Three ways to learn from experience (or how to deal with idiots)

If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you
If you’re determined to learn, no one can stop you

Zig Ziglar

I am assuming if you’re reading this, you like Ziglar’s quote above, and are already convinced of two things:

  • That being good at learning is an important skill; and
  • That you can learn new stuff, despite however many years you may have accumulated

On the first point, in our fast-changing world of immense complexity, the ability to capture the right learning from our experience is more and more important – and we don’t just learn from experience automatically; it’s a skill.

The difference between someone with ten years experience and someone who has one year’s experience ten times, is that the first person learnt from that experience.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn

Alvin Toffler

On the second point, it used to be thought that our abilities and talents were static after the age of about seven: this is the fixed mindset.

There is some truth to this, it gets harder to learn as you get older because the neural pathways are hewn more and more clearly into the grey matter, but research has shown that not only are our brains more plastic than previously thought, but that learning new stuff makes our brains even less fixed and more able to learn (the growth mindset)!

This means not only can we learn new tricks, but learning new tricks stops our brains from growing old!

The quickest way to become an old dog is to stop learning new tricks

John Rooney

I have written about the importance of a growth mindset here.

To build on those assumptions, I want to share three tools I find useful for being a better experiential learner.

Experiential learning model

The first is Kolb and Fry’s experiential learning model.

David Kolb and Ron Fry came up with it in their 1975 book “Toward an Applied Theory of Experiential Learning” and then it often got confused with the much less useful concept of learning styles.

Learning Styles are a red herring.

There is little evidence that individuals have a consistent preference for any one part of the cycle, or that any other approach to learning styles can be linked to individual personalities rather than to the content and context of the learning.

We all favour social learning for some things, need visual aids for others, and time to reflect for most more complex ideas. We’ll all go to YouTube to learn how to rewire a plug, but no matter how predisposed you are to quiet contemplation, you’re going to have to get behind the wheel if you want to learn how to drive.

If you want more on this, see this link to the Trainer Tools mythbusting podcast in which we trash learning styles.

The Kolb and Fry cycle works like this (it needn’t be in this order):

  • You have an experience
  • You reflect on it: what just happened?
  • You generalise from that: so what does that mean?
  • You decide what to do about it: now what am I going to do?

For the first part to work, you have to notice you had an experience. This might seem obvious, but if you’re just rushing from one thing to the next you may fail to spot that you just came across really well in that meeting, or that you didn’t have a good interaction with that person just now … if you don’t stop and notice those things, you cannot learn from them, and this is why the growth mindset is an essential prerequisite.

Reflection is then working out what happened and thinking through why it worked out that way. The other two tools I want to share in this post dig deeper on this point.

We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience

John Dewey

Generalisation is fitting this into your map of the world. The experience, and what you decided just happened when you reflected, may be contrary to what you thought was true. You may have to change your mind on something! This is not easy, and a fixed mindset will be triggered into a defensive stance, desperate to prove itself right and be shown to be smart. The growth mindset will be excited by the opportunity to correct a detail that wasn’t right on the map, or to deepen our understanding of something complex.

Most probably you’ll feel both impulses, and will need to dampen the first to cultivate the second.

The last part of the cycle is to consciously plan what to do about it: what behaviours will you stop doing, start doing, keep doing?

Then you try that out (experience), work out what happened (reflect), refine your understanding (generalise), and take another step forward – and thus we whizz around the model.

Framing (or reframing)

This is the key tool for effective reflection.

There are many ways to photograph a beautiful view. The skill of the photographer is to decide where to draw the frame and so define what we see and what we ignore.

The same is true of experience.

Imagine every time you interacted with Bob at work you felt mistreated. He didn’t listen to you, he criticised your work, interrupted your explanations, was continually disappointed with whatever you did, and however hard you tried to build that relationship he impatiently rebuffed you.

That’s the experience, at least from your point of view, but what frame are you going to draw around that?

Are you going to be like Mark Twain’s cat and not only avoid Bob, but avoid all the world’s Bobs?

If a cat sits on a hot stove, that cat won’t sit on a hot stove again. That cat won’t sit on a cold stove either. That cat just don’t like stoves

Mark Twain

The easy lesson to learn is that Bob is a total nightmare and just impossible to work with. This may be true, but let’s reframe it to see if we can get something more useful out of it.

  1. Be honest with yourself – good and bad, don’t put yourself down, but don’t avoid hard truths
  2. Assume good intentions on Bob’s part, assuming other people are evil is pointless
  3. Imagine how Bob would describe the above situation, if he ever bothered to reflect (which is unlikely, he’s clearly an idiot)
  4. Ask others for their point of view, especially for their feedback on you

Here’s how Bob’s might think of it:

John is a nice person, but the problem is that he waffles on and doesn’t get to the point. His work is incomplete, it’s full of questions not answers, it’s over-complicating things and is academic, and I need concrete results. There’s no data, it’s just supposition and ambiguity that I can’t work with … and then he spends his time asking about my weekend or whatever and I’m sorry but my private life is private …

This gives us a whole different way of framing the experience: I am not communicating in the way Bob needs, I am not demonstrating my focus on delivery, I am not focusing on the task etc.

The second frame is a different symbol on our map of reality, and it may not be the objective truth either, but even if it doesn’t exactly match the terrain, it’s worth trying to see if it’s more effective.

If it is, then probably it’s more true and worth adding to our understanding of the world.

This is hardcore reframing, and this leads us on to …

Circle of Influence

This is the most powerful model for self-development I know.

It builds directly on the above concept of focusing on what you can do, not on what should be.

This model was developed Stephen Covey in his brilliant book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”

It works like this:

We have a load of stuff we’re concerned about (the circle of concern). For example climate change, or the politics of our country, or the idiotic behaviour of people like Bob.

Then we have things we can actually do (the circle of influence).

On my own I cannot do much about climate change.

So I can spend my time worrying about it (circle of concern) or I can focus on what I can do, even though on its own it’s barely even a drop in the ocean: use low energy bulbs, recycle, use public transport where possible, get an economic car, plant trees, eat less meat, make environmentally-conscious purchasing decisions etc. … whatever it might be.

That’s enough, that’s all I need to do … and if we all did that, if we all focused on our circles of influence, we’d pretty much solve climate change.

Same goes for politics. I cannot change the government, so I can waste my time whining about it (circle of concern), or I can get in my circle of influence and vote. My vote doesn’t make any difference on its own, but if we all just did what we can (we all vote), then we can change the world.

The same is true for our attitude to Bob.

I can assume Bob is the problem, and try to change Bob, I can keep flogging away at my desire to build the relationship despite his desire to focus on the task, because that’s the way things should be (in my opinion) …

… or I can reframe it so that the learning is in my circle of influence not my circle of concern, and then I can do something about it.

It may feel like you’re assuming much of the blame and letting Bob off the hook, but that’s an irrelevant measure. The point isn’t to apportion blame, the point is to be effective.

So take a leaf from Roosevelt’s book and assume you’ve got something to learn:

If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month

Theodore Roosevelt

That means however much of an idiot Bob is, we need to find a way forward and – because we can’t change Bob, or remove Bob-ness from the world – adapting our own behaviour is the only way to do that.

If we do this skillfully, then at the very least we’re getting better at dealing with idiots.

So, if I assume that there is always something thing to learn in my circle of influence, then I always have something I can do:

Yes, it is true that Bob is an idiot, but it’s also true that I need to improve my idiot-interaction skills if I want to make my work life more satisfying and be more effective and influential.

The beauty of the model is that the more time you spend in your circle of influence, the more that circle grows. The more time you spend in the circle of concern, the more the circle of influence shrinks.

Think about my Bob example above (Bob really exists, although thankfully no longer in my orbit): I was becoming less and less influential because I was focusing on trying to get him to understand my superior analytical way of thinking and love of complex ambiguity, and trying to build our relationship because that was important to me.

When I adopted the different approach, and hunkered down in my circle of influence, everything got better immediately. I became more influential, and – ironically – our relationship improved.

To become a great learner from experience, we need to build on our growth mindset by mindfully using Kolb and Fry’s process to ensure we notice experience, reflect cleverly – accessing our inner Teddy Roosevelt – so that we reframe things usefully inside our Circle of Influence so we can do something about it.

We then notice the new experience (what happened this time?) and refine our understanding and tweak our actions, and so keep adapting our map of the world.

The closer our map is to the actual terrain, the better we’re going to be able to find our way.

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