The other day Tana and I went to talk to Megan Webster who teaches at St. George’s, a school in Montreal that seems quite steeped in this idea of expressive change. Megan describes it as a place where teachers, staff, and students are all deeply engaged in their own learning and where people pay profound and appreciative attention to each other. She says, “I feel more ‘me’ here than anywhere else.”
I am really struck by how much Megan’s reflections about the school are suffused with the language of growth. “Everybody is growing here. Growth is not optional.” She talks about the ways that she herself has grown. She describes the sometimes spectacular growth of quirky, difficult students who were seen in other schools as limited in some way. “There is no threshold,” she says. She seems delighted to know this.
I have seen that sort of delight before – in organizations that are palpably energized not just by the work that they do but by the personal growth that that work provokes. But it only seems to happen when growth is for everyone, not simply for the “target” group of clients, students, etc., and when each person’s growth is an end in itself, not just something that might prove explicitly useful to the organization.
I’d say that this theme is a touchstone of expressive organizations, that the people in them care deeply about each other’s journeys. It’s not that those journeys are organizationally managed, or even precisely known. Your own path to growth is mysterious and often un-“manageable” even to you, after all. It’s that those journeys are honored. They matter.
In her Happiness Project blog, Gretchen Rubin quotes Yeats: “Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”
Megan talks about how hard it can be for us to continually go beyond our own previously comfortable boundaries. Growth energizes St. George’s, but it also causes tension and provokes resistance. I think this is true at other growth-filled organizations I have spent time with. They may be energizing and engaging places. But they are also difficult places. To grow is to be constantly humbled, to be brought back again and again to the beginning.
It is commonplace for organizations to talk about growth. It is much rarer for them to take it seriously, to structure themselves around growth. This means organizing yourself less around people’s skills than around their yearnings and curiosities. It means hiring and valuing people not for who they are but for who they are becoming.
I was once a reference for a woman applying for a job at Santropol Roulant, the organization I know that is most serenely oriented toward inclusive growth. Someone from the organization called to ask about her, and I remember saying, “I don’t know whether or not you should hire her. That’s for you to figure out. But I know that she would gain a great deal by working with you. She would grow in some really wonderful ways.” Later I wondered if I had made a mistake. It is an odd sort of recommendation to give: “I think this person is ready to receive something meaningful from you.” But at Santropol Roulant – at any expressive organization, I imagine – that readiness to receive, to grow, is all important. She got the job.