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06.19.18

Never Stop Learning

Never Stop Learning

W
HAT DID YOU LEARN TODAY?

We often think of learning as something we are doing all of the time. But we aren’t. Mostly we are repeating or reinforcing what we already know. And that gets in the way of learning.

And when it comes to learning from mistakes we ignore, blame, and rationalize to protect our self-image. All of which, deprive us of the chance to learn.

In Never Stop Learning published by Harvard Business Review Press, UNCC professor Bradley Staats provides the processes we need to follow to become perpetual learners. Like most things worthwhile learning must be deliberate. Learning is a process that requires your constant attention.

Learning Requires Process Focus, Not Outcome Focus

Learners focus on how they got to the result. For me, this was the key chapter. Process focus involves understanding all of the elements that contributed to the outcome. An outcome is not a single event. It is the result of many smaller events. We tend to place more emphasis on the outcome than we should. And perhaps more importantly, “we believe the outcome is a reflection of our finite ability and thus we judge it as an evaluation of ourselves—so we focus on performance goals rather than learning goals, to our detriment.” A focus on learning goals builds on a growth mindset. “To a growth mindset, the outcome is simply one input about the state of the process and the individual’s general learning.”

And here’s another benefit of focusing on the process. Dancer and choreographer Martha Graham said, “Freedom to a dancer means discipline. That is what technique is for—liberation.” Staats adds, “Success, even in a novel situation such as dance, depends on understanding the building blocks. Once we understand the basics, we can deviate productively to innovate and learn.

Ask Questions

We can’t learn if we think we have all of the answers. “When we ask questions, we fill in the blanks in our own knowledge.” Staats recommends we ask, “Is my approach correct?” Again this gets back to his point on having a process focus.

We think our knowledge is more complete than it is and so we miss learning opportunities.

Like the tortoise in Aesop’s fable, “we often need to slow down to go fast. Slow and steady, like the tortoise, can win the race when we ask thoughtful questions to help us learn. Rushing to answers when the world is changing around you is a shortsighted strategy at best. The answer that worked yesterday is unlikely to be correct tomorrow. Increasingly, we are tasked with activities that require judgment and expertise—not just mindless repetition of the same answer.”

We don’t ask enough questions.

Learning Requires Recharging and Reflection, Not Constant Action

We always hear that we need to have an action bias. And that’s great in overcoming analysis paralysis and of course, results are the basis of our reputation. But doing for the sake of doing something is worse.

Staats relates the example of the strategy of professional goalies when dealing with penalty kicks. Statistically they would be better off staying put in the center to stop the penalty kick. But they most often don’t. Researchers found that most often they don’t. “They wanted to be seen doing something, even if that something was wrong. Given that most tasks that require our attention involve uncertainty, it is inevitable that we will sometimes make the wrong choice…. This fear of making the wrong choice prevents us from pursuing strategies that could help us both now and in the long run.” I would add, who wants to be standing still and miss stopping the kick. We want to be seen as doing something even if statistically, moving might not be the best strategy. The false impression is that we aren’t trying.

Being Yourself to Learn

When we are ourselves, we will be “more positive, more motivated, and able to engage in more open learning.” Staats notes, “The challenge is to be authentic but not outlandish. The advice holds: you must release the individual if you want to learn. But as with many things, moderation is important. Overdoing it, as defined by the situation you’re in, will create problems for you and others.” Sometimes it’s wise to dial back the authentic you.

Playing to Strengths, not fixating on Weaknesses

Here’s the key: “Don’t try to fix irrelevant shortcomings. We learn best when we play to our strengths—those capabilities at which we excel.” We all have some critical weaknesses that need our attention. And those should be given our attention.
Say no to the idea that any weakness must be treated as a learning need. Instead, focus on the key qualities that enable you to create value and differentiate yourself.

And of course, we need to keep our strengths in check. As the Swiss-German philosopher wrote, “All substances are poisons; there is not which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy.”

Specialization and Variety

We can become boxed in by what we know. Only by intentionally expanding our knowledge and experience and including others can we make new connections. “When we become too specialized, we see what we want to believe rather than what is actually there. We think deep specialization is a way to learn, but it may constrain how we understand new material. Learning therefore, must incorporate variety as well as specialization.

Variety keeps us from running on autopilot. We think the world works a certain way. When we encounter new circumstances, “we fail to learn because we believe that the same od lessons apply.” A balance of specialization and variety is important though. “Moving across different domains may permit us to see connections, but only if our understanding is deep enough to recognize them.”

Learning from Others

The people we interact with are key to our success. Interestingly, Google found that “great team performance, learning, and innovation were less a function of individuals’ prior skills than of how the team members interacted and their previous experience with one another.”

Staats has found that, “In isolation I may be able to come up with an interesting way to think about things, but the back-and-forth of having that idea challenged is what tests and thus improves me.”

Determination

When it comes to learning, it’s easy to get distracted by everything we need to get done. And our environment changes. But if we fail to learn wee become irrelevant. “We end up solving yesterday’s problems too late instead of tackling tomorrow’s problems before someone else does.” Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella said, “Ultimately, the ‘learn-it-all’ will always do better than the ‘know-it-all.’”
Living in a learning economy means that we must all approach learning with four mindsets: focused (choose which topics to learn and focus on them deeply), fast (get up to speed quickly), frequent (always be open to learning even from the most unexpected places), and flexible (be able to decelerate and switch to the next opportunity).


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Posted by Michael McKinney at 06:08 PM
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