was the usual crowd of students around my desk, asking questions, making appointments. As they slowly peeled away, I noticed Edward hanging back, waiting patiently for the others to leave. I had an off-campus appointment that day, so when the room cleared, I suggested he walk me to my car. We chatted for a few minutes, but as we left the building, he turned to me full face and asked, "Professor Zuboff, who is Martin Buber and what is Auschwitz?" I recall being silent for a moment, as the implications of his question settled in. I realized that I was staring into the eyes of one of the bravest men I had ever met. "Okay," I said, "let's talk." Under the late autumn sun, I spoke quietly to him about the Jewish philosopher and the Holocaust. He asked more questions, and I talked about the history of philosophy, theology, and psychology.
Edward told me his story. How his parents split up when he was a small boy, his mother working as he fended for himself in a neighborhood dominated by drugs and gangs. By sixth grade, he was a dealer. By the time he should have been a high-school junior, he was in a penitentiary. But somewhere along the way, there was a judge who saw something in him that didn't fit the mold. The judge did another kind of deal — two years in a drug rehab community in return for never seeing Edward again. After rehab, there was a job and community college. He was a straight-A student and on the dean's list. A counselor there encouraged him to set his sights high, and he was accepted to an Ivy League school, where he studied economics, business, and finance. Next came a prestigious internship at an international bank and ultimately acceptance to Harvard Business School. All the while, he hid a growing sense of shame over the things he didn't know. He had lost out on what most of my students took for granted — all the tacit cultural knowledge we absorb from our families and schools. Like adults who cannot read, Edward had mastered a thousand defensive strategies for dodging this immense hole without giving himself away. But he was haunted by the sense of not knowing what he didn't know or how to learn it. That afternoon, the secrets were laid to rest.
By the time the sky darkened, Edward and I had our own deal. I would help him get a sense of the "big picture" — areas of knowledge and how they fit together. I would give him Buber's books to read. My husband would become a mentor, too, introducing Edward to the corporate world and what it might offer. In return, Edward would stop hiding. Over the months and years, he dropped his defensive posture and began to embrace a thousand new possibilities, surrendered to the sheer joy of learning. It has been 17 years since that autumn day. Edward now runs a successful consultancy focused on leadership and emotional intelligence. His next life goal is to climb Mt. Everest. I told him that he already has.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.