Week of Awesome Skills

Last week six participants took over the family house of one of the members of the Open Master’s Netherlands with a simple mission: put your blinders on and focus for one week exclusively on one skill you’ve been meaning to get to in your personal learning goals, but for whatever reason haven’t gotten to yet.

Participants took the mission seriously.  On Day 1, one participant gave her computer to a fellow participant and told him to change her Facebook password… and to not give it back to her until the end of the week.

Participants focused on portrait painting, infographics, HTML, zen drawing, and “innovation in organizations.”  The first four topics were ‘hard’ skills that required some reading (back to basics) and practice on practical projects.  Both of the latter were knowledge deep-dives; both of these participants were freelancers who wanted to familiarize themselves more with those topics, because they were frequently coming up in conversations with clients.

What Happened?

Only three weeks ago, Tim Woensdregt and Saar Francken decided to put the "Week of Awesome Skills" on the calendar and invite some of their peers.  They offered to organize the space and facilitate the week.  Participants would be expected to stay focused on just one attainable learning goal for the entire week and to present to friends and family at the end.  They found a space and threw up a Facebook invite.

Last week, the crew gathered from Monday to Friday.  They lived together in a dedicated, homey space (Saar's parent's house).  This turned out to be really key to the environment they wanted to create.  The participants loved that the parents dropped in for meals occasionally and asked what they were working on.  Tim said it felt like being back in school again; coming home at the end of the day and having mom ask “so, what did you do in school today??”

On the first day they shared their learning plans in a large circle and then split off into pairs to "shave down" their learning plans for the week.  They asked each other hard questions like "what's holding you back?" and "what's the real question behind your learning question?"  Then they got to work straight away.

Over the course of the week they maintained the same format each day: morning checkin first thing- including sharing their progress, plans for the day, and making requests of each other's time (e.g. I need someone to model for my painting for one hour this afternoon).  Over lunch together each day, they usually discussed barriers that were coming up.  A check-out before dinner gave them the chance to put a close to the day's work and relax, play games, etc. ('we-time' as they called it).

On Wednesday they gave formal presentations to each other about how far they had come.  At this point one of the real values of the week started to show itself.  Many of the participants realized, in order to learn what they set out to learn, they had to uncover and overcame barriers they did not even know existed before.  For Tim, it was "letting go of his plan," stepping back from the results he has in his head and giving himself permission to start back at basics (reading a book on photoshop).  For Saar, who was learning the art of zen drawing, her challenge was confronting how much time it truly "costs" to really pay attention to things around her.  “If it takes me half an hour just to really see an apple, what does that mean for the rest of my life?”

Nearly every participant ended up learning things along the way they did not expect to learn.  Norna is a designer, and wanted to learn the basics of HTML.  She gave herself the challenge of recreating a website she designed previously, but had someone else code for her.  She quickly encountered her first error report, but when her boyfriend offered to help her, she declined, realizing that debugging is half the job of coding.  “I’m going to fix my own bugs.”  Likewise, even though Tim set out to learn to use photoshop to make flyers, he finally learned- while asking some other participants where he should find images to use- that if he wanted to do graphic design, he couldn't just use the designs of others; needed to develop his own "visual language."

On Friday, the participants invited 40 friends and family to the house to hear presentations and see their finished products.  This was the highlight of the week.  Participants were surprised how much they accomplished and they were eager not just to present, but also to hear each other's presentations.  They were really proud for each other and how far they came.  The feedback from attendees was also great.  Miranda’s Mother said, “it’s just so great to see you kids grow up and see how you develop yourselves and find out what’s your thing in life.  It's great being here as a mother!”

Finally, the participants then went off to have the "most well-deserved weekend ever."

What Next?

Everyone who participated expressed interest in doing in something like this again.  The ability to do this now in the Netherlands was greatly facilitated by the fact that most people are taking long summer holidays at this moment, so another week might not happen like this again until next week.  But there could be interest in trying different models in the meantime- e.g. a long weekend that starts wednesday night and goes through Sunday evening.  I am also eager to see a replication happen in the US- perhaps Thanksgiving or winter holidays could present an opportunity.

As it turns out, as Tim and I reflected, the week exposed a deeper question.  One of the biggest questions to come out of the week was, "what would it look like to create the kind of space, focus and community we did last week every day, back in our 'real lives'?"  In fact, that might get to the very heart of what we're trying to do with the Open Master's, in general.

Tim had the following advice to future organizers who want to do something like this:

  1. The location was really important; focused, uninterrupted space was key.  One participant left at one point in the week and, upon returned, commented, "Everyone!  There's a whole world going on out there!"  They were totally immersed.
  2. Intimacy of the group was really important.  ‘We-time’: Games, doing dishes, etc. were just as necessary as focused learning time.
  3. Tim spent a lot of time preparing to facilitate the week, but he didn’t feel that was necessary, in the end; the group mostly hosted itself, for the larger part.
  4. The biggest thing, in the end, is just announcing it in advance and have people really block it off in their calendar.