I’ve been having a few conversations of late that have aimed to tackle difficult questions like – “How can I learn better?” and “How can I be sure I’m learning?” These are challenging questions and ones I’ve wrestled with a bunch. So, I thought I’d share my evolving perspective after 10 years of writing about this.
My mental model here is that our “learn rate” is proportional to time + energy spent on 3 sources – Books/synthesized information, People (and insightful conversations we have), and our own experiences. When we take the time to reflect on the time + energy spent on these sources and synthesize what we’ve taken away, we begin to develop or improve existing mental models, and over time, make changes to how we approach life. That translation of theory to action is learning.
Reflecting on the mix between these sources in my journey in the past decade, I think the biggest change has been the proportion of learning coming from my own experiences. When I started writing a decade ago, most of my learning came from books and more experienced folks – I didn’t have too many experiences to reflect on. That has changed and the mix looks a lot more balanced of late.
So, my perspective on the “how can I learn better?” question comes down to – what kind of habits/infrastructure do we have in place to make sure we’re reading, regularly having interesting conversations that we learn from, and reflecting on both of these along with the experiences we’re having every day?
And, if I had to break that down to sub-questions, they would be –
i) Are we regularly reading good books/subscribed to insightful blogs or podcasts?
ii) Are we spending time with folks we learn from and having conversations about what we’re thinking about vs. the weather?
iii) Are we finding time to reflect on the above + our own experiences and synthesize?
The late swimming coach Terry Laughlin had a powerful note on the plateau as he summarized his lessons learnt from George Leonard’s book on Mastery.
“Love the Plateau. All worthwhile progress occurs through brief, thrilling leaps forward followed by long stretches during which you feel you’re going nowhere. Though it seems as if you’re making no progress, learning continues at the cellular level. If you follow good practice principles, you are turning new behaviors into habits.”
Progress is lumpy. We experience short periods of acceleration when we go through an intense experience, crystallize important learning, or, every once a while, experience a good outcome. But, between these periods of acceleration, we go through long periods of time (i.e. the plateau) when we’re just working away in relative silence.
Channeling Terry Laughlin, keep working away purposefully. Love the plateau – love is a verb.
There’s a great folk story about an exasperated mom who was running out of ways to convince her son to eat fewer sweets. She finally decided she’d ask a village elder/”guru” her son respected for her.
The elder listened to her, sympathized, and asked her to come back in four weeks.
Four weeks later, she went back to him with her son. This time, he took the boy aside and advised him to eat fewer sweets for his own sake. The boy had tremendous respect for the elder and, thus, promised to listen.
The mother found the whole episode curious. So, she asked the elder why he didn’t just give her son this talk four weeks ago. He explained to her that he was guilty of eating too many sweets himself. So, he spent the past four weeks fixing his habits before having the talk with her son.
Many associate teaching to be all about passing on knowledge. In reality, the great gift of attempting to teach is to grow into a place where we earn the right to be worthy of doing so.
I’ve been mulling one of Nassim Taleb’s notes over the past couple of days – the difference between being resilient vs. antifragile. In his words –
“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love, adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better”
This distinction between resilient and antifragility has broad applications – in systems, businesses, teams, and even in our lives. It gets to the heart of the “why” behind being obsessive about reflecting about our own experiences and ensuring we are learning from them (as painful as that process might be in the short term).
The goal of all learning is to change what and how we do things. And, while our mental strength may ensure we are resilient, our ability to continuously learn and adapt is what enables us to go from resilient to antifragile.
PS: I am a relatively late entrant to the Nassim Taleb fan club. But, as I get to half way mark of his book “Skin in the Game,” I find myself committed to make up for all the lost time.
There’s always a reason to show up in a way that doesn’t reflect our best self. The weather, your mood, the current situation, the economy, that pain in your knee – take your pick. And, these extraneous factors seem to grow in importance the more attention we pay to them.
But, they are just manifestations of the resistance. They’ll stick around till we decide we’re done with the excuses.
No matter the weather, the situation or the mood, we can choose to show up to be positive, thoughtful, and learning focused if that’s how we want to show up. It is our call and deciding to relinquish that call is our call too.
It is a bit of work – especially on days when said conditions are not ideal. But, it is work worth doing.
When we say “I am really bad at that,” what we are really saying is that it isn’t worth our effort to get better at it.
It is perfectly acceptable to decide it isn’t worth investing in a certain skill or habit. It may not be the best use of our limited time.
But, it isn’t right to pretend we aren’t capable of getting better. That’s just a way to let ourselves off the hook. And, while it might seem perfectly harmless to let ourselves off the hook on something trivial, it spirals quickly into skills and habits that aren’t so.
We can get better at anything we want to get better at. And, the first step to doing so is by fixing language that allows us to let ourselves off the hook.
I’ve been mulling a passage from Josh Waitzkin’s Art of Learning and thought I’d share it in full.
In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre. In competition, the dynamic is often painfully transparent. If one player is serenely present while the other is clearly being ripped apart by internal issues, the outcome is already clear. The prey is no longer objective, makes compounding mistakes, and the predator moves in for the kill.
While more subtle, this issue is perhaps even more critical in solitary pursuits like writing, painting, scholarly thinking or learning. In the absence of continual external reinforcement, we must be our own monitor, and quality of presence is often the best gauge. We cannot expect to touch excellence if “going through the motions” is the norm of our lives. On the other hand, if deep, fluid presence becomes second nature, then, life, art and learning take on a richness that will continually surprise and delight. Those who excel are those who maximize each moment’s creative potential – for these masters of living, presence to the day-to-day learning process is akin to the purity of focus others dream of achieving in rare climactic moments where everything is on the line.
The secret is that everything is always on the line. The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing.
“The secret is that everything is always on the line” resonates deeply.
I thought this passage was both true and profound. Thanks Josh.