Working backward from instincts

I took two quick decisions recently based on my instincts. They had differing levels of risk  and made me reflect on the process. Three things I took away.

First, I found myself thinking about the insight I’d shared from Rory Sutherland’s book about how we evolved to have a rational brain because rationality gave us the ability to explain our instinctual/emotional reactions. In this case, I was going through the exercise of trying to explain my decisions to myself (and a friend who I was in conversation with). It was fascinating to observe myself trying to back out the implicit reasoning.

Second, embedded in these instinctual actions was some interesting subconscious reasoning. If I had attempted to do all of this consciously, there is no way I’d have taken these decisions in time. So, it was fascinating to realize just how much our instincts process.

Third, it remains to be seen if my instincts were right. Time will tell how these work out. Regardless, there was a lot to learn from the process. For instance, there were a couple of things I’d like to tweak about how I acted on these instincts. So, even if that ends up causing one of them to backfire, I am at least glad I followed these instincts as I’ve regretted not following them a lot more than when I have actually followed them.

Learning is guaranteed either way.

The tire queue

I was recently in a self-serve queue to fill air in my car tire recently. At one point, however, the queue got stuck.

Instead of a quick one minute wait, we were now waiting close to five minutes without any sign of progress. This car owner seemed to just be walking up and down from the machine to the tire. Someone ahead shared his frustration at the situation and he finally got help from a technician at the tire center.

As the queue was fairly backed up, the technician helped the rest of of us get it done as well.

As I reflected on that incident, I realized that the issue wasn’t that he didn’t know how to work the pump. Instead, it was his unwillingness to ask for help. And, while it happened to him in this instance, it could just as easily have happened to me in another context.

It is natural for all of us to want to demonstrate capability – even in seemingly inconsequential things. However, that desire gets in the way of learning and progress.

Helpful reminder that becoming is more important than being in the long run.

Creating great learning experiences

The challenge with creating a great learning experience is getting the mix between theory and practice just right. Most conventional experiences just end up separating the two for simplicity. So, we end up overdoing theory in classrooms and overdoing practice in our day-to-day at work.

Skill building, thus, gets really hard for two reasons. First, the theory needs to be low on information and high on synthesis to make it applicable. And, second, it needs to be followed by attempts at applying it – with access to feedback.

So, if we’re seeking to help ourselves (and/or others) build skills, we need to design learning modules where we spend 20% of the time absorbing one simple, synthesized, idea followed by 80% of our time spent on attempting to practice it.

The test? If our attempts at learning aren’t changing how we actually operate, we aren’t learning.

To learn and not to do is not to learn.

Speed of response to feedback

Our ability to respond quickly to feedback is directly proportional to our ability to not take feedback as personal affronts.

It generally is about that thing we did, not about us. (And, in the off chance that it was about us, we’re still better off focusing on that thing.)

We learn faster when we train ourselves to get over ourselves.

On how hard it is to learn something

One of the bigger lessons I’ve taken away from attempting to write about learning and the process of learning over the past 11 years is just how hard it is to learn something.

Learning isn’t about about absorbing a new idea. It is about spending enough time with it to create mental models that change how we see. That, in turn, changes how we do things. To learn and not to do is not to learn after all.

Thus, a small change in how we approach our work and lives can take months and large changes can take years. And, as new years resolutions demonstrate, periodic re-commitment count for a lot more than one-time commitments.

So, for better chances of success at learning – i) pick one thing that you actually want to spend a lot of time on, ii) find a coach, community, or habit that helps you stay accountable to regular experimentation and reflection, and iii) be patient.

Learning one line

There’s an old Indian story about a child who once told his teacher that he only learned one line during the few days the teacher was away. As all of his classmates claimed to have studied multiple chapters in this time, the teacher was upset about the child’s progress.

As he pressed the child further on this lack of progress, the child calmly explained that he’d put in maximum effort. As the conversation progressed, the teacher became increasingly infuriated, insulted the child’s intelligence, and slapped him.

The child stayed calm throughout this fit of anger.

Surprised at the child’s reaction, the teacher finally asked him what was the line he’d learnt.

“Don’t get angry.” – came the response.

On occasions when I think of this story, I’m reminded of the power of doing few things well.

And, of the fact that to learn and not to do is not to learn.