We want to make a difference. We want our lives to matter.

The connection between those wants and our lives actually mattering points to our participation. Participation may be key to our aliveness. Unfortunately, it is so misunderstood.

The advent of participation trophies, mocked by many, has added to this misunderstanding. Still, participation brings meaning to our existence. It is worth exploring and connecting to as a practice.

Beyond the Surface

When I taught college, I discovered a challenge early on: How do I get students to participate in their learning? We know that student involvement leads to greater engagement, more discoveries, and better comprehension. But how can we accomplish this virtuous cycle?

Many in our profession create team exercises and discussions. Some of these can work. During my first year of teaching, I found myself designing such activities. Then, I discovered something. Beyond any contrived teams or tasks, if the material mattered to students, they would find ways to involve themselves.

But how can we make the material matter?

  • Reframe Attendance. Immediately, I noticed that we conflated attendance in class with participation. Physical attendance gives the appearance of involvement. Actual participation includes an authentic interest, connection, and willingness to become involved. I see this is a precondition to co-creating.
  • Make It Matter. I discovered that, as a teacher, I also have to be involved in the material to make it matter to the lives of learners. Content that matters encourages participation.

Participation Evokes Possibility and Fear

Participation matters. But many do not believe that it makes a difference.

Unfortunately, much of our participation seems guided by whether we can achieve some goal or agenda. Organizing life’s activities around winning or succeeding misses a deeper understanding of being human.

Our full participation in any effort offers the possibility of discovery and connection. We discover gaps in our awareness, uncover blind spots, and bump up against hidden alternatives. We also open up new possibilities and connect to a more profound understanding of ourselves and others.

— Full participation always yields better results and surprises.

— Greater participation in elections yields greater legitimacy and trust because it includes more voices and ideas.

— Civic participation produces better citizens and meaningful societies.

— Full participation in any change effort can alter any perception, situation, or issue.

So why don’t we participate fully? I’ve discovered two reasons: fear of failure and fear of looking foolish.

These fears often manifest as an attachment to winning, success, achieving status, and creating impressions, as well as avoiding failure, by looking silly or incompetent. These fears also constrain when and how we participate.

The Importance of Involvement

Letting go of our fears and diving into life offers immense rewards.

At its fullest, our participation involves us wholeheartedly and unreservedly throwing ourselves into something. This definition differs from merely “going through the motions” of doing something, as it requires involvement.

Our involvement requires taking risks and letting go of fear, which can be challenging.

Pose this question to your students: Would you rather know how to get an A, or give up the A to discover how to learn, risk, and fail? Our system rewards the former, but a meaningful life rewards the latter.

Involvement is the secret sauce that motivates our participation. It invests our attention, intention, and energy into the worlds that make up our life.

Whether we’re writing, sailing, parenting, playing music, cooking, or serving customers, our full involvement unlocks the love, joy, concentration, and aliveness that makes life sing.

And yet, our participation is often stifled by whether we will win or lose, succeed or fail. This saddens me, as so many of life’s realizations are revealed through our involvement in efforts—especially when we lose.

Every time I play chess or Scrabble, I enjoy participating. Even when I lose, I always learn something that adds to my enthusiasm.

Winning is temporal, but involvement is fundamental to being human. Moreover, experiencing loss focuses our attention and direction even more. And how we deal with loss reveals our character.

Our full involvement in any activity may be the ultimate hidden reward. Indeed, our involvement may result in what finds us “in the zone.” Whether we’re writing, sailing, parenting, playing music, cooking, or serving customers, our full involvement unlocks the love, joy, concentration, and aliveness that makes life sing.

Levels of Involvement

Becoming more involved motivates our participation in co-creating worlds and becoming more, which begins with our level of involvement.

LEVEL 1: Involvement with Self. I explore topics through personal learning, investigation, and research. I gain more knowledge about issues that interest me.

LEVEL 2: Involvement with Others. I explore my knowledge and experiences with others, which leads to questions and discoveries. Through dialogue and questions, I clarify assumptions to apply knowledge. With greater “experience,” I increase my expertise and become competent.

LEVEL 3: Involvement in Worlds. I immerse myself in a world. What I learn, how I learn, and what I do with what I learn are guided by the way I navigate that world. Through immersion in different worlds, I discover distinctions in my awareness and perceptions that reveal tacit knowledge. I speak the language of this world, discover its values and views, and “belong” in an otherwise impossible way.

When applied, I can see this in my life, using coaching as an example.

LEVEL 1: Coaching as a Topic. Here, I can investigate the research by engaging acclaimed texts. I gain knowledge of what coaching is and what it is not.

LEVEL 2: Coaching as a Career. Here, I sign up for a training program to learn and discuss coaching concepts and experiences with others. I clarify assumptions and discover new techniques and practices. I learn how to apply coaching knowledge and process my experiences to become competent.

LEVEL 3: Coaching as a World. Through discovery, I find myself enjoying membership in this world. Through associations and organizations that maintain relationships and community standards, I attend webinars, events, and conferences. I now find myself involved in inquiries and conversations that shape the future of coaching. I learn what it means to be a coach.

We Participate in Conversations

Our involvement is felt by the way we show up, take risks, and offer support in conversations. Conversations are both the vehicle for and product of participation.

In businesses where employees take initiative, they find more satisfaction. In classrooms where students participate fully, they learn more. In countries with greater citizen participation, governments engender more legitimacy, trust, and social cohesion.

None of this happens without our participation, which finds us in different levels of conversation: from a conversation with ourselves, to conversations with others, to a conversation for something. That last dynamic has us being a conversation for some world we inhabit.

Becoming a chef is different than being a cook, becoming a musician is different than playing a musical instrument, and becoming a history buff is different than knowing history. In each of these situations, we inhabit a world, speak a language, and share a culture.

Involvement requires interest and investment that shapes our participation in the conversation that we have, co-create, and become.

Where do you find yourself fully involved? What world might you want to dive into? How can you access membership in that world? What stops you from participating more fully?

If we must give trophies for anything that expands our humanity, why not encourage participation? Why not encourage involvement in the very conversations that open new worlds?

Such a reward would bring more far joy, balance, and satisfaction into our lives than mere winning ever could.

Reading Time: 7.5 min. Digest Time: 12.5 min

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.