John Seely Brown on learning

Recently, John Seely Brown or often referred to simply as “JSB”, a visiting scholar at USC and the independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, breezed into Singapore and delivered a lecture entitled, “A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change” at the Singapore Civil Service College (click on the book on the left if you want to know more). JSB gave his insights on how learning is taking place in today’s connected world.

He started his lecture by highlighting a group of surfers known as The Grommets. This group of surfers is based in Maui, Hawaii. The Grommets have become the leading proponents of a new water sport called aerial surfing. If you look at them in action, you will see a lot of similarities with skateboarding. According to JSB this group of surfers became excellent because of the way they learn to improve themselves at the sport. According to JSB, The Grommets underwent these stages in their pursuit of excellence:

a) Deep collaborative learning with/from each other;
b) A passion to achieve extreme performance and a willingness to fail, fail, fail on the way;
c) Accessing and learning frame by frame the best surfers around the world via videos of the pros;
d) Use of video tools to capture and analyze each of their own improvisations;
e) Pulling the best of ideas from adjacencies: wind surfing, skate boarding, mountain biking, motor-cross and others;
f) Accessing spikes of capabilities around the world – leveraging networks of practice around the world; and
g) Attracting others to help them around the world

What JSB found most interesting was that the group came together and began to “critique each other on-the-fly almost all the time and to compete like mad with each other the rest of the time.” And they do so passionately. They will try out new ideas and fail continuously and end messed up on the quite unforgiving waves. But as JSB pointed out, they would do it again and again.

The Grommets also learn  by watching the DVDs of other great surfers. They would actually do a frame-by-frame viewing of the moves done by these surfers. Then they would ride the surfs again to try out what they had seen and try out their own new moves which they would also video and review. It is a constant process of learning, trying, and reviewing aided by a willingness to fail and fueled by passion.

One of the ideas that he highlighted was the idea of adjacencies. As JSB puts it:

“How do you start to pull ideas, moves, recoveries from adjacencies to hard core surfing. Obviously skateboarding would be one. And yes, Dusty is a darn good skateboarder too. And so he goes out and studies these skateboard moves. And so you say how do you appropriate this skateboard move over here and do what I am doing over there? But it doesn’t stop with skateboarding. Let’s look at mountain biking and motocross. One of the things that he does is to let the board get way out in front of him. It is a move that he appropriated from extreme performance in motorcross where you see these guys with their motorcycles out in front of them flying over an edge. There is an incessant ethic of how can I appropriate what I see into my own skill set?”
~ “The Cook Report on Internet Protocol, 2010″

The other two aspects of The Grommets learning that interested JSB was their understanding of local ecosystems or “spikes”. According to JSB, The Grommets “travel all over the world going to every kind of local talented place observing surfers and looking for new moves.” They use Skype to remain connected. JSB also found it interesting to see how they’ve figured out where there are local hotspots of incredible talent to visit and build relationships in those “spikes of incredible capability”.

The second aspect that JSB finds most interesting is that the learning is often reciprocal, in the sense that others would also come to them to share their skills. So as JSB puts it, he is interested in“how do they productively interact with folks so that people will begin to come to them to show them things with the result that they don’t have to go out as much.”

Learning about learning from JSB, I wonder about the kind of learning  takes place in schools and  most tertiary institutions. Schools are meant to be places that prepare students for the real world but when I compare the real world learning experiences of The Grommets and what takes place in schools, I cannot help feeling a wide disparity between the two.

I would just like to highlight a few differences. The differences, I believe are in the following areas:

a) the passion in the pursuit of learning;

b) the great depth of learning in a niche area yet open to learning from other niches;

c) the personalised yet collaborative nature of the learning (the building of an ecosystem of learning); and

d) the culture and willingness to fail repeatedly to achieve excellence.

By the way, if you think I had been at the lecture by JSB, I was actually not there. My wife was at the lecture and summarized it for me. It piqued my interest (and jealousy), and I went to the Net to find out more about the things JSB had said at the lecture. I have just highlighted one part of what I believe he had delivered at the Singapore Civil Service College. I believe, however, based on the additional work that I have done through the connectedness of the world today and important points noted by my wife, I have presented a fairly accurate picture of a portion JSB’s message. In my own way, I am already doing some of the things that JSB discussed about learning. Do you think this way of learning is interesting and useful? Share your thoughts.

(Addendum: By the way, if you want to view the same lecture done elsewhere, click here. If you want to download the video, click here. And if you want the slides of the lecture, they are here. And of course you can email JSB here).


  1. Key underpinning of this increasing vital approach to mastery is cultivating a community of individuals who are ardent, like you, around a strong sweet spot of shared interest — people who are strongly motivated. I see such traits, for example in Quantified Self movement, open government groups, LEGOs fans, Nat’l Asn of Music Merchants, and in TechStars. Love to hear of other groups that are growing through participating in such talent-centered communities

  2. Thanks for the comment, Kare. Agree with you fully. The cultivation of a community of passionate individuals who are as you say “ardent” and “passionate” has always been vital to real learning taking place.

    It is not a new idea though. It has been around for sometime, even hundreds (thousands?) of years. We think of communities of learning in ancient Alexandria in Egypt or in Baghdad. In more recent times, we have Greenwich Village “home” of the folkies that has bred people like Bob Dylan. In the IT era, Silicon Valley comes to mind.

    But I guess what is different today is that the communities can be virtual or online and get be physically apart yet connected. More importantly perhaps, because distance has been compressed, like minded souls can be found anywhere in the world.

    To borrow from the ideas in the book, “The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson, the breadth and reach of the internet has resulted in the creation of “miniscule” niches which can mean a few hundreds or thousands people of similar tastes and interests or passions. They are only miniscule in relation to the size of the Net. But the Net also allows them to find like minded souls where in the past they will be kept isolated due to distance. I think what this means is that there are now unthinkable opportunities for such passionate communities to thrive despite having members who are physically apart. In addition, the cross-fertilization of ideas would simply be immense and be more rapid.

    Thanks again, for the comment. Look forward to hearing more from you.

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