Redefining learning : The problem with siloing your mind
Learning today is misunderstood. It’s not just a career skill, it’s a life skill. Learning is defined too narrowly in our world and learning is limited to things that “help you do your job better”.
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Learning today is misunderstood. It’s not just a career skill, it’s a life skill. Learning is defined too narrowly in our world and learning is limited to things that “help you do your job better”. Human beings are multifaceted and this way of thinking constricts learning.
Learning about areas or interests or things that are outside of the skills you need for your job will help you do your job better. Becoming a lifelong learner requires you to look inward and figure out what is the thing I am curious about and want to become better at? Cooking? Gardening? Animals? Or just becoming better at personal finance.
You’ll notice that learning sounds like fun now, and yes it’s meant to be! This kind of learning will make you more aware, happier, and more well-rounded as a human being in the long run. Don’t let the narrow definition of “learning” constrict you.
Learning itself is misunderstood
I was not always a lifelong learner because I didn’t know what that meant. I assumed that lifelong learning means more education, more classes, more exams, and all these things scared the crap out of me. I didn’t see myself as “learning” all the time. I was a horrible student and failed at everything while in school; this always made me feel like a failure. Jobs didn’t make me feel much better. When covid hit that I realized that I couldn’t cook and had to learn and I found the experience satisfying.
As humans, formalized learning in a class setting is not the only form of learning. We are constantly having new experiences but we are not learning consciously. Years ago I had a teacher who used to say that you can learn anywhere. The example he used was raw fish wrapped in a newspaper. When you went to a fish market, they generally wrapped the fish in a day-old newspaper and his point was that just reading that newspaper can be a learning opportunity.
As a people, we are afflicted with inattention flitting from one thing to another in the search of the next dopamine hit. Not dissimilar to a bee that flits from flower to flower in search of honey.
Our definition of “learning” is too narrow. The definition of learning states it as “the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught” As human beings, we are extremely curious and we like to explore a variety of things.
The acquisition of knowledge or skills becomes constrained to things you need to do your job better. We’re constantly trying to get that promotion or raise that we don’t stop. We miss the opportunities to convert experiences into knowledge because we think they don’t matter.
Have you ever realized that you plan a vacation? A friend of mine told me the story of his family vacations and how he hated them. Deadpan motel, same touristy crap, rinse and repeat. Most of us still think man, that was a great “vacation”. Can’t wait for my next vacation. How about instead we use this as a learning experience and turn it around? Instead of a planned vacation, how about you just travel and see where it goes? How do people live, work, eat, and gather?
The same friend tried a different way to travel (as a learning experience rather than a vacation). He booked a flight to Madrid two days in advance with no plans. He says that it was the best trip because he adapted and learned, rather than just having a sterile Motel 6 experience. How the hell is a sterile vacation fun? Also how the hell is a sterile vacation fun?
Bring this back to your job. You will now be able to articulate better answers for why your product won’t work in that specific country, or what your salespeople feel when they try to sell in that specific country. Bridging this gap widens your worldview. Why don’t we reflect back? Why don’t we try to build our knowledge from these experiences? Primarily because human beings bucket things into “work”, “fun”, and “task”. It makes more sense that way, but it’s wrong!
Why learning helps you do your job better
Human beings are not good at second-order thinking. We do not let “learnings” from one part of our life cross into another. Charlie Munger talks about mental models and how we should build a “latticework of mental models”. Most of us don't. We compartmentalize and it's the dumbest thing ever!
I volunteer with cats at the shelter. These recent arrivals have fear, anxiety, and safety issues. They are scared. Volunteering has helped me become more empathetic as a Product Manager at work. To take a recent story. The shelter had a cat that was blind in one eye. His name was Simon and he was about 5 years old. During my shift, I snuck in several times and hung out with him and he enjoyed the company. When I went back to work on Monday and we were having discussions about product accessibility this experience was top of mind. We prioritized accessibility. Had I not interacted with Simon, I might not have given accessibility a second thought. This is an example of a cross-over and more importantly why learning can come from anywhere.
Short bursts of intense work followed by rest can help you focus better. Consider the following from Olivet Burkman in The three-or-four-hours rule for getting creative work done:
As I've written before, it's positively spooky how frequently this three-to-four-hour range crops up in accounts of the habits of the famously creative. Charles Darwin, at work on the theory of evolution in his study at Down House, toiled for two 90-minute periods and one one-hour period per day; the mathematical genius Henri Poincaré worked for two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Ingmar Bergman, and many more all basically followed suit, as Alex Pang explains in his book Rest (where he also discusses research supporting the idea: this isn't just a matter of cherry-picking examples to prove a point).
Stepping away from work does help you think about work problems. I do my best thinking while I am running – miles away from my computer – and then I hit on an aha or two. I have a path forward on a problem that I didn't have before.
How can you become a lifelong learner?
The first step is to redefine what learning means to you. Forget the definition. Think about things that you were always curious about as a child or adult that you wanted to do. Play the drums, learn how to cook, tap dance, knit like your grandma, and just START. You can do this in the following ways :
The first is the more formal way - take a class or learn online. Believe it or not, I could not butter toast until covid and now I can cook the most amazing food. My friends who’ve eaten my food are still alive.
The second is to meet new people and expand your worldview - This is why I love volunteering. I meet people who are not ME (thankfully!)
Third, you can do this without even leaving your chair; reach out to someone you work with and understand their worldview, how it was shaped; engage in a healthy, respectful debate. You will walk away feeling so much happier and more knowledgeable
What should you learn about?
That’s for you to decide. When the pandemic started I didn’t know how to cook and I can safely say (based on feedback from so many friends) that my cooking is awesome. I didn’t just “cook”, I learned the “art” of cooking. Cook to Chef. I have always loved food and this was a key life skill that I was missing. It helps me nourish my body AND also helps me think better about problems that are on my mind. Just last week I was struggling with the lack of progress on a project and in spite of multiple attempts at moving it forward I just could not. I finally decided that I can’t beat myself up about it and that I can’t control everything.
How does this connect to YOUR career?
As a tech employee that has done hundreds of interviews, what I’ve realized is that all interviews test you on hard skills. Some questions are “strengths”, “weaknesses” type questions and if at all barely some questions are about “learning” and even those are so narrow: “What did you learn from that failure to ship your product”. I mean would you want to hire automatons for knowledge work? Would you not want to get a well-rounded human instead? Very few tech companies look for learning as an aspect and this is a mistake. The ones that do are better off. Jeff Bezos has stated that:
Lifelong learning is where it’s at. To walk down that path requires a deep-seated humility about a) what’s knowable and b) what each of us knows. We hire for this aggressively. We celebrate this internally. And we’ve been known to punish when we find it woefully lacking.
Evaluating curiosity as an interviewer
This list of 40 interview questions from First Round is great but my favorite question is “What are some things outside of work that you’re irrationally passionate about?” This seemingly innocent question from Laura Behrens Wu, the CEO of Shippo digs deeper at candidate motivations.
“I’m looking for people who are intrinsically motivated, and hobbies are often an outlet for that,”. “Over the years, I’ve found that intrinsically driven individuals typically have other passions outside of work that they pursue in an obsessive-like way. For example, if a candidate tells me they run 10 miles a day as a hobby, that’s a signal of a strong internal drive.”
I can’t agree more. Take for example the volunteer work I do. I am pretty sure that Simon is not going to give me a glowing recommendation on LinkedIn.
In conclusion, my advice is simple. Don’t let someone else define your learning and don’t silo your learning. Build that latticework of experiences that will help you live all aspects of your life better. You are bound to have a well-rounded life with higher life quality
Note: “Students always” was a key leadership principle for us at Berkeley-Haas and I still try to go back every year and take a new class, usually one that doesn’t have anything to do with my job.
Thank you for reading. Stay safe, be well! If you enjoyed reading this please consider sharing it with a friend or two (or sign up here if you came across this or were forwarded this)
Thank you so much to Mike Woitach, John Stopper, Swarupa Subhash, Leo Ariel, Rik van den Berge, and Ken Rice for feedback on early drafts and for making this more understandable and relatable. You beautiful people!