Learning By Doing
Learning isn't the transfer of information, it's the transformation of the individual.
I’ve been the beneficiary of multiple personal and professional transformations in my life thanks to online courses.
Building a Second Brain gave me a method for capturing, organizing, remixing, and most importantly, sharing my ideas.
Write of Passage made me a better writer.
Performative Speaking transformed me into a confident speaker.
Part-Time YouTuber Academy gave me a system for creating a YouTube channel.
Every single one of these courses achieved the outcome they promised by getting students like me to take action: build a note-taking system, publish five essays, deliver three talks, publish four YouTube videos.
I learned more from taking these actions than I did from any of the lectures included in the course. Don’t get me wrong, the lectures gave me valuable knowledge to perform the activities, but my time would’ve been wasted had I not put into practice what I was learning.
“Skill is the compound interest of knowledge put into action.” - Nathan Clark
Knowledge Of The Thing vs Doing The Thing
Would you drive a car on the open road after only reading a manual or watching a video about how to do it?
That’s insane, right? There are too many variables in driving a car for you to possibly learn how to handle them by passively consuming a how-to video. You need to be in the driver’s seat because it’s the process of handling the variables thrown at you that actually constitutes the skill of driving.
This is true for qualifying prospects, negotiating contracts, planning an account, managing employees, designing products… virtually all the activity we know as work is complex, non-routine, and involves other people.
You can acquire knowledge that will help you perform an activity, but you’ll never build the skills needed to do it well without multiple repetitions.
“A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it.” - Frank Herbert, Dune.
It’s What People Want
In a recent survey of over 1,000 employees, 38% said training would be more effective if it was aligned with their job responsibilities. This jumped to 50% for all employees who said they were dissatisfied with training— in both cases, this was the highest-rated suggestion.
When asked which is their preferred training delivery format, 64% picked simulation and learning by doing. The next highest was coaching and mentoring (51%).
It’s clear that employees want to learn relevant skills they can apply to their jobs immediately.
But Taking Action Is Hard
A 2019 Harvard study showed:
students felt as if they learned more through traditional lectures
they actually learned more when doing
Initially, it can feel frustrating. That’s because you’re out of your comfort zone, making mistakes. It’s messy. It’s going to feel like you aren’t learning.
But you actually are.
You’re making new connections between concepts. You’re building on your prior knowledge. You’re literally rewiring the way your brain works.
Actual learning and the feeling of learning are not the same things.
Without the journey, there is no learning. So how do you motivate people to take action?
“Deep learning is hard work. The effort involved in active learning can be misinterpreted as a sign of poor learning. On the other hand, a superstar lecturer can explain things in such a way as to make students feel like they are learning more than they actually are.” - the Harvard study authors.
3 Conditions That Motivate People To Take Action
First of all, people have to see a reason to take action.
“The desire to change your state is what powers you to take action.” - James Clear
We’re in a constant state of aspiring to change our state at work:
get a bonus
get a raise
So the first step is to create an aspirational vision of a role (‘what would the ideal salesperson at [company] look like?’) that ties directly to skills, competencies, mindsets, and behaviors that can be developed through learning.
With a destination in mind, and a map for how to get there (a curriculum), three conditions need to be met to sustain any initial burst of motivation1:
Autonomy - “I’m in charge.” People need to feel in control of their own behaviors and goals so that they can take direct action that will result in real change.
Competence - “I’ve got this.” People need to feel that they have the skills needed for success.
Relatedness - “we’re in this together.” People need to experience a sense of belonging and attachment to others.
With these three conditions satisfied, people become self-motivated to continue taking action.
Actions lead to momentum, and momentum generates new information that allows you to adjust course.
Learning by doing goes hand-in-hand with reflecting.
Reflection implies an act of stopping, which is at the very beginning of Confucius’ teachings in the essay Great Learnings.
When you know to stop, you have stability
When you have stability, you find tranquility
When you are tranquil, you can be at ease
When you are at ease, you can deliberate
With deliberation, you can attain
True, deep reflection is vital, but it’s only one part of learning as a process. We can’t spend our entire time leading people and companies in a state of reflection. We must also take action to “attain” as Confucius alludes to in the final step above. Taking action integrates learning and working, the ultimate goal of learning as a process.
Combining reflection and action leads to brilliance. Great jazz musicians improvise together with a unique ability to think and react while playing.
Donald Schon of MIT studied the importance of reflection in professions. He identified truly outstanding professionals as "reflective practitioners". They demonstrated an ability to reflect on one's thinking while acting. Phrases like “thinking on your feet," and "learning by doing" suggest not only that we can think about doing but that we can think about doing something while doing it.
Action and reflection combined are two keys that unlock learning.
What Else Is Needed?
As you can see, there is a lot more space around our circle of learning.
In my next letter, I’ll explore the concept of Communities of Practice and how sharing enhances the learning from doing and reflecting.