The Learning Illusion – a Challenge for 2012

I think we need to make 2012 a year of learning – but, it won’t be easy.

I believe in life-long learning.  I am a big fan of every effort to keep learning.  Our monthly First Friday Book Synopsis is designed to whet the appetite of such life-long learners.  I like to read, I like to hear new things, read new ideas, “stretch” a little.

But – do we actually learn very much?  (Do I actually learn very much)?  Not all that much, I suspect.

(Quick – find me a dozen people who believe that Jerry Jones has learned anything in recent years about more effectively running the Dallas Cowboys).

I wish it were otherwise.  I wish that we learned, and then did these new things we learned.  Now, some new learning is easy.  I have learned/can use most of the apps on my iPhone.  I can do a couple of things around the house that I could not before.  But, for the most part, though I read words, and can “recite back” the concepts, I still pretty much function the way I have been functioning for quite a while (as in, years!).  I haven’t changed much – I haven’t learned much.

These thoughts always bring me back to the great quote by John Henry Newman:  “To grow is to change, and to have changed often is to have learned much.”  But what really prompted this blog post was this paragraph, which I read in Tyler Cowen’s blog post The Danger Of Storytelling, (from his TED talk):

One interesting thing about cognitive biases – they’re the subject of so many books these days. There’s the Nudge book, the Sway book, the Blink book, like the one-title book, all about the ways in which we screw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what, to me, is the single, central, most important way we screw up, and that is, we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories. And why don’t these books tell us that? It’s because the books themselves are all about stories. The more of these books you read, you’re learning about some of your biases, but you’re making some of your other biases essentially worse.

So the books themselves are part of your cognitive bias. Often, people buy them as a kind of talisman, (emphasis added) like “I bought this book. I won’t be Predictably Irrational.” It’s like people want to hear the worst, so psychologically, they can prepare for it or defend against it. It’s why there’s such a market for pessimism. But to think that buying the book gets you somewhere, that’s maybe the bigger fallacy. It’s just like the evidence that shows the most dangerous people are those that have been taught some financial literacy. They’re the ones who go out and make the worst mistakes. It’s the people that realize, “I don’t know anything at all,” that end up doing pretty well.

Look again at these words:  “I bought this book. I won’t be Predictably Irrational.”  How many books have you read, and at the end of the day, you tell yourself (deceive yourself?):  “Well, I’ve learned the stuff in this book,” — but, you don’t actually implement any of the wisdom that you read in the book?

Maybe we all need a new discipline:  when we finish reading a book, attending a seminar, attending any presentation, watching any TED talk, then — right then! we set aside a chunk of time – a noticeable chunk of time – and ask, “so, what will I do now with this new information/insight/wisdom?”  And then, write it down, and start doing it.  And keep doing it.  Quit being irrational; quit ridiculing your team members; quit being so self-centered…  quit the bad things, and then add the good things.

Without this “after we’ve learned” step, then, in reality, we haven’t learned at all…  Without this next step, then learning is just an illusion.

2 thoughts on “The Learning Illusion – a Challenge for 2012

  1. Marcy Jenkins

    Hi Randy, Your action-oriented suggestion makes sense to me — I’m one of the people who love to read, love to learn, and then often forget the details of what I’ve read, and fail to DO anything with it.

    I agree that taking more care to apply what we “learn” can be very good. I’ve noticed that some people regularly ask, “How can I use this?” before or after reading, and that can be very admirable, and smart.

    Yet, I also find that for me there’s a collective effect in my reading and learning, and that it often takes at least 2 or 3 times of hearing/reading/thinking about something before it really sinks in and has a chance to change me or my behavior.

    So, I intend to keep reading, sometimes just to learn or derive pleasure, sometimes to find answers or prompt solutions, sometimes to instigate immediate actions, and other times to reinforce the little “track” in my brain that will eventually be deep enough so that it has an observable effect on my actions.

    It’s kind of a version of, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Randy Mayeux Post author

    Hi, Marcy,

    No disagreement on this paragraph: “Yet, I also find that for me there’s a collective effect in my reading and learning, and that it often takes at least 2 or 3 times of hearing/reading/thinking about something before it really sinks in and has a chance to change me or my behavior.”

    So, the accumulative effect is good, and positive…

    But!, on the other hand, here’s what is “bothersome” to me… We have had no shortage of books, articles, seminars, workshops, on “leadership,” for example (pretty good books and workshops!) — and yet no one is saying “well, we’ve actually trained an army of great leaders.” There is a really big, bothersome gap — the “knowing-doing gap”

    This is what concerns me…

    A lot of folks need that teacher to appear — including me, in many ways…

    Thanks for your comment.


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