I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about learning: how we learn, especially as adults; why the ability to learn well and easily is so important now; what gets in the way of our learning.
And one thing I’m noticing is that most people have a rather limited and not-very-positive view of the word “learning.” For instance, I’ve noticed that if I put “learning” in the title of a post at Forbes, I get — at best — a couple of hundred page views. If I then go back and change the title, removing “learning” and substituting a phrase like “How to.…” or “5 Ways You Can.…”, the page views jump dramatically.
So I’ve started asking people what they think of when I say “learning.” Generally among the first few words out of their mouths: “school,” “boring,” “classroom,” and “teachers.” As a result, I’ve come to believe that for many (most?) of us, our associations with learning have been deeply tainted by our early, negative associations with schooling: our memories of being scrunched into uncomfortable desks with a bunch of other bored 9‑year-olds while some boring grown-up drones on about something that’s infinitely less interesting than whatever is going on outside the windows of our too-warm, over-crowded classroom.
And it’s really unfortunate, because — in the words of Arie De Geus — “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” I’ve come to believe that this is true not only organizationally, but personally as well. In this highly disruptive, fast-changing era, people who master the art of learning new things quickly and well have a tremendous advantage. Emerging technologies? Changed business models? Different employee expectations? New ways of working globally? Cultural mash-ups?
All doable if you’re a kick-ass learner.
To find out how to be a truly excellent learner, go back before you got stuck into school, and think about how you were as a little kid. Since lots of people don’t have much memory of themselves at this age, I’ll remind you. Little kids are driven to learn. They want, deeply, to be like the bigger kids and grown-ups they see all around them. It’s aspiration in the simplest, most direct sense. It’s also a powerful survival mechanism — from the beginnings of humanity until a few hundred years ago, the children who most quickly became skillful, contributing members of the tribe were most likely to live and reproduce.
And the impulse that focuses this aspiration to learn, that catalyzes real change in understanding, is curiosity. Anyone who has ever been around a 4‑year-old has experienced this firsthand: Why? How did that happen? Does that always happen? Is that a good thing? What if I did that? Can I do it? Why not? It can be exhausting to the adults involved, but it’s a remarkably effective way to figure out the world, how it works, and one’s place in it. Curiosity is the impulse to understand. It’s part of that survival mechanism — understanding our environment as deeply as possible is key, not only to not getting killed by some aspect of that environment, but also to using what’s available in that environment to increase the likelihood of our safety, comfort and health.
There are two other things that kids have (at least when they’re little) that we tend to lose as adults: they’re willing to admit when they don’t know something, and they don’t care about making mistakes. We call those learning capabilities neutral self-awareness and willingness to be bad first.
Learning language is a great example: “What’s that?” my granddaughter asked me last summer, pointing at a radish I’d just pulled from the garden. “It’s a radish,” I replied, handing it to her. “Rabish,” she said with satisfaction, inspecting it. “Radish,” I repeated. But she couldn’t quite get that combination of letters — and didn’t really care. Her focus was on pure acquisition of understanding, and she wasn’t at all embarrassed about her difficulty with the pronunciation, as an adult would have been.
I’m deeply convinced that if we, as adults, can re-connect with those four childhood capabilities — aspiration, neutral self-awareness, endless curiosity and willingness to be bad first — we will be far more successful at navigating through this ever-changing world.
I’m planning on writing my next book about this whole arena, so I’d love to hear your stories of how you used any of these four capabilities to get better at something, to develop a completely new skill, or to find out about something you didn’t know. I’ll also be writing about this at Forbes, so if the topic interests you, please join us over there as well.
And as always, thank you for reading…it inspires me to get as clear as I can about what I observe and experience, so I can share it with you as usefully as possible.