At the First Friday Book Synopsis, we continue to stress the value of lifelong learning, asserting that exposing oneself to books is a powerful method to doing just that.
We are not alone in emphasizing the value of learning.
“Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life”
“The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.”
“Breakthroughs come when people learn how to take the time to stop and examine their assumptions.”
“Taking in information is only distantly related to real learning. It would be nonsensical to say, “I just read a great book about bicycle riding—I’ve now learned that.”
I love to read. Not everybody does. I know some really, really smart people who read very little – at least, they read very few books, or even longform reads (what we used to call essays). Oh, they read lots and lots and lots of e-mails, business proposals, spreadsheets… They know how to learn. They just don’t like to read books At least, not in large, undisturbed chucks of time.
And when they do read books, they read them in short bursts – a chapter here, a chapter there.
Well, there is a terrific longform read up on The Chronicle of Higher Education site: We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading by Alan Jacobs. Here are a few paragraphs, to give some key thoughts from the article (yes, I am shortening an essay on “long reads” so that it will be short enough to get the highlights – now that’s irony!):
But whatever designations we want to use, it has to be admitted that much of the anxiety about American reading habits, and those in other developed nations to a lesser degree, arises from frustration at not being able to sustain a permanent expansion of “the reading class” (emphasis added) beyond what may be its natural limits.
Serious “deep attention” reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.
In 2005, Wendy Griswold, Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright, sociologists from Northwestern University, published a paper concluding that while there was a period in which extraordinarily many Americans practiced long-form reading, whether they liked it or not, that period was indeed extraordinary and not sustainable in the long run. “We are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.”
The extreme reader, to coin a phrase, is a rare bird indeed. (“I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing,” Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes. “Can I go back to my books now?”)
Those are my tribe, but they are few. It is more common to come across the person who has known the joys of reading but who can be distracted from them. But even those folks are a small percentage of the population.
American universities are largely populated by people who don’t fit either of these categories—often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive. For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating. We love reading, we think it’s wonderful, and we want other people to think so, too. “What we have loved,/Others will love,” wrote Wordsworth, “and we will teach them how.” A noble sentiment! Inspiring! But what if, after great labor, we discover—this often happens—that we can’t teach them how? Whose fault is that?
Perhaps it isn’t anyone’s fault.
I don’t know whether an adult who has never practiced deep attention—who has never seriously read for information or for understanding, or even for delight—can learn how. Some current college students will not have had those experiences, and it would be futile and painful to expect them to read as most of their teachers have read.
A couple of reflections:
#1 — what is critical is learning, and those who are part of the “reading class” can learn much. But that is not the only way to learn. And, by the way, one can read a lot and never learn. (Back to the old “knowing-doing gap”).
The formula should be:
read + reflect + look for transferable principles/lessons + decide what to do + do!
In other words, if you stop at the “I’ve read this book” stage, you’ve learned little.
#2 – But, reading is still a great place to start that formula.
I would like to encourage you to read – books – in long stretches of time.
And, start by reading this essay. It is a terrific read.
A small quibble over a statistic: Here’s what Jacobs wrote:
At the beginning of the 20th century, perhaps 2 percent of Americans attended a university; now the number is closer to 70 percent (though only about 30 percent get bachelor’s degrees).
This is confusing. I don’t doubt that he has read that statistic. I just doubt that statistic. “70 percent attend a university?” Really? The high school graduation rate is only around 71% nationally. That would mean that practically every single high school graduate attends college/university.
I don’t think so!
Form Bill Hybels, Senior Pastor of the Willow Creek Community Church, from a conference in 2007:
“Is your learning band width getting wider or narrower as you mature as a leader… Expand your learning band width.”
The point is simple: learn from many, from multiple backgrounds, even from those you might not agree with on certain issues. A leader must continue, continually, to be a learner…
(Bill Hybels said this in the midst of a 7-minute presentation that you can watch here).
Recently, I presented a synopsis of a book that a number of folks in the audience had actually already read. I know they would be there – I knew that they had read it. The book was Mastering the Rockefeller Habits by Verne Harnish – a very good, and useful book.
These people in the audience who had read the book were coaches for the Gazelles organization. These coaches are smart, helpful — they provide great value to their clients.
But here was the interesting thing: after my synopsis, each of them said something like this: “I didn’t remember that this was in the book” — and then they would refer to a specific point, or quote, that I included in the synopsis.
When I present a synopsis of a book to a second, or third, or fourth audience, I frequently have the same experience. Even as I am speaking, I have an “I didn’t remember this was in this book” moment.
So, here is the problem. We always have something new to read, to learn. And we always have something we’ve already “learned” to “remember,” even “re-learn.”
Good news. We’re not idiots – we’re normal. This is one of the points made in this article about student’s learning habits from the NY Times: Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits by Benedict Carey. Here’s the key excerpt:
Cognitive scientists do not deny that honest-to-goodness cramming can lead to a better grade on a given exam. But hurriedly jam-packing a brain is akin to speed-packing a cheap suitcase, as most students quickly learn — it holds its new load for a while, then most everything falls out.
“With many students, it’s not like they can’t remember the material” when they move to a more advanced class, said Henry L. Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s like they’ve never seen it before.”
When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.
No one knows for sure why. It may be that the brain, when it revisits material at a later time, has to relearn some of what it has absorbed before adding new stuff — and that that process is itself self-reinforcing.
“The idea is that forgetting is the friend of learning,” said Dr. Kornell (Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College and the lead author of the study). “When you forget something, it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it.”
The research is clear – reading/hearing something once is not enough. You have to re-visit, re-ponder, re-learn over and over again.
People are different. And the more diversity between the people, the more differences there are.
So – here is the question of the day: Do you always hang out with the same people – the same kinds of people? If so, maybe it’s time broaden your circle.
This simple advice is a key part of the message from Yale’s President Rick Levin to the arriving freshman class. (I read this in this blog post by Arianna Huffington). Here’s a key excerpt:
Levin pointed out how the students “come from all 50 states and 58 nations” and urged them (and their parents) to go “entirely outside the range of your past experience,” and “stretch yourself.” “If the friends you make here are exclusively those who come from backgrounds just like your own and went to high schools just like your own,” he said, “you will have forfeited half the value of a Yale education. Seek out friends with different histories and different interests; you will find that you learn the most from the people least like you.”
I’ve read plenty of books that offer similar advice. Like this:
Sticking to the people we already know is a tempting behavior. But unlike some forms of dating, a networker isn’t looking to achieve only a single successful union. Creating an enriching circle of trusted relationships requires one to be out there, in the mix, all the time.
Set a goal for yourself of initiating a meeting with one new person a week. It doesn’t matter where or with whom.
Keith Ferrazzi, Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time (The Ultimate Networker Reveals How to Build a Lifelong Community of Colleagues, Contacts, Friends, and Mentors)
Seize any opportunity, or anything that looks like opportunity. They are rare, much rarer than you think. Remember that positive Black Swans have a necessary first step: you need to be exposed to them. If a big publisher (or a big art dealer or a movie executive or a hotshot banker or a big thinker) suggests an appointment, cancel anything you have planned: you may never see such a window open up again.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the HIGHLY IMPROBABLE
In my own life, I am always learning from the wide array of people I “hang with.” I speak monthly at the Urban Engagement Book Club, which includes a true mix of people: non-profit leaders, business folks, some people who are pretty much in the homeless category, retired people… I have experienced no other mix of people like it in my lifetime.
And I teach at a local community college. There are people from multiple ethnic backgrounds, and all levels of the economic spectrum. My students teach me so much every semester.
And then we have the audience of business leaders who attend the First Friday Book Synopsis.
And I lead regular sessions (Current Events and reading/discussion groups) with retired people.
You put all of these together, and my life is a rich, diverse set of moments that represent genuine diversity.
But I need to become even more intentional about this – as, I suspect, you do. So, here some suggestions for us all:
1) Go to at least one gathering, on a regular basis, that is made up of people who are not all “like you.”
2) Read authors, and types of books, that are outside of your beaten path, and represent points of view that you disagree with.
3) Look for another “new” person, and some new event, regularly.
Diversity is good for us. But experiencing true diversity will not happen by accident. You have to get intentional about it. There are people to meet, ideas to discover, viewpoints to ponder.
Hanging with people who are not all just like you may be the most neglected learning discipline of them all.
Back in my ministry days, I read a little from/about Juan Carlos Ortiz. The story goes that one Sunday, he delivered an impassioned sermon on: “Brothers and Sisters, Love one another.” Filled with Scripture, stories, pleas, arguments, he urged his folks to actually love one another more deeply. The following Sunday, he stood up to preach his sermon, and here it was, in its entirety:
“Brothers and Sisters, love one another.”
Then he sat down. After an awkward silence, with the congregation a little confused, a member of his church called out, “Brother Ortiz, we are waiting to hear your sermon.” Preacher Ortiz rose to the pulpit, and said:
“When you actually love one another, as I preached last week, then I will preach my next sermon.”
Whether the story is true or not, I certainly get the point. It is certainly a true to the real world story.
We read a book filled with good ideas. We think of ways to change/better our work. We “decide” to do things differently. We “learn” what was in the book we read.
But maybe we need to not read any other books; we need to not read the “next book;” until we actually do what this last book we read encouraged/”taught” us to do.
Years ago, for a workshop on some subject or another, I adapted some thoughts from Peter Senge, and included these paragraphs in the handout material:
“The only job security is found in your own ability to keep learning!” (Peter Drucker)
“Through learning, we re-create ourselves.” (Peter Senge)
Learning leads to life style changes which lead to skills:
Learning is far more than taking in information. “Learning is expanding the ability to produce the results we truly want in life.” (Peter Senge)
The ultimate learning disability:
“People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, and their growth areas.” (Peter Senge)
When have you learned?
You have learned when you can do,
and then you actually do,
the skills that are needed to take your next step.
So – yes, I do encourage you to read that next business book. This blog can help you find just the right title for your next areas of concern/growth/challenge. But maybe the wisest course of action is this one:
1) Read a book.
2) Do/implement what it says; what you learned – until it is habit.
3) Then, read the next book – and repeat the process.