Learning is paradoxical: the more you try to make it happen, the less it actually happens.
We often associate learning as something you do. Something that you carve time out of your calendar for. “Learning time” is synonymous with reading a book, listening to a podcast, or going through an online course.
But what if this model of learning is flawed? What if learning is not an activity so much as a byproduct of something else? What if it’s an emergent property–something that happens because of something else further up the system?
The truth about learning is that you can’t “try to learn.” Well, I suppose you can, but “trying to learn” is often a codeword for something else–procrastination, indecision, or boredom.
A better model of learning is one in which there is no scalpel thin enough to split learning and doing apart.
In the real world, doing and learning are intertwined in a positive feedback loop. Doing leads to learning, which leads to more doing, which leads to more learning. And on-and-on it goes.
When you come to this realization that doing and learning are attached at the hip like Siamese Twins, you find that every interesting challenge you face is a learning opportunity. And any learning opportunity is a chance to create something special.1
I fear that many coaches today are falling for the learning trap. It’s a common belief in the coaching industry that we have “coaching time” (in-season) and “learning time” (off-season). For coaches lucky enough to get an off-season, we spend those months filling our brain with new information via conferences, courses, books, podcasts, and more. Then, we emerge from our learning time armed with all sorts of new knowledge that we can use to help our players.
Now let me make this clear. A desire to learn is a good thing. I am never going to try to stop somebody from wanting to learn. But what I do want to help you do is channel your desire to learn into more productive, positive ends.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck the sports world in March 2020, coaches in every sport were thrust into a brand new situation. Isolated in quarantine, coaches found themselves with more time than they knew what to do with.
In the weeks and months that followed, coaches all over the place doubled, tripled, and quadrupled-down on “learning.” Without anything else to do, we flocked to webinars, Zoom calls, online courses, and anything we could do to “learn.” This motivation for continual growth is good, but there’s a limitation.
It’s a simple rule of human nature that when uncertainty is high, we look to others to figure out what we should do. And because people all over our online network seemed to be hosting, attending, or promoting an upcoming learning opportunity, we joined in. We pride ourselves on our growth mindsets and boast about being “the dumbest person in the room,” so it was only natural that we would sign up for every webinar, purchase all of the online courses, and consume every podcast.
But, as the saying goes, where there is a wealth of information, there’s a poverty of attention.
To apply this to learning, when there is a wealth of learning opportunities, there’s a poverty of actual learning taking place.
When you focus on learning, it rarely happens. When the coaching world flocked to the various learning opportunities available, we were so focused on learning that we didn’t have any context to apply it to to make it real.
In a normal world, our daily environment creates the context we need to filter any new information we receive. With any new piece of information, we can easily filter whether it is relevant to us right here, right now.
But when this filtering mechanism is gone, we lose our precision of knowing what’s helpful and what isn’t. Suddenly, everything becomes important. And if everything’s important, I must learn it all. This is how we end up with a calendar flooded with Zoom calls but very little added wisdom from those calls.
I can’t fault us for thinking this way. Coaches tend to be natural overachievers. Ask us to go a mile, we’ll go two. Ask us to stay till 6, we’ll be there till 10. Read a book? How about three? It’s no surprise that we have a hard time filtering information when our “new normal” looks nothing like it did before.
And to make sure you don’t think I’m writing this from a privileged ivory tower, I want you to know that I went through the exact same thing. I signed up for the calls, listened to the podcasts, and scrolled the Twitter feeds. And at the end of it all, I still didn’t feel like I had learned much of anything.
That’s when I knew something was wrong.
So I had to ask myself, “How do I solve this problem? How, in a world of minimal context, do I still learn? How can I make sure that I’m putting skin in the game?”
Here’s what I did:
I know it seems like a simple, cop-out answer, but writing is really the #1 way I’ve found to learn the last 6 months.
In a time like this, writing is as effective a means of learning as any because, as Morgan Housel writes, “Writing crystallizes ideas in ways thinking on its own will never accomplish.”
Said another way, writing forces you to move towards clarity. When you write, you must cut through all of the foggy areas of understanding in your brain and find the things that are true.
The best way to learn faster (and better) is to shorten the distance between action and feedback. Writing does this. Every word you put on the page receives feedback on its clarity, conciseness, and correctness. The best part? You’re the one doing the evaluation.
So writing is the first part, but it didn’t end there for me. Because even though writing crystalizes thinking, you still want to make sure your ideas can withstand contact with other people.
#2: Talk to other people.
One of the most important things I’ve done the last 6 months has been making it a regular practice to talk to people on the phone.
I don’t just call them to catch-up (although that’s important). I call them to bounce ideas off of. To share what we’ve been thinking about and see if those ideas hold up in conversation.
Richard Feynman famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” As I see it, one of the best ways to make sure that you’re not fooling yourself is to explain it to others.
In an ideal world, you’ll have a friend who will be willing to disagree with you. This is a huge blessing. Find friends like this. Talk to them regularly.
When you talk with others, you’ll find that the ideas you think you understand so well often don’t survive contact with another human.
That’s the feedback you need. Now go back and write down what you learned.
That’s it. That’s all you need to do to increase your learning. Write down what you know and then try to teach it to others. Just keep repeating this process and you literally won’t be able to stop yourself from learning.
- Hat tip to Tiago Forte for this idea on his podcast episode with David Perell [↩]