Knowing when you need a coach

Most of us know a friend who can pick up skills at will. They say they want to learn the guitar today, watch videos on YouTube for the next 3 months, practice, and emerge as a good guitar player. Or, they actually act on their new years resolution and go to the gym.

We know we can summon up the will necessary to do that for something that’s urgently needed at work. But, we’re generally unable to prioritize stuff that’s longer term/important.

My working theory is that this ability to do self-driven skill building is a function of two things – 1) how driven you are by achievement (vs. other motives) and 2) where you lie on the spectrum between obsessive compulsive and attention deficit. That combination results in a place in the skill building spectrum

For most of us, skill building isn’t easy because we either need a peer group or, in most cases, a coach.

All this gets us to the key takeaway – the solution to accelerating our ability to learn and get better is not to kick ourselves for not being able to finish that course or go to the gym. It is to simply understand our preferences and get help from a professional.

PS: For what its worth, I think this is the greatest challenge for online learning. Only 3-6% of folks finish an online course they start. Imagine what we’d enable if we provided the support that many of the others needed.

The one thing learning loop

In his book, Morten Hansen uses a concept he calls the “learning loop” to apply the principles of deliberate practice at work.

He suggests the following – pick one skill you’d like to get better at, find a coach/create a plan to improve the skill, periodically review progress, and then loop through the process.

The most useful lesson I took away from his approach was to pick one skill – just one. I’ve been guilty of trying to improve three or four things at a time for far too long. The downside of running so many loops is the absence of focus.

This simple idea has changed how I think of improving my ability to “communicate constructively and with clarity” during the workday. I can sense the sharp increase in awareness as I communicate over the course of the day. And, I’m looking forward to experiencing the results of this increase in focus in a few months.

Another timely reminder that more is not better. Better is better.

Why millions of kids can’t read and a better way to teach them

NPR had a fascinating article on the transformation of the early reading curriculum at a kindergarten school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The dominant method for teaching kids to read comes from an influential and incorrect theory that pushes for teaching people using context and visual clues.

The better approach is to help kids/people understand that written text is a code for speech sounds. So, the process of reading is really a process of decoding these sounds.


Harper attended a professional-development day at one of the district’s lowest-performing elementary schools. The teachers were talking about how students should attack words in a story. When a child came to a word she didn’t know, the teacher would tell her to look at the picture and guess.

The most important thing was for the child to understand the meaning of the story, not the exact words on the page. So, if a kid came to the word “horse” and said “house,” the teacher would say, that’s wrong. But, Harper recalls, “if the kid said ‘pony,’ it’d be right because pony and horse mean the same thing.”

Harper was shocked. First of all, pony and horse don’t mean the same thing. And what does a kid do when there aren’t any pictures?

This advice to a beginning reader is based on an influential theory about reading that basically says people use things like context and visual clues to read words. The theory assumes learning to read is a natural process and that with enough exposure to text, kids will figure out how words work.

Yet scientists from around the world have done thousands of studies on how people learn to read and have concluded that theory is wrong.

One big takeaway from all that research is that reading is not natural; we are not wired to read from birth. People become skilled readers by learning that written text is a code for speech sounds. The primary task for a beginning reader is to crack the code. Even skilled readers rely on decoding.

So when a child comes to a word she doesn’t know, her teacher should tell her to look at all the letters in the word and decode it, based on what that child has been taught about how letters and combinations of letters represent speech sounds. There should be no guessing, no “getting the gist of it.”


The results of this approach in the past 3 years have been great.

In 2015, before the new training began, more than half of the kindergartners in the district tested below the benchmark score, meaning most of them were heading into first grade at risk of reading failure. At the end of the 2018 school year, after the science-based training, 84 percent of kindergartners met or exceeded the benchmark score. At three schools, it was 100 percent.

The meta learning here is the importance of educating educators in cognitive science in addition to their respective subject material. To help people learn better, we must understand how people learn first.

This learning applies in our day-to-day as well. We often play the role of educators when we teach our partners, kids, or co-workers about something. Understanding how they learn and process content will help us make a lot more progress in our attempts.

Learning systems

Our ability to be continuous learners is directly proportional to the quality of learning systems we put in place in our lives.

Our learning is proportional to our ability to synthesize i) our own experiences, ii) conversations with people, and iii) information from books and courses. And, good learning systems enable us to do all 3 of these. For example, a learning system to improve on our communication skills might look something like this –

1. Get a great book on communication or sign up for an online course. Then, spend a minimum of 15 minutes every day reading the books / listening to the course – followed by 5 minutes of synthesis.

2. Practice every morning on our drive or walk.

3. Ask to spend time on a regular cadence with the best communicators we know discussing communication.

4. At the end of every work day,  write down a 1-2 line reflection on how we communicated before we shut our laptop. Do it again on the weekend and revisit our learning system for the week.

5. Teach what we are learning every week or every month to anyone who will listen or read. Our dog, baby, roommate, or mom, are all viable candidates for this. :-)

Each of these mini-systems, on their own, will accelerate our learning. But, piece them all together and learning compounds very quickly.

The beauty about taking the effort to set up a learning system is that we can replace communication with graphic design tomorrow. With a few tweaks, a good system will adapt to aiding our efforts to work on skills that involve other people too.

If we care about improving our ability to learn, consider building a system, we must.

The problem with expecting to learn more from failure

“We learn more from failure” is one of those problematic pieces of common knowledge we hear from time to time. It is problematic because it is a self fulfilling prophecy. We expect to learn more failure and, so, we do.

We don’t learn more from failure because failure has some magical teaching quality. We learn because we take the time to reflect on it, understand what happened, and learn lessons that drive change in how we approach our work/life.

If we deconstructed success and obsessed about its causes the same way we do with failure, we could learn just as much from it. But, that doesn’t happen because common knowledge tells us to celebrate success instead of learning from it.

We can change that.

Sources of learning – an evolving 10 year view

I’ve been having a few conversations of late that have aimed to tackle difficult questions like – “How can I learn better?” and “How can I be sure I’m learning?” These are challenging questions and ones I’ve wrestled with a bunch. So, I thought I’d share my evolving perspective after 10 years of writing about this.

My mental model here is that our “learn rate” is proportional to time + energy spent on 3 sources – Books/synthesized information, People (and insightful conversations we have), and our own experiences. When we take the time to reflect on the time + energy spent on these sources and synthesize what we’ve taken away, we begin to develop or improve existing mental models, and over time, make changes to how we approach life. That translation of theory to action is learning.

Reflecting on the mix between these sources in my journey in the past decade, I think the biggest change has been the proportion of learning coming from my own experiences. When I started writing a decade ago, most of my learning came from books and more experienced folks – I didn’t have too many experiences to reflect on. That has changed and the mix looks a lot more balanced of late.

So, my perspective on the “how can I learn better?” question comes down to – what kind of habits/infrastructure do we have in place to make sure we’re reading, regularly having interesting conversations that we learn from, and reflecting on both of these along with the experiences we’re having every day?

And, if I had to break that down to sub-questions, they would be –

i) Are we regularly reading good books/subscribed to insightful blogs or podcasts?
ii) Are we spending time with folks we learn from and having conversations about what we’re thinking about vs. the weather?
iii) Are we finding time to reflect on the above + our own experiences and synthesize?

Love the Plateau

The late swimming coach Terry Laughlin had a powerful note on the plateau as he summarized his lessons learnt from George Leonard’s book on Mastery.

“Love the Plateau. All worthwhile progress occurs through brief, thrilling leaps forward followed by long stretches during which you feel you’re going nowhere. Though it seems as if you’re making no progress, learning continues at the cellular level. If you follow good practice principles, you are turning new behaviors into habits.”

Progress is lumpy. We experience short periods of acceleration when we go through an intense experience, crystallize important learning, or, every once a while, experience a good outcome. But, between these periods of acceleration, we go through long periods of time (i.e. the plateau) when we’re just working away in relative silence.

Channeling Terry Laughlin, keep working away purposefully. Love the plateau – love is a verb.