Learning from the The Oxford Praxis Forum’s reading weekend, Avila, Spain, September 2013

| Tags: Business, Creativity

Why do we bother with academics? Why don’t we just rely on our practical experience or our “gut”, our ability to respond to the realities of business? What is the point of a citadel of learning such as Oxford University in the modern business age?

The Oxford Praxis Forum is an attempt at exploring the territory between theory and practice. It focuses on a dialogue between academia and practitioners in business with the goal of developing new forms of learning. Enter Mr Rob Poynton who elegantly lives in both worlds as a practitioner and academic. Along with Forum sponsor Marshal Young of The Said Business School and Green Templeton College he invited a small group to a farmhouse and family estate near Avila, northwest of Madrid, Spain. Our goal: to close the Gap between academia and practitioners, between theory and practice, and grow our insight in a shared learning experience.

It was an experiment in dialog informed by reading. We had gathered a selection of books with each person contributing and, in the balmy late summer days we, well, read them. Some of us read diligently from cover to cover while others grazed across the library and sought patterns.

Here is a partial reading list, illustrating the interests of the group:

Dan Ariely – The Upside of Irrationality

Henri Bortoft – Taking Appearance Seriously

John Brockman – This Will Make You Smarter

Charles Eisenstein – The Ascent of Humanity

Selina Guinness – The Crocodile by the Door

Jonathan Haidt – The Happiness Hypothesis

Jonathan Haidt – The Righteous Mind

Rick Hanson – Buddha’s Brain

Tim Harford – Adapt

Adam Hochschild – King Leopold’s Ghost

Steven Johnson – Where Good Ideas Come From

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow

George Lakoff – Philosophy in the Flesh

Iain McGilchrist – The Master and his Emissary

Alva Noe – Out of  Your Heads

Plutarch – Pericles Funeral Oration

Kathryn Schultz – Being Wrong

Douglas Stone – Difficult Conversations

Mike Stroud – Survival of the Fittest

David Talbot – Season of the Witch

Twyla Tharp – The Creative Habit

Henry David Thoreau – On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

We were a broad group of participants from the world of the arts, business and academia. Robert and Marshall had designed the weekend around two of my favorite things: conversation and amazing food. Fidel, or chef for the weekend, was as much a contributor to our thinking as anyone else as he detailed the history of dishes prepared in traditional ways for his motley crew of guests. A morning walk with Robert and his dog was another highlight, somehow you think more clearly when walking or eating (or is it me?).

We explored morality as an operating system for connected communities, lessons from dance practice and the serious question of whether or not social science is real science. There was a lot more of course, this is my edit, and each conversation informed each other conversation. Then the serenity of sitting in the sun and reading. I watched my own ADD kick in then be abandoned. I witnessed the academic skill of deep reading and immersion in the meaning of things, squeezing clarity where, in business, we would often rush to the next subject.

In essence we went on a journey of discovery, made friendships around ideas and opened up to fresh thinking that had not previously existed. It was integrated interdisciplinary working done in the right way rather than the forced corporate way of “integrated workgroup processes” or whatever the current jargon is. We ate, read, slept, drank good wine, walked, discussed and sparked ideas.

In my own practice I had several illuminating moments where I realized I had been thinking about projects at Studioriley in the wrong way. I felt both ignorant and smart and was, in consequence, very open to learning from others.

And this, for me was the magic of The Praxis Reading Weekend: in an old fashioned way, talking over food and long walks, reading and relaxing in the sun, we actually fed our brains and connected our hearts, through new friendships, to important new ideas. This is what we mean by inspiration and it is totally lacking in the corporate environment. Praxis: theory in practice is a perfect antidote to the tedious divide between business and academic life. It also holds the potential to bring much needed new thinking into business and much needed challenges into academia. But perhaps the most important thing to learn from this approach is how to renew the emotional and spiritual connection between people as they work and think together. Fidel was our fuel, the lights in our eyes indicated our pleasure at the task. We listened to each other. Egos were enjoyed, humility appeared frequently and a desire to go deep into shared thinking infused everything. This was its own energy and about as different to a brainstorming session at an ad agency as you could get. Many thanks to Robert and Marshall and The Oxford Praxis Forum for having Studioriley at the table… and in the woods.

(This post corrected to add Marshall Young’s affiliation with Green Templeton College, home of The Oxford Praxis Forum)