In preparation for the retreat I worked my way through several readings, including Primal Leadership by Daniel Golman et al, Change Leadership by Tony Wagner et al, and On Leadership from the Harvard Business Review. While we explored some of these materials via group discussions, unconference sessions, and partner-work, I was most struck by those moments in which we were asked to participate in focused free-writing using prompts inspired by the readings.
For example, in Primal Leadership the authors encourage readers to envision their ideal self, 15 years from now. Our retreat leaders, George Swain and Marcy Mann, structured the exercise as a free-write using the following prompts:
In 15 years...
What will my personal theme be?
Not what I'm doing, but how I'm doing it?
How can I get myself ready for this?
Left with these guidelines, I began my focused free write, and found myself pretty surprised by where I ended up. I tried to let myself follow the same instructions I give my students - to simply write, to let my ideas guide me and take unexpected turns. When I began to write I felt unsure of my destination, but as I thought about the how of my ideal self in 15 years, I was able to focus in on areas of my professional life I don't normally examine as thoughtfully and deeply as I did with this writing practice.
I experienced a similar sense of self-discovery through free-writing while addressing the question of why I chose to teach. The prompt, "I teach because..." was in part inspired by Simon Sinek's TEDtalk, Start With Why. I was struck by how much deeper I was able to dig into my feelings when given 15 minutes to write independently, as opposed to having to formulate my response immediately or out loud.
In both cases, my writing took me from a superficial, obvious response - one formulated simply to be able to answer a question - towards a more considered, complicated view of myself and the work I do. The writing was difficult, challenging in a way I did not expect, but ultimately it provided the time and medium I needed to work through my ideas and feelings. While working with others provided excellent feedback and allowed me to see different points of view, I was reminded of the unique experience independent free writing provides for self-reflection and personal growth.