Seth Godin calls it sheepwalking. I remember a non-job I had at defence headquarters, where I had to go to work but there was nothing to do most days. I could go on leave but I would use all of my allotted days and then I would still have to “go to work” for the rest of the year. It didn’t matter that I had nothing to do, for I had to be at my place of duty. I was a sheepwalker, but within a year I was able to plot my way out and start my new vocation in the learning field.

Godin discusses how easy it is to develop sheepwalkers:

Training a student to be sheepish is a lot easier than the alternative. Teaching to the test, ensuring compliant behavior and using fear as a motivator are the easiest and fastest ways to get a kid through school. So why does it surprise us that we graduate so many sheep?

And graduate school? Since the stakes are higher (opportunity cost, tuition and the job market), students fall back on what they’ve been taught. To be sheep. Well-educated, of course, but compliant nonetheless.

Hugh MacLeod succinctly describes the situation that we all face, “The price of being a sheep is boredom. The price of being a wolf is loneliness. Choose one or the other with great care.”

Ever since I became a free-agent, there was no doubt which path I would follow, and I’m much happier today than I was as a sheepwalker some 15 years ago. Life still has its challenges – what I call the financial rollercoaster of working for yourself – but you’re alive and awake all of the time. The challenge now is to get some sleep when new ideas are spinning all around me.

One of the reasons I’m all fired up about the potential of informal learning on the Web is that it can let us be wolves in our learning. We have the means to connect with other members of the pack all over the world. We don’t have to revert to sheepdom so that we can be scheduled for the next course or workshop or whatever the all-knowing organisation has decided is best for us. “I don’t need your course, I’ll learn it on my own and I’ll find others who are willing to help me”.

In reading Jay Cross’ recent article, Stephen Downes basically asked what’s the underlying theory of informal learning. For me it’s clear – informal learning is linked to critical theory and that is to question authority, seek the truth, and question our own perceptions of reality. Thinking for yourself may be subversive for the organisation but it is necessary for individual growth, as with any child growing into adulthood.

Like raising children, fostering independent learners may not give organisations their desired results, but it will give society the best results. Who knows, perhaps democracy may come to the business sector some day.

4 Responses to “Sheepwalking”

  1. Thieme Hennis

    Students, people, are nowadays trained to be sheep, trained to be ‘fit for society’, which is a society created by our parents, an industrial, assessable (if that’s a word) society. Or at least, a high importance is put on assessing and evaluating anything in numbers and reports. I agree that is absolutely much more easier as an educational institution to assess a curriculum that teaches students to be sheep than to be wolves. When I tried to go my own way during college, I was highly demotivated by the challenges imposed by people and institutional bureaucracies to do this. Sometimes it even proved impossible, because it could not officially be included in the curriculum. Students are taught to be sheep. These well-trained sheep are confronted with complex situations during their education, but still, these are imposed by the uni, and even the methodologies to tackle them. After an expensive education of several years, students never have had incentives to go their own way, to be critical, to be innovative. They get a ‘sheep’-certificate afterwards, which they can wave to enter some kind of sheep company. This is nowadays comparable with the industrial workers at the factories a century ago. Maybe they will now be the first ones to be replaced..

    What I am wondering, are there any figures on how people act; whether some people are inherently sheep, and others are wolves, and whether a radical change in education has any influence on this?

  2. Joop Roelofs

    I think that the term ‘sheepwalking’ is a very nice expression for the phenomenon ‘sleepwalking’ during daytime. For instance I like very much to do learning in freedom and for this internet is a goldmine. I did not like and do not like the (academic) schoolsystem, where your opinion is not relevant for the study. You have to reproduce knowledge – which is no knowledge – and which you will forget soon. Because there is no relationship between you as a person and the information. In this way I like the movie Dead Poets Society very much and the individualistisc writers like Thoreau, Emerson an so on. Let us be unique persons with unique lives and let’s take our own responsibility for our own destiny and calling. Otherwise we will end like ‘the death of a salesman’. Only sacrificing and suffering. No caring for ourselves!

    I wish everybody a lot of success and of course also a lot of courage to be no ‘sheep walker’ anymore!

    Best wishes,
    Joop Roelofs
    The Netherlands

  3. Harold

    Henry David Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

  4. Jay Cross


    It’s from 2007 but my browser pitched it in my lap. It was an important message then. It’s an important message now. This goes into Working Smarter.


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