Voices of the Mall: An Impetus for Autodidactic Development

“This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”[1]

I have the privilege of frequently running around the National Mall in Washington, D.C. With eclectic tunes playing through my headphones, I often find myself pondering. These thoughts are sparked by voices of the Mall, not surprisingly, belonging to three former commanders in chief: Presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. My most recent run included a “conversation” that addressed the autodidacticism each of them exemplified. Perhaps this proclivity for self-teaching justifies, at least in part, their memorialization in our nation’s capital.

Following from this, I have begun to consider whether too much emphasis is currently being placed on what organizations should do for individual development through programs and policies and too little on how each individual may be empowered to learn on their own through guided experiences that promote and sustain self-development. This necessitates a shift in mindset away from arrogance embedded in the question “what is the organization going to do for me?” to the humility unveiled in asking “how may I improve myself so that I am a better person tomorrow than I am today?” In the parlance of Adam Grant, author of Give and Take and Originals, this would entail a psychological shift from being a taker (selfish) to becoming more of a giver (selfless) to improve the organization.[2] The value of purposeful exposure and guided experience must be acknowledged and appreciated as means through which to begin this nudge. One additional path to consider is learning from those who have modeled the way. They have done so by relating to the morning, reacquainting in the afternoon, and reflecting in the evening while living out the gift of each day.

The Voices

Good morning, President Lincoln!

The Lincoln Memorial is most accentuated in the morning. Each sunrise, the visage of Daniel Chester French’s central chamber statue so movingly captures a worn but strong President Lincoln. This welcoming of the day is appropriately symbolic of our 16th President. He was internally driven by an innate ability to determinedly center on a complementary combination of deep personal humility and intense professional will.[3] He accomplished this focus by first relating to each day. He greeted it, embraced it, and established a long-standing rapport with it. Like a gardener, Lincoln cultivated spaces for his team of rivals, and others, to take part in social interaction while figuratively feeding and pruning them to keep their efforts fecund and oriented on the matters at hand. Lincoln nourished, or developed, this team to handle the trials and tribulations that shaped the character of our nation during his tenure.

Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Lincoln is slightly left of center, just behind the mass of blurry people, facing the camera, head slightly down and tilted to his right. (Wikimedia)

As human beings, the ability to direct our own attention, consciously or subconsciously, toward certain features of a situation influences our attitudes, decisions, and behaviors. Relating to the morning psychologically prepares us for each day by creating a language for ourselves within an environment that promotes autodidactic development. This preparation serves as a means to prime and frame our mindset for the possibilities of our day. Priming refers to the subconscious triggering of previously established or anticipated responses. Framing refers to the directing of our attention to salient aspects of the situations we may find ourselves in to impact how we perceive and process additional information. Prompts and frames drive our behavior.[4]

 In The Nurture Effect, Anthony Biglan suggests routine priming and framing may actually code our gene expression, or the manner in which our biology constitutes who we are and what we do. Science has recently revealed that we are capable of resolute self-nurturing and empowering the same for our loved ones, our communities, and even our nations.[6] As biological and behavioral sciences more fully complement each other, they will form a prism through which we may more clearly view the elemental spectrum of what human beings need to thrive. This spectrum is one in which Simon Sinek’s “why” will become even more apparent. Relating to each day in a thoughtful and meaningful way is something Lincoln did and serves, perhaps, as the most salient step in the human journey to bring forth “the better angels of our nature.”[7] By centering ourselves at the dawn of each new day, we move ourselves to inspire on.

Good afternoon, President Jefferson!

At its peak during most of the year, the afternoon sun burnishes John Russell Pope’s memorial of President Jefferson. Symbolically, reacquainting with each day in the afternoon hours promoted Jefferson’s habit of industry. Taking measure of the morning, clearing the mind with the aid of a mid-day reading, and iterating toward the second half of the day were meaningful. They also provided a means of self-assessing the daily purpose.[8]

Chronobiology has helped us understand much about human circadian rhythms. These rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes due primarily to the light and darkness in our environment and roughly follow a 24-hour cycle. Embedded in this 24-hour cycle is the period after we have been going full steam ahead through the demands of the morning. Due to the tempo of the day and our brain’s use of energy, we may find our attention wandering and our focus flagging. We seem to have a natural lull in the afternoon. The expenditure of energy precipitates a slight drop in our core body temperature which, in turn, signals the suprachiasmatic nucleus to release melatonin–the hormone that makes us sleepy.[9]

While some cultures have the siesta, there exist other means through which to regain our productivity and concentration for the remainder of our day. Exposure to light will decrease the production of melatonin. Exercising to increase blood flow throughout the body and increase the core temperature will also help elevate alertness and boost the brain’s rejoinders. One more option, and noted previously, is the method espoused by Jefferson–that of reacquainting with the day.[10]

This idealized depiction of (left to right) Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson working on the Declaration was widely reprinted. (Wikimedia)

As a matter of practice, Jefferson regularly re-familiarized himself with his progressive vision for America–one that was not intimidated by adaptation and growth. He espoused a willingness to remake himself anew while moving forward with the value of the past as a guide and the potential of the future as an ambition. Acknowledging that masterful achievement does not happen in short order. He was patient and gave himself the time he needed most afternoons to grow and improve.[11]

What emerges for us in the moments of every afternoon is shaped by what we choose to do. At the beginning of a period of personal development at Next Jump, Inc., the co-founders of the company, Charlie Kim and Meghan Messenger, ask participants to take a five-minute pause in silence to cleanse their minds and prepare for the final session of the day. This is similar to Jefferson’s way of relaxing and providing for, at a minimum, a mental safe haven to rest, enjoy the quiet, and re-charge. This Jeffersonian habit of industry provides an avenue for iterative development through the interplay of activities and challenges of both mind and body on a regular basis.[12] In my opinion, based on all mentioned heretofore, that this is the space in which we may check and sustain our “why.” Further, by re-committing ourselves each afternoon, we become enthused to iterate on.[13]

Good evening, President Washington.

The most prominent feature observable in the Reflecting Pool of on the Mall during each evening is Robert Mills’ tribute to our first commander in chief; the image of the piercing white obelisk mirrors the most striking element of autodidacticism–reflection. To synthesize bits of tacit, theoretical, and experiential knowledge we acquire throughout the day, reflection is paramount. Also, no one else can do this for us. Reflection, for me, is the only means by which we translate the multitude of daily choices into understanding, meaning, and fulfillment in this life. Let us take this a bit further. To see the Washington Monument (the past) in the Reflecting Pool, one must be in the vicinity of the Lincoln Memorial (the future). One may then proceed westward to view the Jefferson Memorial. This is symbolic of the manifest destiny for each of us to grow and attempt to realize our potential.

A young President Washington began as a surveyor. By “charting maps and looking to the skies for direction” he was a person whose “history…provides a reservoir for…stories that can change things. The personal capital is the knowledge of these stories and the ability to inspire them in others.” This “creates identities and dreams that prepare followers for the demands of what is to come.”[14] Hence, according to Washington, reflections on our past provide gateways to our potentials for the future.

More pointedly, Army Colonel Eric Kail highlighted the role of reflection in his series on leadership character. The concept of reflection is a critical component for growth, self-awareness, and authenticity. Our experiences only have value if we choose to constructively utilize them. This utility originates from reflection that necessitates a form of introspection that extends well beyond merely thinking on, or conversing about, our experiences. Reflection serves as a way to begin to understand how our life events mold the manner in which we perceive others, the world around us, and ourselves. Perhaps most importantly, reflection provides the critical link between our performance and our potential. It is paramount that we explore and specifically assign meaning to our experiences.[15]

General George Washington Resigning His Commission, John Trumbull. General George Washington resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Army to the Congress, which was then meeting at the Maryland State House in Annapolis, on December 23, 1783. This action was of great significance in establishing civilian, rather than military rule, leading to a republic, rather than a dictatorship. (Public Domain)

In The Road to Character, David Brooks notes the habit of our society to privilege our résumé virtues, or what we do, over our eulogy virtues, or who we are. He argues that by reversing this habit and privileging eulogy virtues, we may more fully understand the moral ecology within which a life of character and depth evolve. By familiarizing ourselves with what the road to character looks like and how others have traversed it, we “consciously and unconsciously shape our lives to model the positive example of others.” By embracing the self-effacing virtues of humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline, we may begin to “struggle toward maturity.”[16] We enter this struggle through reflection. President Washington demonstrated a mastery of reflection and internalized Brooks’ eulogy virtues so eloquently articulated by Congressman Lee:

“First in war–first in peace–and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and enduring scenes of private life; pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting. To his equals he was condescending, to his inferiors kind, and to the dear object of his affections exemplarily tender; correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence, and virtue always felt his fostering hand; the purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues.”[17]

It is from this point of origin that we embolden and refine our “why” in the sense of being better the next day. Creating a sanctuary where we may escape from the trials of the day, nourish our spirit, and re-focus so as not to waste any efforts or time throughout the final moments of the day is one way to thwart the loss of meaning and lean toward perpetual self-improvement. By reflecting each evening, we humble ourselves to serve on.

The Substance of Autodidactic Development

Suffice it to say, this work is a bit more structured than the actual conversation that took place throughout the neural networks of my brain during that beautiful morning run. My final thought, however, conveys what I felt to be the meaningful conjecture that resulted from that conversation.

Perhaps the Department of Defense spends too much time, energy, and resources attempting to train and educate personnel doctrinally through programs and policies and too little time empowering the relation, reacquainting, and reflection critical to enabling autodidacticism that unleashes Jefferson’s “illimitable freedom of the human mind.”[18]

"...we begin to distance ourselves from being overly reliant on doctrine, programs, and policies to train and educate us. Daily reminders embedded in our life and within our culture should be fueled by autodidactic behavior that emboldens us..."

This relation-reacquainting-reflection process is metaphorically represented at the very core of our biological survival, the beating of our heart. The cardiac cycle includes all of the events that take place during one heartbeat and has three phases: atrial systole, ventricular systole, and diastole.[19] Systole refers to contraction and diastole refers to relaxation. Just as the atrial systole phase of the cycle situates the heart, we may prepare for each day by relating to it mentally through priming and framing. During ventricular systole, the transference of blood flow and repolarization connects with an alteration in our outlook for the afternoon to move us through the natural inclination of our circadian rhythm and remain engaged with the day. During the diastole phase, all four chambers of the heart relax to allow blood to pour into the heart from the veins. This filling to capacity and repolarization mimics our ability to gather everything we experienced throughout the course of the day, attempt to make sense of it, and then cleanse our minds in preparation for the next day.

As Homo sapiens, we are each bio-physio-psycho-socio-poetic entities in our given socio-ecological environments. Successful organizations ensure these environments are nurturing and ones in which we are encouraged to support mutual well-being and development by helping each other persevere in the pursuit of our values.[20] Such nurturing ecosystems function to benefit everyone. The catch here is that these systems do not evolve without individuals who embrace an autodidactic life.

Individual development, à la Aristotle, Kant, Frankl, and a potpourri of others, iteratively drives human interaction as it influences context which then further develops the individual which then further influences context, and so on. To relate in the morning, we may ask ourselves, “What is an element of my ‘why’ to garden today?” To reacquaint in the afternoon, we might ask, “How am I building on the chosen element of my ‘why’ so far?” To reflect in the evening, meaning may be unveiled by inquiring, “How do my experiences today help me navigate toward my ‘why’?”

By entertaining questions such as these, we begin to distance ourselves from being overly reliant on doctrine, programs, and policies to train and educate us. Daily reminders embedded in our life and within our culture should be fueled by autodidactic behavior that emboldens us to “inspire on,” “iterate on,” and “serve on.” This nudge in mindset necessarily gives the present more meaning by moving knowledge to understanding prior to the mists of experience calcifying and leaving it to become dust whisked into the past. We are most fortunate to know three former commanders in chief as exemplars upon whom to bestow our gratitude.

President Washington, President Jefferson, and President Lincoln, thank you for your time and I look forward to our next “conversation.”

Aaron W. Dimmock is currently serving as the Navy Representative to the Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Defense for Military Professionalism. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] Thomas Jefferson upon founding the University of Virginia in 1819.

[2] Grant, A. (2013). Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. NY: Penguin Group.

[3] Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t. NY: HarperCollins.

[4] Autodidacts focus on prompts and frames that drive their behavior. In the priming arena, Amir, Ariely, & Mazar, 2008 and Ariely, Ayal, & Gino, 2009, address activating a moral mindset. Shu, Mayar, Ariely, & Bazerman, 2012, address the connection with identity. Tversky & Kahneman, 1981, established Prospect Theory. Morally-relevant language and politeness have been researched by Shariff & Norenzayan, 2007; Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996; and Tsaliku, 2014. Lastly, analyses pertaining to the translation of moods into action have been conducted by Schaller & Cialdini, 1990; Eisenber & Miller, 1987; and Haidt, 2006. With regard to framing, positive attributes have been put forth by Levin & Gaith, 1988; Davis & Bobko, 1986; Marteau, 1989; Levin, 1987; and Tversky & Kahneman, 1981. Highlighting of consequences was researched by Levin, Scheider, & Gaeth, 1998. In-group and out-group, or tribal, membership has been entertained by Ariely, Ayal, & Gino, 2009. Lastly, the impact of language on moral intensity has been studied by Jones, 1991. These references have been condensed from a synopsis provided in a white paper entitled “Priming and Framing for Ethical Actions” by Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Basik, United States Air Force.

[5] Biglan, A. (2015). The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World. CA: New Harbinger Publications.

[6] Sinek, S. (2009). Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. NY: Penguin.

[7] President Abraham Lincoln in his 1st Inaugural Address delivered on Monday, March 4th, 1861.

[8] Barefoot, C. (2002). Thomas Jefferson on Leadership: Executive Lessons from His Life and Letters. NY: Plume.

[9] DeCoursey, P., Dunlap, J., and J. Loros (2003). Chronobiology. MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Barefoot, C. (2002). Thomas Jefferson on Leadership: Executive Lessons from His Life and Letters. NY: Plume.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Next Jump, Inc., is a company that Kegan and Lahey have termed a Deliberately Developmental Organization as they constantly iterate toward personal and organizational improvement.  Kegan, R. and L. Lahey. (2016). An Everyone Culture Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

[14] Blair, D. “The Three Streams of Leadership: Why ‘Charity vs. Selfishness’ Should Replace the ‘Management vs. Leadership’ Dichotomy in our Thinking about Leaders”. http://www.thestrategybridge.com/the-bridge/2016/1/3/the-three-streams-of-leadership. Accessed September 9th, 2015.

[15] Kail, E. “Leadership Character: The Role of Reflection” http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-insights/post/leadership-character-the-role-of-reflection/2011/04/04/gIQAdJOr1R_blog.html. Posted March 9, 2012.

[16] Brooks, D. (2015). The Road to Character. NY: Random House.

[17] Congressman Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee in his eulogy for President Washington on December 26th, 1799.

[18] Thomas Jefferson upon founding the University of Virginia in 1819.

[19] Phases of the Cardiac Cycle, http://biology.about.com/od/anatomy/ss/cardiac_cycle.htm, accessed October 14th, 2015.

[20] Biglan, A. (2015). The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World.  CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.