Astronauts, Toastmasters and lifelong learning

On 20 February 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. On 10 December 2004, I delivered the last of ten speeches in my Toastmasters Communication and Leadership manual and gained the status of Competent Toastmaster. Those events are obviously unconnected, but I believe there is some common ground there too. Both John Glenn and I had to learn our craft and we did it by using three key methods:

We learnt by doing, we reduced our risks and we surrounded ourselves with other learners.

I joined The City of London Toastmasters in November 2001. I discovered a club full of smart, friendly people, each one dedicated to improving not only his or her communication skills, but mine as well. The materials provided by Toastmasters HQ provided an excellent framework for learning. I embarked on the program that all Toastmasters aim to complete – the ten speech Communication and Leadership program – which I completed last year. Along the way, I delivered impromptu speeches, workshops, prepared speeches, and speech evaluations (when I gave feedback to others in the club). I ran meetings and organized PR. I even took part in – and sometimes won – speech and evaluation contests. And although I am now one of the veterans in our club, there is no sign of the learning letting up. The mission of City of London – and of the 10,000 other Toastmasters clubs around the world – is:

to provide a positive and supportive learning environment in which every member has the opportunity to develop communication and leadership skills which in turn foster self-confidence and personal growth.

Now, that’s ‘Imi ola.

And what about John Glenn? Well, during that historic space ride, John Glenn wore a heart rate monitor and, according to The Right Stuff, his heart rate never rose above 80 beats per minute. That’s about average for a grown man sitting down and watching a bit of television or reading the news.

Think about that for a second. Imagine how your heart would race if you were packed into a rocket and fired into space. Factor in that Glenn was sitting on tons of highly volatile rocket fuel and that previous NASA rockets had an alarming propensity to explode! My heart beats fast just thinking about it, yet when Mission Control told Glenn of a delay, he was so calm, he took a nap. During the wait, and from lift off to splash down, Glenn stayed cool, calm and collected, and his heart rate held steady.

To understand how Glenn maintained such calm, you have to look at his training regime. For literally years, Glenn and the other six astronauts picked to train with him, had rehearsed and rehearsed. They hadn’t just read books or learned theories. They had instead logged hundreds of hours in simulators and in g-force trainers and on "parabolic flights" which mimic the feeling of being weightless. They had done everything they would have to do on a space flight without ever lifting off into space. The seven astronauts coached one another and gave one another feedback, refining their performance to the highest levels. When the big moment came for Glenn, he drew on what he had learned, he had confidence in his training, and he was calm. Boy, was he calm.

I believe that the stage at my Toastmasters club is my simulator. My every speech at Toastmasters is a parabolic flight. My club mates are the other astronauts. And whenever I make a vital presentation in front of audiences of strangers – that’s my space flight.

When it comes to lifelong learning, the lessons here are three fold. Effective learning happens when you:

  1. Learn by doing. Books and blogs are great, but nothing beats getting up and doing that which you are trying to learn. Want to learn public speaking? Then speak in public. Want to learn leadership? Then be a leader.
  2. Reduce the risk. Don’t expect to learn everything all in one go. Find or create a simulator. Expose yourself little by little to greater and greater challenges. Don’t be afraid, but don’t expect to blast off before you are ready.
  3. Surround yourself with other learners. Helping others to succeed reinforces your learning. And you will be astonished by what you learn from others, once you accept their help.

Now, if you are saying "that’s all well and good for astronauts, but what about earthbound learning?" let me introduce you to Wally Schirra.  Wally was another of the original seven astronauts, alongside John Glenn, but you probably don’t know his name. That’s a shame because he was the astronaut’s astronaut – he flew more orbits, used less fuel, and landed more accurately than any of the others. But he wasn’t the first and the day after he splashed down, President Kennedy informed the nation of the Cuban missile crisis. So Wally Schirra’s story was pretty much lost to history.

But here’s my favorite thing about Wally Schirra.  Wally understood the three lessons – learn by doing, reduce the risk and surround yourself with other learners – so when Wally  Schirra decided to do some earthbound learning, where do you think he went?

Postcript by Rosa: Our Guest Author today is Adrian Trenholm, sending us his wonderful story of learning from London. Each and every day, you can visit Adrian on his own blog, where in sharing his ho‘ohana, he urges all of us to communicate better, and he coaches us to do just that.