‘Fessing Up to “I Don’t Know” Part 2 – Learning How to Learn

I recently tried something I’d never done before: a 10-day “clean food” detox program. Ten days without dairy, meat, fish, eggs, gluten and so on – let alone coffee, wine, or sweets! Physical impact and discipline notwithstanding, what was most intense was the amount of time and energy it took to shop, plan, and prepare food. Every. Single. Meal.

Around Day 5, a very grumpy participant (me) was expressing some frustration to the nutritionist who was running the program. Her response: “for most people, it’s not giving up typical foods that is hard – it is the learning curve of this that is the hardest. Once you get used to it, it’s a breeze.”

I’m not sure I agree with the “breeze” part! But her comment hit home. I of course had been focused on not being able to eat my regular foods, my schedule impact, the physical aspects. I hadn’t considered the experience through the lens of learning. It reminded me of something about myself: I get completely frustrated when something is not coming easily to me or taking me longer than I think it should (there’s that word…!). Once I receive the proverbial headsmack and realize that I need to learn something, I’m more able to be patient with myself.

In other words, I am a typical adult learner.

Most of us walk around with a subconscious belief that we “should” know. I wrote about this in Part 1 of this blog, as well as about how hard it is to admit we don’t know something. What I find fascinating is that when someone stops us – either as my Nutritionist did, or as I do with my clients – and ask some form of the question “what drives your expectation that you should know?” the answer is often similar to mine. “Hmm. I guess I’ve never really learned that.”

“Teaching Smart People How to Learn”

Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, authored a brilliant article with the above title (you can purchase a copy for $6.95 here). Argyris, who is known for his thought leadership about how to create “learning organizations”, states the following:

“People often profess to be open to critique and new learning, but their actions suggest a very different set of governing values:

  • The desire to remain in unilateral control
  • The goal of maximizing “winning” while minimizing “losing”
  • The belief that negative feelings should be suppressed
  • The desire to appear as rational as possible

Taken together, these values betray a profoundly defensive posture: a need to avoid embarrassment, threat, or feelings of vulnerability and incompetence.”

Any of that sound familiar?

Argyris goes on to explain how successful people often never learn how to learn. Success gets in the way of reflective thinking, seeing mistakes as opportunities, and so on. And the pace of today’s organizations and the relentless pursuit of results can translate into people either learning only “on the fly” or perhaps by taking skills training seminars here and there. While both are valuable, neither create learning opportunities in the way it’s been proven that adults need to learn across a career. New roles, re-organizations, and market changes demand that we continually reflect on how our existing knowledge and skillsets apply, and on what new skills or habits we may need to develop. We all know that our best strengths in one situation can become our biggest liabilities in another.

Becoming an Adult Learner

Describing the demonstrated theories about adult learning may be a future blog unto itself. In the meantime, here are some steps for how you can support yourself – and by default, those who you work with – in making it ok to be a learner:

  1. Get in the habit of asking yourself what the source of “I don’t know” is. Use the checklist provided in Part 1 to identify when “I don’t know” stems from something you simply haven’t learned yet.
  2. Give yourself permission to learn. This is probably the hardest step (and it can’t happen without step one.) Resetting expectations about what we “should” know is key.
  3. Ask yourself some questions: who do I know who does this well? How can I engage them in my learning? What do I know about myself in terms of how I like to learn? Do I want to read about it, experience it, attend a class? What am I willing to invest? What are the risks if I don’t learn?
  4. Talk about it. Engaging others in the process accomplishes two important things. One, it speeds the learning process by helping you internalize what you’re learning. Two, it makes it ok for others to admit when they need to learn and step up to doing so.

As Jack Welsh said: “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.”

Am off to buy some school supplies now. Happy learning!

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