How to learn
Learning is what we do. We do it from the day we are born, until the day we die. We might as well try to do it well. Unfortunately this is easier said than done. When I am unsure of how something fundamental works, I look for concepts which apply across different domains and scales. Reality may not be fractal, but “rules” or “truths” which apply across multiple domains and scales tend to hold up better than those which do not. These general “truths” are what we will focus on.
While we are all different in some ways, we are all similar in others. We will learn and live better when we have enough sleep, healthy food, mental clarity, presence, feedback and are open to new truths. The exact techniques and the relative weighting between reading, listening, thinking, conversing and doing will vary across individuals, domains and time.
Deliberate practice, coaching, mindset and some of their implications for what we do are key components to our learning and understanding more rapidly. These in turn may improve our work and private lives and perhaps help us become wiser.
Deliberate practice involves working on tasks beyond your current competence and comfort level:
“Not all practice makes perfect. You need a particular kind of practice—deliberate practice—to develop expertise. When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.” The Making of an Expert
Regularly spending time operating outside your comfort zone will increase the rate you acquire new or improve existing skills. Changing jobs and careers can reset your work learning curve at a steeper point. There are diminishing returns to specialising in any field.
Eventually a lifetime of learning will make you a vastly more accomplished than you would be if you spent your time cruising within your comfort zone. You will have been thrown into so many new situations and survived or even thrived. You will be confident in your ability to face whatever life “throws” at you. You will also have developed a more unique skill set. This old saying is worth quoting in its original more complete form:
“A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one”.
Coaching can also rapidly improve our skill. The optimal type of coaching will depend on the circumstances. It certainly has to be obtainable, but this could be via a book or computer program, depending on the activity and you. You will need feedback to know when you are improving:
“The development of expertise requires coaches who are capable of giving constructive, even painful, feedback. Real experts are extremely motivated students who seek out such feedback. They’re also skilled at understanding when and if a coach’s advice doesn’t work for them. The elite performers we studied knew what they were doing right and concentrated on what they were doing wrong. They deliberately picked unsentimental coaches who would challenge them and drive them to higher levels of performance. The best coaches also identify aspects of your performance that will need to be improved at your next level of skill. If a coach pushes you too fast, too hard, you will only be frustrated and may even be tempted to give up trying to improve at all.” The Making of an Expert
Ray Dalio extends the coaching concept to encapsulate coaching yourself by creating a decision diary. This involves writing down what you are doing and why, then reviewing it to learn from what goes well and what did not. Writing the decision and its reasoning down reduces the effects of cognitive biases. Our memories are malleable and we tend recollect things in a way favourable to ourselves. By writing it down we can create a way to teach ourselves how to make better decisions.
“1. Slow down your thinking so you can note the criteria you are using to make your decision. 2. Write the criteria down as a principle. 3. Think about those criteria when you have an outcome to assess, and refine them before the next “one of those” comes along. Identifying which “one of those” each thing is is like identifying which species an animal is. Doing that for each thing and then matching it up with the appropriate principles will become like playing a game, so it will be fun as well as helpful.” Ray Dalio, Principles
Dalio’s approach ought to enhance the benefits of thoughtful reflection.
“The process of thoughtful reflection makes our experiences more concrete, and helps with future recall and understanding. Reflecting about what we learned, how we felt, how we and others behaved, and what interests were at play, hardwires the learning in our brain and gives us a depth of context and relevance that would otherwise be absent.” Endersen, Laurence, Pebbles of Perception
Our Mindset or how we perceive ourselves is also central.
“Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence—like a gift—by praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work, and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong. If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.” Carol Dweck, Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential
Life is a learning experience. We can learn the hard way through making mistakes or by easier ways such as from others, books… etc. The more resistant we are to learning, the more often we will repeat the same mistake. Mistakes are therefore to be cherished, for they are the fertiliser in which our knowledge, understanding and wisdom grow.
To maximise the upside of mistakes it is necessary to understand them. This may not be easy, even identifying them can be difficult. We cannot just look at the outcome when deciding id a mistake has been made. Life is full of randomness and uncertainty. The apparent best course of action, given the circumstances at the time, will sometimes generate bad outcomes.
Sometimes we may believe we have a bad outcome, but it is actually for the best. A fact which may only become clear in the fullness of time. Uncertainty permeates our life and learning. It is said of science that everything is provisional, this is a truth which is valid in other domains. That’s before you look upon developments though a different mental model, such as one which accords with Shakespeare’s “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”.
Embrace mistakes, but also accept the role of chance. A bad outcome can result from the best process due to the effects of uncertainty. We live in nested complex dynamic systems. Things will not turn out as we expect. It is therefore important to focus on the process, not the outcome. Improve the processes by which you make decisions and you will, on average, improve the outcomes.
“The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome. They’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues. Maybe they haven’t found the cure for cancer, but the search was deeply meaningful.” Carol Dweck, Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential
This approach presupposes that you live through the mistake. Ensuring you “live to fight another day” is essential. If you are no longer around, you will not learn. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket ” applies just as much to to your life as it does to your business decisions.
Then there is the fact that “there are none so blind as those who will not see”. To be receptive to learning, you have to accept your ignorance, that you might be wrong. You need to have a growth mindset.
“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.” Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success
There may be other generally relevant concepts, there may be rules of thumb which can help. We need to discover and adopt what works. Let’s supercharge our learning. The advantages of doing so could be immense.
Why not make a conscious decision to learn something new every day? No matter how small the daily learning, it is significant when aggregated over a lifetime. Resolving early in life to have a continuous learning mindset is not only more interesting than the passive alternative, it is also remarkably powerful. Choosing lifelong learning is one of the few good choices that can make a big difference in our lives, giving us an enormous advantage when practised over a long period of time. Endersen, Laurence, Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices Make All The Difference.
Teamwork can help in learning, just as it does in decision making. Together we can improve our understanding:
”A few good decision makers working effectively together can significantly outperform a good decision maker working alone—and even the best decision maker can significantly improve his or her decision making with the help of other excellent decision makers.” Ray Dalio, Principles: Life and Work
Be all that you can be. Combine with others advance your understanding, to speed you along on your journey. Search and read posts on this site and let me know what we are getting wrong. I’ll update or create new posts and we can learn together. The more of us actively involved, the faster and I suspect the more pleasant our journey will be.
You can look back and say, “I could have been …,” polishing your unused endowments like trophies. Or you can look back and say, “I gave my all for the things I valued.” Think about what you want to look back and say. Then choose your mindset”. Carol Dweck, Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential.