Over the past few months, I have been learning to build a house alongside a new friend, Torsten Ottesjö, architect, lumberjack and pedagogue in carpentry and architecture. Throughout our time on the building site, the two of us have discussed our approaches to learning, creating and sharing knowledge in our fields.
Most of my work over the years has revolved around organizing communities on housing, planning and democracy issues in inner-city areas. Torsten on the other hand, invites people with no relevant experience to build alongside him on structures that can be as small as a stool or as big as a house. Even though we work in different sectors, we have found some harmony in our ideas and how we approach our jobs. Both of us see our work as being in large part about tapping into people’s creativity and power and helping to find agency and independence in that process (and hopefully beyond!).
In many ways, our jobs are about building people’s confidence and giving them the space to make decisions, two things that are diametrically opposed to how we are taught to think in our schools and in our societies. Growing up in the French school system particularly, I was taught not to trust myself or think for myself, but rather to understand that there is nothing I could possibly say that hasn’t been said before. Best to keep quiet and learn to quote the greats, rather than critically engage with ideas or express a personal opinion.
For Torsten, it’s the opposite. Here’s is his TedX talk in Göteborg, Sweden:
And here is our short conversation about learning and doing:
Torsten: “The point is to get your own reference points, like “I decide to start here, and then I get inspired from the work and carry on from there.”. It’s about achieving mental freedom – trusting yourself, and not being dependent on others, or letting others decide what you should do. Because then you aren’t free, and then you question what you’re doing and the process slows down and it doesn’t work at all.”
Celine: In organizing, we start from our own reference points too. We start from what people know, our experiences and reflect on those and draw lessons and act from there. And then we look at where we are at again, at what we know and reflect and act from there, in a cycle. In fact, what you and I are talking is about building confidence and trust in what we know, in where we’re at…
Torsten: Confidence in yourself, in the process and in the work, in order to achieve independence.
For Torsten, a big part of how he teaches others is simply by showing them he trusts them. Rather than giving me a long explanation on the right way to do things, I am often provided with tools, a task – how to build a wall, for example – and a simple explanation. I am then left to my own devices to build it. By walking away from me and not supervising me, Torsten forces me to struggle with questions and find answers on my own. Instead of relying on his knowledge, I have to develop my own – by figuring out how things work and messing up and eventually getting things right.
Participating in this process as an adult is a really strange experience. It’s kind of like being forced to learn how to build the wheel…by reinventing the wheel. Rather than watching a how-to video on how to use a tool, I figure out its mechanics by trial and error. It takes longer, but in the long run, I become a more robust problem solver. Eventually I understand other things with similar principles, faster.
Celine: I haven’t been asked to think this way or I haven’t been abandoned with myself and my brain in this way since I was a child. But somehow, there’s something really empowering about it. When you leave me to figure things out, it makes me feel like “OK Torsten trusts I can do this, so I trust I can do this. I just have to figure it out.”.
Torsten: Yes. By trusting that others can do for themselves, people eventually do for themselves.
Celine: I agree with that. We work on a similar principle in our field too. It’s about asking people to step up and participate in places or in ways they are never asked. Like asking residents to discuss and design their own neighborhood plans. It’s implicitly saying, “You have the solution. You are the solution. I trust you to make your own decisions and solve the problem”. We have to abandon the idea that you have to be an “expert” to be able to speak up or take decisions.
I question whether his method of abandoning people to figure things out can work for everyone. Perhaps not everyone finds confidence in themselves in that process. “It works better with people who have untapped abilities inside of them. And then they have to really want to or have a need to tap into those abilities.”
To be continued…