Lifelong learning and the willingness to be “proximate”.


by Elizabeth Mansfield
CEO, Building Legacies International

I recently had the blessing of attending the Global Leadership Summit (GLS) in Chicago. I’ve been known to describe the conference in terms such as, “It’s like drinking from a leadership firehose” or “leadership lessons on steroids”, when it comes to the invaluable nuggets of learning I’ve gleaned from attending in years past – and this year was no exception. In fact, I think it might just keep getting better. But as someone who subscribes to a philosophy of lifelong learning, I only wish I could be this inspired all of the time.

The GLS reaches 400K+ leaders in over 128 countries.

For me, being a lifelong learner was a conscious choice. It didn’t come naturally. Growing up I was not an avid reader and I’m still not, compared to others. For me it’s more of a healthy curiosity, a sort-of wanderlust, a continual quest for answers to things I care about.  The only problem is, what “I care about” changed dramatically in the process.

It was my first mission trip that did it – and it was the willingness to not just hear about things that were happening, but to actually “go and see” for myself. It was the willingness to embrace the fear that an experience, as such, might in fact challenge the way I think or live my life – and then accepting said challenge. And I still struggle with that!

One of my favorite speakers at this year’s GLS was Bryan Stevenson. And although I’ve been fortunate to hear his talk before, there’s one thing that continues to really resonate with me (actually, there are many things, but here’s one…).

Bryan Stevenson is a highly articulate lawyer who is also Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative

He talks about “proximity”. Stevenson believes that “If you are willing to get closer to people who are suffering, you will find the power to change the world”. He argues that we have to show up and see things with our own eyes so we have no choice but to act. He says, “You cannot be an effective problem-solver from a distance. There are details and nuances to problems that you will miss unless you are close enough (proximate) to observe those details.”

This reminds me of something most of us have experienced on vacation – At least, I know I have… Have you ever taken a taxi from the airport through some of the poorest parts of a developing country on your way to your resort? Now think back… Did you really “see” the people who live there? Did you even want to see them while heading to your vacation? This is not a judgement, because if you were like me, the answer is “probably not”. But what if we allowed ourselves to get “proximate”? We may never see “others” quite the same way again, right?

What could that mean to your life, or to the lives of others, or to the world? I can’t help but wonder…