Lifelong learning: the ultimate anti-ageing technique

Oscar Wilde said youth was wasted on the young.

Or maybe it was George Bernard Shaw, I don’t know.

The point being that young people don’t take full advantage of all that youth offers, all too easily squandering it, supposing it will last forever.

Do we “older” people do the same?

Do we squander the wisdom that comes with age because we stop being willing to learn? Do we close our minds, lose our humility, and consider ourselves the finished article, unable to be improved upon?

If so, maybe it’s because of a fixed mindset.

Did you ever learn that your brain develops most during a critical period in childhood – before the age of seven – and then doesn’t change much after that?

I did.

I remember bits of my seventh birthday quite well. It was an important day in my calendar, but I didn’t realise just how important. Had I known that from that moment on my destiny would be hardwired into my brain like footsteps set in concrete, I might have taken it all a lot more seriously.

There is a photo of me wearing my brand new “I am 7” badge, in my tiny boxroom bedroom, surrounded by clutter and friends. I am smiling, I have thick National Health specs perched on my nose and a big gap in my front teeth, but I am a seven-year-old kid so I still look OK.

That cute little scamp had no idea that his personality was now fixed and the limits on his intelligence were now set. He was ignorant to the fact that from this point on learning would be much more difficult, every change a mental struggle.

At least that was the prevailing wisdom: we develop a “static brain” early in life that establishes the structure of the grey matter, and so defines (limits) our personality, talents, and abilities for evermore.

Fortunately for me, and to a lesser extent the rest of the human race, this bleak picture turned out to be incomplete. Around the time I was blowing out my seven candles and listening to my new Showaddywaddy elpee, neuroscientists were changing their views about the plasticity of the brain.

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Making training effective: closing the habit gap

Training has a success rate of 1%

This means that of the total potential value (TPV) that could be added to the organisation if all the skills and knowledge of the training course were implemented consistently and to a high standard, only 1% is realised.

In other words: rV (realised value) is equal to 1% of TPV (total possible value).

OK, I just made that up.

Not just the numbers, I also made up the concept of rV and TPV.

None of it came from any form of evaluation or research, I just pulled it out the air – but they sound true, and that’s good enough for me to construct the following argument.

There are three internal factors that get in the way of learning leading to improved performance. For the first two, I borrow from Blanchard and Hersey model of “Situational Leadership”, the other is from observation and from Peter Senge’s rubber-band analogy about habitual behaviour.

  • Motivation (do they want to do it)
  • Confidence (do they feel they are able to do it)
  • Habit (do they default to other behaviours – do they remember to do it)

There are also three external factors, but I’m not including those here for fear of this post turning into a tome – but for completeness they are culture, management, and opportunity.

Training is concerned primarily with closing knowledge gaps, and to an extent addressing skills gaps – at least giving the learner a start on closing the skills gap.

Training can influence the motivation gap, and by encouraging action planning, coaching and practice, it can begin to tackle the confidence and even habit gap, but it’s that pesky habit gap that’s the big stumbling block.

(See here for a great podcast on action planning and other learning implementation strategies)

The Habit Gap

A habit is the default response, it’s the six-lane neurological pathway that cuts through our brain, it’s the road you travel on autopilot because you don’t notice the poorly-maintained rabbit paths snaking off to the side, paths that could lead anywhere.

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You never know when you’ll need to understand basic physics

I am a strong believer in learning for the sake of it.

I can see the importance of identifying learning needs and honing in on specific knowledge, skills or behaviours and then constructing L&D solutions to help meet those needs, but there is also something about learning – both as a process, and for the end product of having acquired seemingly unnecessary knowledge or skills – that has value in itself.

This isn’t an argument in favour of organisations footing the bill for any old learning. I’m not advocating what I call willy-nilly L&D, where there is no thought process, just approval for anything just so long as it involves a training course.

I’m simply saying that need is not the only valid driver of learning within professional organisations.

There are three main reasons for this:

  • Learning, especially informal learning, is a great habit to get into anyway
  • The identification of need is sometimes quite difficult. Isolating and articulating a specific need can be hard work, but also can lead to an over-simplifaction which is unhelpful (and possibly misleading) in dealing with the real issue
  • Learning can be inspirational – new knowledge, new ideas, new information, can all spark new connections in the brain that lead to new insights and new thinking that can be transformational

This isn’t to devalue needs-based training, it is to add to it.

Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know, and sometimes just knowing stuff can be dead useful.

In order to illustrate my argument (and the real reason for this article) – I present the case of a Spanish bricklayer who would have done well from having a stronger understanding of basic physics.


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YouPlus: authentic(ish) leadership

Leaders are constantly being told about the importance of being authentic, and then being taught lists of key things that great leaders do.

They’re told to have vision, to lead “tribes”, or “be up to something”, and be passionate about what they want to achieve, to engage with people authentically and at the same time to apply prescriptive models and theories to inspire people and empower them to deliver results.

For all the breathy appeals to individual authenticity, training is often based on leadership techniques that mean asking leaders to behave in an inauthentic way.

When I train people on these skills and behaviours, I am often challenged about this tension between being authentic and true to oneself on the one hand, and using behavioural models and leadership skills on the other.

How can I be me, yet behave in a way that is not me?

Leadership Venn

Many answers to this question feel wishy-washy and undermine the inspiring message of developing the self, or they let aspiring leaders off the hook, letting them get away with not developing skills that are unnatural to their personality type.

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Personal development plans that actually lead to personal development

A typical personal development plan runs like this:

  1. I need time management training … so …
  2. I will do a time management course

As a personal development plan this isn’t really very good.

In fact I’d go as far as to say that it is pretty bad.

The only thing it has in its favour is a two-step structure: a need; and an activity to meet that need – but because the learning need is not properly understood, and the activity insufficient to meet the vague need, what actually happens with that plan is this:

1. Nothing

Then …

2. Quickly do a “Time management” training course five minutes before the performance management review

And then …

3. Nothing changes

I was recently delivering a workshop on building personal development plans and I introduced two key approaches that worked really well. This is nothing special, it’s just doing some proper gap analysis using coaching questions to dig deeply when defining the question and not rushing headlong to the answer.

The first question to ask is something like this:

  • What do you need to be able to do?

In the “time management” example above, the delegate hadn’t really thought it through in that sense, they just knew they were busy and quite overwhelmed with the volume of work and so needed “time management”.

Gap analysis 1

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Learning with 70:20:10 – the good, the bad and the misunderstandings

When you ask people how they want to address a learning need, they usually say they want a training course.

When you ask people how they learnt the majority of the stuff they do each day, they say they learnt it from experience.

If you dig a little deeper and ask when in their career did they learn the most and make the biggest strides in improving their performance, many will talk about a fantastic boss or mentor who challenged and supported them, helping them leap forward to a whole new level.

When we demand learning opportunities, we think training and education; yet when we look back at our most effective learning, we see exposure to other people, and the fickle mistress of experience, playing the major roles.

The best learning happens in real life with real problems and real people and not in classrooms

Charles Handy

702010 image

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I couldn’t resist: Ann Coulter talks ignorant nonsense about soccer and the 2014 World Cup

I’ve held off from writing about Ann Coulter’s silly little column on the World Cup.

This is because a response didn’t seem to belong on this blog, which is mainly about work stuff and learning theory, but also because the article appears to be a lighthearted troll on a subject that’s not really very important.

But it kept eating away at me.

It’s ignorant, poorly researched and racist – but then you knew that, it’s by Ann Coulter.

But I couldn’t just leave it.

It nagged and nagged at me … and not because I’m a huge soccer fan (I will use the word soccer to avoid confusion), but because I loathe ignorance and bad arguments.

So, mainly for my own sanity, I decided to reply and post it here.

Coulter starts with this:

I’ve held off on writing about soccer for a decade — or about the length of the average soccer game — so as not to offend anyone. But enough is enough. Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.

I’m guessing she held off because she didn’t know anything about it, and although she still doesn’t, she decided to write about soccer because everyone was talking about soccer, so she’d get some attention.

It worked.

Not wanting to offend anyone has never bothered Coulter before – and nor should it.

That’s her best quality.

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Fragment … no suggestions

Little short sentences.

Like this one.

Drive my MS Word programme mad.

It doesn’t like it at all.

It says that they’re fragments, which is all well and good, but it doesn’t have any suggestions and sometimes fragments are actually OK.

Just like this one.

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Reflections on PRINCE2 certification

I decided to do PRINCE2 certification.

I have always resisted this sort of qualification in the past, being a little skeptical as to the value of a week-long course with a multiple-choice exam at the end. Is that really any substitute for real-world experience and the hard-won lessons from the School of Hard Knocks and the University of Life and other clichés to describe learning at the cutting edge of the coal face where the rubber hits the road?

No, it isn’t.

PRINCE2 logo

A certificate is no substitute, and so often the training course becomes a mad dash at the certification at the expense of actually learning anything, but it is a worthwhile complement to experience, especially when you’re back in the job market and need to get through the first couple of CV sifts to get an interview.

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Obsessive compulsive annoyingly getting old disorder

I am getting ready to go to Istanbul.

I’m speaking at the eCommerce Expo there on Friday (I have the 9:30 to 10:15 slot).

In case you’re in the area, it’s at the Halic Congress Center Pera Building on Friday (31st May).

I’m starting to get nervous.

There’s a scene in The Godfather when Michael stands outside the hospital and lights the cigarette of a nervous henchman. The henchman’s hands are shaking, but Michael’s are rock solid. This is when the young Corleone realises that he can handle the pressure of being a big time gangster.

That’s what I used to be like before I’d step on stage to speak, hands steady with confidence … but now, as I get older, and as I get better, I find myself getting as nervous as hell.

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Leadership in a time of (midlife) crisis

According to Daniel Levinson, I’m in a transitional phase.

In his theory of life structure, adulthood isn’t just one big blob of stability between childhood and old age, it’s a phased period with islands of stability separated by chunks of transition.

I’m in one of those chunks.

I’m in the “midlife transition“. This happens to people my age, people forced to tick the 40-45 age bracket on forms. Sometimes the word “transition” is changed to “crisis” when discussing this phase.

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Worst training ever

That was the worst training experience I’ve ever had.

I don’t usually rant but I’ve just finished an elearning course on health and safety in the workplace and, in order to avoid further psychological damage, need to communicate my deep feelings of frustration and anger.

This was elearning only in the sense that it was on a computer, and thus electronic, not in the sense that any actual learning took place.

I was so bored that I tweeted my frustration throughout the later modules as a coping mechanism:

The danger that someone might actually learn something was avoided by some margin. The seven lengthy modules of unnecessarily detailed information put the mockers on any chance of any useful information finding its way into my head.

Picking any useful stuff from the superfluous fluff would take the work of a forensic specialist. This detail on the fire extinguisher maintenance schedule for example:

From the date of last revision of the fire extinguisher (3 times), revise the equipment according to ITC-MIE-AP.5 rules of maintenance of Pressurized Fire Extinguishers (BOE No149 of 23 June 1982)

Am I likely to remember this? Do I need to remember this? Do I even need to know it? Do I even understand it?

No to all of those.

So why include it?

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I was in a converted toilet.

The boys toilet.

Not even the girls toilet, but the boys toilet.

It still had that echoey feel that only a toilet can muster thanks to the distinct lack of soft-furnishings, even when converted into a computer room.

At least they got rid of the toilets.

In their place ran a long wooden desk down one side and a series of bulky old computers by defunct brands like Commodore and Sinclair.

There was a ZX81, a computer with 1k processing power. We knew it was shit even then, but it was a breakthrough product because it was affordable for normal people. We sat in a lunchtime huddle, the school Computer Club, and yes, you rightly imagine that this was not a knot of cool kids.

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Improving my organisation skills by manipulating the space-time continuum

I have a habit of idling time away because I seem to be only able to do things when there isn’t enough time to do them in.

I hear that this is normal, and I like to think of it as being motivated by tight deadlines.

Someone once used the word procrastination when I was discussing this, but I ignored them.

It was on a Time Management course I did when I was a corporate-type and we used to just take whatever courses we fancied when The Manager passed around the thick course catalogue from some Professional Training Provider.

They said, and I think they were right actually, that “it’s not time management, it’s self management” (stress on the “self“) which is of course blindingly obvious after being told, because you cannot manage time – even Stephen Hawking couldn’t do that if you gave him a black hole and a pair of pliers.

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