On being ... an Aha! moment

By Ingrid Sapona

When I lead a seminar or workshop I usually hand out a sheet of paper with a little image of a light bulb going off inside a brain and a heading at the top that simply reads: Aha! I then encourage participants to jot down any points they “get” during the session -- you know, things that make the proverbial light go off.

I do this to encourage participants to focus a bit on whatever it is they’re getting from the seminar, rather than just focusing on the points I discuss. I guess I also recommend it because writing things down is -- obviously -- one of the ways I process things best, so it’s only natural that I encourage others to do so.

Lately, however, I’m not so sure that there’s any point to even hope that someone will have an Aha! moment at the time they’re actually being “taught” something. I say this because, more-and-more, I’ve noticed that my Aha! moments are delayed -- often long delayed. I noticed this quite acutely, for example, on a project I was working on earlier this summer.

The project involved putting together information about how a manufacturer of widgets (not the real product, mind you) puts together price quotes in response to specific requests from its customers. Though I’ve never done any work for clients in the widget industry, since the process ultimately involves creation of a legally binding agreement, with my legal training I figured I’d get up to speed pretty quickly.

The client provided me with lots of information but I kept thinking they must have some standard contract they use and, for some reason, they just weren’t sharing it with me (despite the fact that I signed a confidentiality agreement). Eventually I phoned someone I knew in the company’s in-house legal department, figuring maybe he could send me a sample contract.

As we talked about how the purchase order stuff works, I suddenly “got” that the types of contracts involved are not the traditional ones I was thinking of (which is why no one could send me a copy). Instead, I remembered a course I took in law school on the Uniform Commercial Code (the UCC). The UCC didn’t apply per se, but the underlying principles were applicable.

After the call I was relieved because lots of stuff I had been struggling with for the project started to make sense. But, I was also frustrated because, despite the fact I got an A in that course in law school, I had never really understood the circumstances in which it applied in the real world. Twenty-plus years later and I have an Aha! moment about the UCC. I’d call that a bit of a delay, wouldn’t you?

The same thing happened regarding something related to my boat this summer. For years I had been using a certain type of fastener in the rigging. These fasteners (split rings, for all of you sailors) are not the only means of securing the rigging. Indeed, I’ve always thought of them as just an additional line of defence to prevent certain things from coming apart. These rings are about as sophisticated -- and sturdy -- as paper clips, so I’ve always been a bit skeptical about how well they’d hold under stress. But, having been told to put them on, for years I’ve dutifully done so.

This season, however, I was a bit lazy about getting around to it. Then, one day I noticed that in one place the rigging fitting had become quite loose. I chalked it up to my overzealous use of WD40 when I originally fastened that fitting, so I simply tightened it again. I didn’t put a ring in it, figuring I’d just keep an eye on it.

Sure enough, a few weeks later the fitting was loose again. This time, as I tightened it, I had a major Aha! moment. I finally understood how the ring prevents the slipping. In other words, I “got” that the ring isn’t meant as a last line of defence -- it’s a first line of defence! You can be damned sure I quickly put rings in all the places they’re meant to be.

Those are just a couple recent examples of cases where – well after the fact -- I manage to finally really make sense of something I “learned” long ago. I suppose I shouldn’t feel frustrated about the fact that some Aha’s! come a bit late, or surprised when I have a revelation that helps me understand something I hadn’t “gotten” before. Indeed, I’ll bet I’m not the only one this kind of thing happens to...

I guess having Aha! moments aren’t really an indication of things we didn’t learn in school -- they’re just proof that we’re life-long learners.

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona


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