The Ghosts in the System

How should adults learn, once they stop going to school? Because they don’t stop–they just stop noticing that they are.

I sat in this room today:

You don’t need to watch this movie. You’ll probably find it boring.

Statistically you’re much more likely to be interested in watching someone pretending to be a lawyer or a superhero than watching half a dozen men discuss the State Department/USAID FY 2017 Budget.

None of them wore superhero costumes. Some of them might be real lawyers.

But they have in their hands the potential to save 2.5 billion* lives next year. They probably will save tens of millions.

Of people’s lives.

I call that interesting.


Deciding where and which lives to save, that’s these guys’ jobs.

I don’t say this to help you put your own work stress into perspective. I say this because some members of this small group are clearly better at their job than others, and I want to know why. All of them are a lot better at their jobs than a lot of people in similar positions are at theirs, and I want to know why. Call me crazy, but it seems worth some time and effort to figure out how good decision makers at this level get that way. And do something with the answer.

It might even be more important than 3D printing and car-to-car communication combined.

But noone cares. I might as well say we should put time and effort into making water more wet, for all that anyone cares. Adults get better at their jobs because they gain experience. Maybe now and then they take a seminar. End of very boring story.

But what is experience? That question is why I’m sitting on cloud 9, here in bed, where I’m grooving on this laptop. Because today I discovered THE MECHANISM BY WHICH SELF-REINFORCING SYSTEMS RE-ENFORCE THEMSELVES. And this has been bugging me. For years.**


It’s called (drumroll please) informal mentoring. Ta da! Aka a lack of formal training and/or formal mentoring.

It’s ok if you still don’t care. It hasn’t been bugging you for years. And anyway, experience has taught me that correct answers are usually obvious, right after you say them.

Everyone learns on the job the same way: from the work itself, but more from the people they work with. And not when they are teaching or training us usually, because most of them aren’t teaching or training us, usually. We learn by watching them, when we have time to, but usually we don’t, because we’re working.

So what we actually learn from, mostly, is their interaction with us. Which, for people like the 94, 70, and 60 brand new representatives elected to the House in 2012, 2013, and 2014, where a) everyone is busy and b) everyone wants something, is almost exclusively motivated by goals other than showing anyone how things should be done.

And this is how–without being spoken–really bad ideas get passed down, amplify themselves, and fossilize. Simply because neither mentor nor mentored is aware that they are teaching or learning.

“Forbearance,” one guy said in the video. Forbearance. Judgement. Discretion. Not always the easiest things to see if you aren’t looking for them.

Almost certainly, those that propagated the dysfunction into a system were victims of the same lack of intentional development that they perpetrated, as were their unwitting gurus, as were theirs, etc. etc.

So I feel pretty confident saying that if there is actually someone to blame in this particular case, they are long dead.

*Footnotes are in part two.