John Francis is a really motivated learner and educator. He walked the world for 17 years silently. Yes, without speaking. And today he is most definitely talking about it. What he says contains a lot of messages—there’s certainly one in there for you. [I heard him speak at the Digital Earth Symposium, held at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2007.]
In 1971 he witnessed two tankers colliding, creating an oil spill in San Francisco Bay, and decided to give up riding in motorized vehicles. He began walking everywhere he went. “I thought that if I started walking, everyone would follow.” So on his 27th birthday, he decided he would stop speaking for just one day “to give it a rest.” “I have to tell you it was a very moving experience…for the very first time I began listening.” He realized that (as a regular speaking human) he listened to only the first few words or sentences when someone was talking, and then “my mind would race ahead” thinking about what “I was going to say in response.” He decided to do this for another day, and another day, and this stretched to a year, and then lasted 17 years. [Continue reading and you can also view the TED talk given by John Francis in 2008…]
During that time, John walked and played the banjo, and wrote in his journal. “I walked up to Ashton, Oregon, where they were offering an environmental studies degree” and enrolled. After two years he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree. Then walked east through Washington, Idaho, and Montana… and he enrolled in the University of Montana (after 2 years of walking)… he registered for one credit, got a key to an office, went to classes, couldn’t afford tuition, but the professors “saved the grades” for later on when he could afford to register and pay.
In the process, he taught courses as well, and “If you weren’t learning, then you weren’t teaching.”
At the University of Wisconsin he wrote about oil spills. Two years later the Exxon Valdez “happened.” And he was the only expert writing about oil spills. John earned a PhD.
“On Earth Day 1990, I began to speak” (again).
“Not speaking […] taught me about listening.”