Knowledge to skills and learning to insight

There are two capabilities that play a big role in determining our value to society – our ability to transform knowledge to skills and our ability to transforming learning to insight.

Knowing how to swing a tennis racket by watching a video of Roger Federer on YouTube is one thing. Swinging it the right way on the court in a game is another. Similarly, having a collection of lessons learnt from an experience is one thing. Extracting insight from it is another.

The key in this conversion process is developing mental models that help you make sense of what you are seeing. This mental model development is how you “learn to see.” When you learn to see like a venture capitalist, you develop models which help you see things in a pitch meeting that an ordinary observer wouldn’t notice. When you learn to see a board like a chess player, you clearly understand what to do next. The pieces make sense as a whole.

So, how do you learn to see? Or, even better, how do you develop mental models?

I think of the flow as in the image below. Your knowledge gets converted to a model via deliberate practice. You then keep practicing till you develop skills which, in turn, further develops your mental model. This is what Anders Ericsson, the father of deliberate practice, has covered in his book “Peak“. Thanks to his work, we finally understand what must have seemed like alchemy or magic in the years before him. It, thus, makes sense that we tend to attribute a certain mystical quality to talent.

mental models, learning to insight, knowledge to skills

I think the process of converting learning to insight is one that is much less discussed. It still has a somewhat mystical element to the uninitiated – we, thus, often attribute it to genius. My thesis is that we develop mental models by reflecting deeply on what we learnt (note that learning, in the first place, requires some base level of reflection). These reflections generate our first mental models. Over time, however, these mental models help us cut through the noise and synthesize lessons into insights. This, in turn, keeps improving our mental models.

How do you get started with developing mental models? Copy shamelessly from people who operate better than you. If you want to learn how to play tennis, spend time with the best tennis player you know and imitate them. If you want to learn how to market products better, spend time with the best marketers to understand how they see the world. Once you understand their process (effectively the equivalent of “deliberate practice”), you can then create basic mental models that will, in turn, help you understand what behaviors you need to repeat or how you need to think about synthesis to develop skills and insights.

This is all about process. Good results, in the long term, will follow good processes. And, how we approach one thing will be how we approach everything. Excellence, as Aristotle observed, is not an act, but a habit.