It is not only a simple cliché but also a cultural meme, that at the beginning of a new year, like the Roman god Janus, we reflect on the past and make plans for a different future. This meme represents a fundamental human urge to learn, change and develop new ways of being in the world. Essentially, it is an annual opportunity to focus on possibilities and to say, “That can be me.”
University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum suggests that two key questions guide our efforts to pursue what we can be: What are we actually able to do and to be? and What real opportunities do we have to pursue our goals? Those are the right questions for individuals to ask, but also for policymakers and corporate leaders to consider as they shape the future. In her book Creating Capabilities, Nussbaum asserts that social or corporate policies cannot move society in a positive direction unless conditions exist that “enable people to live full and creative lives, developing their potential and fashioning a meaningful existence.”
Nussbaum’s questions are similar to those that guided the formation of Books@Work and its parent organization, That Can Be Me, Inc. During months of study and discussion between 2007 and 2009, a group of community leaders wrestled with how to turn a metropolitan region with low educational attainment into a thriving 21st-century learning community. Since so much had already failed to move the needle, they decided it was time for a creative experiment to tap into that human urge to grow and develop. From this work, Books@Work was born. If people could experience learning that allowed them to do something different in the workplace, might it give them the insight and confidence to see that there is more that they can be and do?The liberal arts has provided this very experiment for centuries. But it works at work too. Reading and discussing literature unlocks potential and provides meaning to participants as they explore a wide variety of basic human questions. From the very first pilot Books@Work program, participants enthusiastically embraced a newfound sense of self-discovery, the very sense that inspired the phrase and the name of our organization: “That can be me.” One of the first participants, a dining hall pizza cook, said, “I have put three children through college, but I never thought that I could do college work. Now I know that I can do it.” More recently, a veteran facing some serious life challenges described how the short story Looking Back by Guy de Maupassant helped him to believe that he could be more outgoing. “I’m even joking with people” in social situations now, he said – not an insignificant accomplishment!
Through our research, we know that Books@Work creates confidence and encourages people to re-evaluate relationships and reconsider their roles in the workplace. Recalling Nussbaum’s first question, participants perceive things that they are able to be and do as they discover strengths in coworkers and in themselves that were previously hidden from view. People who have worked together for years develop new ways of interacting. New and old employees alike gain valuable insights into their coworkers that provide meaning to the work they share and contribute to job satisfaction. Discussions across traditional workplace hierarchies surprise many as they recognize the unique contribution that each person makes.
But Nussbaum’s second question maybe even more important than the first: What real opportunities do we have to pursue our goals? Many employees have expressed gratitude for the opportunity to learn both personally and professionally in the workplace. Professionals in highly technical fields realized that their opportunity to grow individually enhanced their effectiveness in workplace collaboration. One participant said, “I’ve worked with [my colleagues] every day, talking about work stuff, [then] we do Books@Work, and something out of one of our books will prompt a conversation, and before I know it, there’s a whole new side of these people I didn’t see. It’s so well worth our time because we’ve all grown. We’ve all grown together. We’ve grown separately.”
Literature discussions, it turns out, create a space where individuals learn and grow together, discovering, creating and realizing “that can be me:” who they are and what they can be. Unlike solitary New Year’s resolutions that often fall by the wayside, the experience of shared reading, shared learning and self-reflection ignites a fire that endures far beyond the end of January.
Image: Toshusai Sharaku, Otafuku Throwing Black Beans to Chase Away Demons on New Year’s Eve, 1794, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org