The Hardest Part of Learning

Learning is a process, not a one-time event.

For a student of anything (law, medicine, leadership, etc), they know that the hardest part is often what happens after the classes are done and the tests have been taken.

The hardest part is entering back into the ‘real world’ where they need to put their learnings to use and apply it to their job, their everyday life, their real-world situations. Where work gets in the way, where things don’t go exactly as planned, and where the “safety” of learning something new seems to have disappeared.

The gap from learning to behavior change, or learning to application widens when we view learning as an event, instead of a process.

Event-driven learning is sometimes meant to check-a-box, to boost morale, to hide an issue.

The gap in applying learning often happens when we spend too much time honing the event, and not enough time folding the learning into the environment where the learning will need to be applied.

The gap exists when we focus too much on the content (“it”) and not enough on (“us”), how we’ll work together because of what we learned.

When we view learning as a process, instead of an event, we take into account the motivation, the practice, and the feedback that we need as learners to make it our own, to make it social, and to make it stick.

If we enable and inspire people to be constant learners, learning becomes something that we choose to do, instead of something that is done to us.

One small step for spontaneity…

In a recent podcast interview with my friend Mark Guay, I touched upon the myth that Improvisers are merely “winging it” and perhaps wildly unprepared.

Behind the scenes, we practice (and practice some more) a set of principles that guide us and give us a wonderful structure to navigate the ambiguity we have on stage when we are improvising.

When it comes to presentations and speeches, it is possible to over-prepare and in doing so, squash opportunities for spontaneity or connection with your audience.

If you want to add some spontaneity to your presentations, classes, or public speaking opportunities, completely throwing away a script isn’t necessary either.

Patricia Ryan Madson, Improv Guru and author of Improv Wisdom offers a spectacular tip for morphing scripted notes into an opportunity for more spontaneity:

Her advice? Turn your notes into a series of questions to answer. For example, your notes might look like this: 

1) Why am I here today?

2) What is the learning objective?

3) What am I most excited to share with you?

This small change still gives you the comfort and clarity that comes with a structure to fall back on, while also allowing room for a conversational, breathable, and perhaps more empathetic approach. Try this out and let me know how it goes!

What’s the drill – February 20: A creative confidence booster

According to Tom Kelley of IDEO, a fear of being judged is the number-one reason why we’re not more creative.

It’s not due to a lack of ability…this is a matter of creative confidence.

We all have the natural ability to come up with novel ideas (yes yes, even you shaking your head in the back of the room). But not everyone has the courage to act on these ideas.

What if we did? How could increasing our creative confidence change our self-image and our capacity to have influence on the world?

Kelley’s mission to boost (nay, rocket fuel) the creative confidence of others is one I find myself equally passionate about.

Unlocking your creative potential can start with a simple re-frame of how you present your creative ideas. Here’s an example straight from Professor William Duggan at Columbia Business School:

When we present ideas we often end by asking the age-old question, “so what do you think?”. A useful question, yes, but one that can open the door for negative feedback and instant confidence deflation.

What if instead we simply said, “anything to add to my idea?”.

Presented in this way, we’re immediately signaling that there is room for the initial idea to expand. We still expect and desire honest feedback, but with a slight re-frame we are boosting collaboration, and hopefully over time, creative self-efficacy.

The power of re-framing

Ask someone if they want to learn how to be an Improviser and you may not see too many hands get raised. It is down-right scary for many people and we can spend a lot of time de-bunking the myth of what Improv is or is not.

Ask someone if they want to learn how to think on their feet, communicate more effectively, and heighten their listening skills and chances are their reaction will change. Hands go up because the connection to every-day life is more tangible.

Sometimes, we need to re-frame our question.

If we focus too much on Improv, it’s common for feedback from sessions to land in the Level-1 reaction stage, “it was fun”… etc. Fun is great, but the stronger path towards application and learning transfer is to focus on the result of what these tools can achieve and to practice them right there in the room.

So, what questions are you asking to prompt deeper learning? How are you framing learning initiatives that get to the root of what people will walk away with as opposed to focusing on the tool itself?

On Michael Bay, and finding the problem before the solution

By now you’ve probably had your fill of social media posts about Michael Bay’s, shall we say, “issue” at CES last week. Allow me just one more viewpoint.

In the days that followed the “issue”, many people noted Bay’s seeming inability to Improvise. And, friends reached out to me to say much of the same and to suggest he take an Improv class so this sort of thing wouldn’t happen again.

Not so fast. 

While I would love it if Michael Bay took an Improv class, I paused at their reaction.

Instinctively it might seem as though Michael Bay doesn’t know how to Improvise and that learning how to would solve the problem.

The same suggestion could be made for other skills like Mindfulness, for example. We could pitch a myriad of solutions to him. But we can’t be sure they will actually help.

We can’t pitch a solution without first finding the problem.  

My knee-jerk assumption used to also be, “Improv will fix this”. But I’ve learned to check some of those assumptions at the door.

As learning and organizational development professionals we need to understand and find the underlying problem, and not just treat the symptom.

A symptom of the larger problem in this particular case might be that Bay can’t Improvise. But, what’s the problem? We can’t be so sure without testing some assumptions and asking more questions.

By not doing so, and simply solving for the symptoms and not the larger issue we’re stopping short of what this work is capable of.

Everything I know I learned in grad school

Twice in the past year, an acquaintance that I admire and respect asked me perhaps the toughest question I’ve been handed in my graduate career.

“So, what did you learn?”

He was referring to grad school, and asked this question at different points in the school year.

Both times, I fumbled. If this was football, I’d be, well…someone who fumbled (I don’t know a lot about football).

It was a question I should be able to answer on the spot. I have learned a ton. But what came out of my mouth both times felt like Organizational Psychology jargon. I remember saying words like “systems approach”.

I did learn that. But that isn’t why I came to grad school.

And helping organizations take a “systems approach” to their challenges is interesting and relevant, but not why this work really matters to me.

I thought about the question again and again in the days that followed.

It turns out, I knew what the most valuable lessons were — but these learnings were quite personal, somewhat scary to admit to someone I admired and hoped to work with some day.

But here’s the truth…and I hope it resonates with others in some way as you encounter transitional experiences of your own, and/or help facilitate change for others.

When faced with change, uncertainty, and threat we often cling most tightly to what we already know and believe.

What I received in the last four-semesters was a good old-fashioned mind whooping – one I thought I had prepared for.

Before I left for school, two wildly wonderful mentors of mine both gave me this advice:  “take out the trash”, and “have a beginners mind”.

The advice boiled down to, “know what you need” and “clear everything you thought you knew”. Easy, right??

And so, in a fangled attempt to not heed this advice very well – I came to grad school searching for confirmation for my pre-established point of view, and to convince others of it.

I struggled with classes that didn’t fit this point of view, I pushed for the “right answer” to my questions, and for certainty in a pretty “un-certain” field. The first semester was especially rough.

But as school continued, I noticed the opportunities that came my way were chances to test assumptions and to break this dualistic thinking.

I spent a week in January at a train-the-trainer for a well-respected training and management consulting firm. It didn’t entirely match my point of view and so I couldn’t fully engage.

I spent my summer purposefully testing assumptions at a management consulting firm that was in many ways a complete 180 from my previous professional experience. Here I struggled to shed the notion of “right versus wrong” or “good versus bad” when there was really no need to have to choose sides. I learned that as much as I eschewed the “expert” culture, I wanted to be one.

In a field where the “right answer” is often ‘it depends’, I had not entered grad school with a beginners mind willing to accept this ambiguity.

Over and over in the past sixteen months this lesson has reared its head, always checking in on my progress and keeping me in check. In addition to the jargon and theory, I learned lessons like these (that while not always easy to communicate), will help me facilitate meaningful change for companies and their people.

And although I thought I had taken out the trash enough to realize what I needed from grad school, I may have gotten it wrong. For, I ended up receiving (and hopefully being open to) the lessons I believe I needed to learn most.

Now, just three weeks shy of graduation I think I finally know what it feels like to have a beginners mind. I just hope I still have it when it comes time to start that eventual PhD.

What’s luck got to do, got to do with it?

If you ask someone about their career success, for example, you might hear someone say “Oh, I was very lucky…”

You might label these people as “very lucky” and marvel at how they seemed to be in the right place at the right time.

You might then label yourself as unlucky, and wonder why you don’t have that same good fortune.

But…what if, the very thoughts and behavior you produce were contributing to your lack or abundance of “luck”?

What if luck was an arbitrary concept – a subjective one that was determined by what we saw, our presence of mind, and how we viewed what happened to us?

Professor Richard Wiseman from the University of Hertfordshire ran a 10-year study on luck that might blow your mind or at least jolt you into a new mindset.

“Unlucky people are generally more tense than lucky people, and this anxiety disrupts their ability to notice the unexpected. As a result, they miss opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else.”

When we’re present, open-minded, and attune to all the offers that come our way, luck is all around us.

What’s the drill: October 27 – Plentiful versus precious ideas

Letting go of ideas is no easy feat.

When I was studying screenwriting as an undergraduate, one of my favorite professors would say over and over again, “don’t be afraid to kill your babies”. Babies are precious. Ideas…not so much.

Holding too strongly to an idea can keep us stuck – creatively, inter-personally, professionally.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but what Professor Elyanow was instilling in us was a confidence that we had an abundance of ideas available to us. Letting go of one or two or three simply created room for more to appear.

Years later when I started Improvising, I was taught a perhaps gentler phrase, “Ideas are plentiful, not precious”.

As a solo screenwriter you are often relying on yourself to hatch a new idea, but as an Improviser you have the talent, ideas, energy, and inspiration of those around you. Ideas can’t be too precious here — the product is not your own. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Beyond instilling confidence that we are all creative and capable people , this phrase reminds us to be flexible, adaptable, and open. Easy, right? Not always.

Often at work we vacillate between the screenwriter role and the Improviser role. We can toy away on our ideas individually and then bring them back to the larger group to amplify, heighten, and synthesize.

Being able to let go of our ideas, to be flexible and open is a tightrope walk that can be difficult to master – on an individual and team basis. But, it reminds us to be kinder to ourselves, more supportive team-mates, leaders and…well, Improvisers.