How learning works

The best parallel for learning I’ve found is the human digestive system. So, I’ll use that analogy to illustrate how learning works.

Ingestion (you + someone else who shares the idea) This is when an idea is thrown at you. This could be in a class, in a book or in a casual conversation. The first step, if we’re listening, is to take the idea in.

Digestion (you + others) – This is why every teacher who knows what he/she is doing encourages class discussion. Ingestion only makes sure you’ve taken the idea in. Digestion makes sure you “get” the concept and the context.

Absorption (just you) – Once you have digested the idea, you need time by yourself to revisit and absorb it. This is why research suggest you pay attention in classes and meetings and jot down summaries at the end of classes/meetings. Writing summaries is a way of making sure you absorb what you’ve digested.

Assimilation (you + someone you teach/share) – Once you absorb an idea, you are ready for the next step – you now need to synthesize it and share it with others. Assimilation is why it is said that teaching or sharing ideas is the only sure shot way of learning. That is true. It also matters because this is when you open up your thinking to others for their thoughts and critiques. Inevitably, the sharing process crystallizes the key concepts.

Excretion (you) – In this final step, you revisit your teach/share discussions, reflect on your own mental models and throw out pieces that don’t make sense. This matters because learning involves a constant refinement and simplification of concepts and ideas. Excretion is how you boil things down to first principles and create original ideas and mental models.

A lot of what we’re taught about learning focuses on ingestion, digestion and, to a much lesser extent, assimilation. That’s also because a lot of what we’re taught about learning is taught in groups. And, these steps involve groups (surprise, surprise).

However, as this framework hopefully illustrates, there is no learning without reflection. So, if we ever find ourselves running from one activity to another without time to reflect, it is worth reminding ourselves that we’re cheating ourselves of the learning.

We must take the time. We’re worth it.

And, once we do take the time, we must share. With great learning comes great responsibility.

Never done

The first secret to staying in good spirits consistently is to embrace the fact that we’re never really done.

Sure, you can be done with cleaning your home, doing the dishes, or clearing out the task list for the day. But, you’ll only be done with those for the day. Cleaning, staying organized and getting things done are never really done.

The beauty about embracing this is that it reminds us that going on a crazy triage of our “to do” list isn’t what we need. What we need is deliberate planning about how we intend to spend our day, re-prioritization when things inevitably don’t go as per plan, and focus when we get to doing the things we need to do.

The question isn’t – “When will I get done?”. It is – “Have I made progress today versus where I was yesterday on the key priorities?”

The game is infinite. The important thing isn’t the final whistle. It is, simply, to play.

Good Tired and Bad Tired – Harry Chapin

Harry Chapin was a singer-songwriter and he had this to say about his grandfather.

My grandfather was a painter. He died at age eighty-eight, he illustrated Robert Frost’s first two books of poetry, and he was looking at me and he said, “Harry, there’s two kinds of tired. There’s good tired and there’s bad tired.” He said, “Ironically enough, bad tired can be a day that you won. But you won other people’s battles; you lived other people’s days, other people’s agendas, other people’s dreams. And when it’s all over, there was very little you in there. And when you hit the hay at night, somehow you toss and turn; you don’t settle easy.

It’s that good tired, ironically enough, can be a day that you lost, but you don’t even have to tell yourself because you knew you fought your battles, you chased your dreams, you lived your days and when you hit the hay at night, you settle easy, you sleep the sleep of the just and you say ‘take me away’”. He said, “Harry, all my life I wanted to be a painter and I painted; God, I would have loved to have been more successful, but I painted and I painted and I’m good tired and they can take me away.”

This note manages to be beautiful, poignant and inspirational all at once. To me, it speaks to the power of the struggle for a cause that we feel strongly about. The wins and other such results hardly every matter. It is all about the process. It is all about giving it our best shot every day. As Anton Chekov said – “Any idiot can face a crisis – it is day to day living that wears you out.”

Here’s to being good tired this week.

HT – The Steger family – thank you for sharing.

Collection of mediocre skills – The 200 words project

If you are among the best in the world at something, that’s great. As Scott Adams (Dilbert cartoonist) describes it, your path forward is clear – just keep better and better at your craft. For everyone else, Scott theorizes that every new skill doubles your chances of success. And, he believes this is the case because of the importance of the combination of complementary skills.

In his case, he possessed average writing ability, average cartooning skills, an average sense of humor and mediocre business experience. In isolation, these weren’t great but they worked great in combination. His experiences working at Pacific Bell exposed him to the Internet. So, he became among the first cartoonists to make Dilbert available online and he even put an email address on Dilbert comics to solicit reader feedback. Over time, feedback from his readers led to him focusing Dilbert on the workplace – all of which played a huge role in its eventual success.

So, if you are Marketing Manager who is skilled at Marketing, that’s a good start. But, if can also count digital marketing and design among your capabilities, that greatly improves your odds at success. Collection of mediocre skills = formidable.

“Can you name one other person who has average skills in writing, humor, art, and business? It’s a rare mixture. Individually, none of my skills are anywhere near world-class. But combined, they create a powerful market force.” | Scott Adams

Source and thanks to: How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams

3 things I’ve learnt about the good life idea

1. We get to define what “good” is. Defining what is “good” is among the most important things we will do. And, to do this, we need to be accepting of our own quirks. For example, after a relaxed 24 hours or so, the rest of my weekend is filled with work. There is almost no way I will get through my task list but I am looking forward to giving it my best shot. That isn’t likely to be an ideal weekend for most people. But, as I listen to great music and type these words, I can feel my excitement at the thought of ploughing through my list. To each their own.

2. Spend time in environments which, and, with people who, energize you. Environments and people either give you good energy or bad energy. This is an incredibly simple idea – design your life in a way that maximizes good energy. Stop managing your time. Just manage your energy.. and time will take care of itself. And, needless to say, you are the average, in every sense (likely happiness, BMI, and even maturity) of the five people you spend most of the time with.

3. Do small things with extraordinary love and, then, thank the stars for the privilege. When you define what “good” is and design a life filled with good energy, you get to do small things with extraordinary love. That is an incredible privilege. Cue: say thank you – a lot. The more you feel gratitude, the more you will be happy.

Is this hard work? Absolutely.

But, there are few things better than giving ourselves the gift of a life that’s well lived.

What should Volkswagen do? – MBA Learnings

We started our second year with a 1 week pre-term call on Leading and Managing Crises. We discussed responses to multiple crises – both good and bad. And, as I was on the lookout for a new crisis to apply my learning, Volkswagen appeared in the news for what has to rank among the dumbest decisions of all time. How Volkswagen thought they could get away with a program that cheats the emissions test is anyone’s guess. But, common sense isn’t very common and this is a good illustration that groups of people in “good” companies can make some really bad decisions.

A framework we used for discussing crisis response was called “The Trust Radar.”

Trust RadarSource and Credit: Reputation Rules by Prof Daniel Diermeier

The rationale is that crises are not just disasters that need to be managed. Instead, they need to be viewed as turning points – manage it well, for example, and you could win significant trust. In all star examples of crisis management – the 1980s Tylenol crisis or the 2005 Southwest crisis when a plane slid off the ice, crashed into a car and killed a six-year old boy, leadership scored high on each of the 4 components of the trust radar.

First, they demonstrated transparency by getting on the scene quickly and being very clear about what they knew, what they didn’t know and what they were doing to get the information. This is in contrast to British Petroleum’s (BP) response to the oil spill. No one seemed to have a clue as to what was going on.

Second, they demonstrate expertise where necessary. In crises that involve technical issues, it is critical that the public feels the company knows whats going on and how it can be fixed. Again, BP spent more time trying to siphon blame than fixing the problem in the immediate aftermath of the skill.

Third, they show commitment. Often, the first step here is by simply making sure the CEO shows up. There is often nothing more important than reputation and the CEO’s presence underlines that. However, the best show of commitment is doing what it takes to fix the problem. This generally involves a huge investment into product recalls and compensation for damages.

Finally, they demonstrate empathy. Company’s and executives aren’t trusted by the public. This step is critical in making sure the people in the affected area understand that they are cared for.

So, that leads us to – what can Volkswagen do?

Firing the CEO was a first step. It shows commitment. However, they have a long way to go. Among the 4 components of radar, commitment is the one that requires most attention. Being transparent and empathetic will help, but to a lesser extent. And, it is clear they have technical expertise – too much of it, some might argue. Aside from investing in product recalls and fines, I think a critical step towards demonstrating commitment to fixing the problem would be to conduct a thorough investigation into the groups that recommended and decided this (it can’t just be the CEO). They need to be fired/fined and punished in some way. Such decisions show a failure of ethics in the organization and hard measures are required.

While the new CEO will definitely need to attempt to score as high as possible on the 4 components of the trust radar, the Volkswagen case illustrates one of the hardest challenges of rebuilding reputation – you cannot talk yourself out of a problem that you’ve acted yourself into.

Companies, like humans, are trusted because of the character they exhibit. And, demonstrating good character is a long term game. Volkswagen have a long and painful road ahead.

Not taking offence

A place I’ve been trying to move towards is one where I never take offence – to anything people say, do or even to things that happen to me.

While I feel it does seem to be getting easier with time (maturity?), I think the factor that makes it easiest to not take offence is to simply view everything that happens around you as an experiment that might or might not work. This was the learning I took away from Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography – “The Story of My Experiments with Truth.” I don’t generally recommend the book to anyone but I do think the central idea of experimentation is powerful. During the course of his life, Gandhi treated himself and the world as a laboratory for various kinds of experiments. Some worked, many didn’t. But, he just marched on to the next experiment anyway.

That’s a wonderful way to see the world.

I’ve begun describing myself as someone who lives in “this might not work.” Keep trying crazy ideas, keep initiating, keep failing, keep taking flak, never take offence and move on.

Things are simpler when you view life and everything that happens around you as a series of experiments. They occasionally work for you. Most of the time, however, they don’t.

And, that’s okay. Perfection and comfort are overrated.

Is it a lot of work?

There are many questions we could be asking when faced with a new project –

Do you think it will be a fulfilling experience?
Do you think I’ll learn a lot?
Do you think it’ll be meaningful?
Will I be able to work with, learn from and connect with wonderful people?

And, yet, more often than not, the default question is – “Is it a lot of work?”

My experience has shown that fulfilling/learning filled/meaningful experiences are always a tremendous amount of work. They also rarely have a clear, well-trodden path. I’ve also learnt that I rarely remember the effort with anything but fondness. It is in those moments of effort that I have felt most alive. And, the joy from having to make sense out of chaos? That’s how we get made.

Different questions -> Different results.


A friend of mine shared her joy at switching employers.

At her old firm, she was required to come in at a particular time and leave after a particular time. She hated the daily pressure and the days inevitably felt long.

At her new firm, there are no such requirements. But, she finds herself coming in earlier and leaving later than at her previous job. And, to top it all, she loves it.

There’s something incredibly powerful about the perception of autonomy. We love the perception of control and it greatly increases our happiness. Perhaps we need to make sure we include autonomy in our criteria list for our important choices.

Disproportionate impact

I realized yesterday that a very small group of people (generally <5) have had a disproportionate impact on –

– my career growth
– my personal growth and learning
– the number of new, valuable career connections I’ve made
– my happiness at any given point of time

Of course, when you get started, it is hard to tell who these people might be. So, the whole point of breadth in relationships is to understand if there is chemistry.

A group of senior executives were recently asked this about chemistry – “How do you know if the chemistry exists for a potential mentor-mentee relationship?” One of them simply said – “You just know.”

My additions would be  –
“1. This applies for all kinds of relationships
2. When you do know, dive right in and don’t let go.”

A food vendor in front of the pyramids or a bangle seller in front of the Taj Mahal will likely never fully appreciate them in their true glory. That’s the challenge we have when we are part of incredibly meaningful relationships. We don’t realize the magic until it doesn’t exist anymore.

It doesn’t happen often. It is magical when it does. It is up to us to appreciate, treasure and be grateful for these.

After all, and here I make the assumption that happiness is how most of us will measure our lives, it isn’t happy people who are thankful. It is thankful people who are happy.