Learning Something New


I graduated college 30 years ago. Email wasn't a big thing, and the web (and YouTube) didn't really exist.

So imagine what it took, how much work was involved, to learn something new.

I'm not saying I walked to school in the snow, uphill both ways. But learning something new meant either finding a mentor to teach you, or reading a book and trying your hand at something.

Learning was slow.

We couldn't send emails with questions, we couldn't watch a few YouTube videos, and we couldn't imagine replying to someone we didn't know on Twitter (now X) with a question.

Learning something new took serious work and serious time. At least compared to what's possible today.

I'm not going to turn this into a “back in my day” kind of post, but I'll just remind you that our hard drives were 40 MB and cost hundreds of dollars.

Are You Learning Like it Was 1993?

Years ago I learned of a photography professor who was teaching a bunch of students and split the class in half.

One half of the students studied everything there was to know about lighting, composition and more. But they didn't have to actually take all that many photos. They were trying to shoot one magical photo at the end of the term.

The other half of the students didn't need to worry about the perfect shot because they were being evaluated by the quantity of shots they took. The more they took, the better their grade.

The most amazing result was that the students who took more shots actually ended up with better photos.

You do better, you learn better, when you have more at-bats.

But a lot of folks I know focus on learning everything they can (“book smart”) before ever stepping out and trying something. And as my favorite philosopher Mike Tyson says, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Today you have access to all sorts of resources. Resources (Twitter, YouTube, email, etc.) that you can use while you're in process of learning something new, instead of before you try.

Three Truths About Learning

  1. You learn better after you've tried a bit. Fundamentally, you don't know what questions to ask until you've hit a few snags. So it's better to dig in and get some reps before you try to absorb new material.
  2. You learn better as you try more. You've heard “practice makes perfect,” and people say that for a reason. It's why I regularly reinforce the need for more at-bats with all my coaching clients.
  3. Hard learning is better. There's a technical word for the cognitive difficulty of learning, called disfluency. Research suggests that if something is harder (in a good way), you'll learn better. Princeton tells its students it's like weight lifting. Heavier weights make you stronger than using lighter weight.

We All Need More At-Bats

Every day on Twitter (now X) I see people offering to help / coach other people.

What cracks me up is when the thing they want to help others with is something they've only done once. Imagine running a digital agency for 3 months and suddenly getting tired of the grind, so instead you decide to coach agency owners. Or selling the first product company you ever ran, and being ready to help everyone else? When your data set is 1.

I love the desire to help others, but you need a larger data set. In other words, we all need more at-bats.

How To Learn New Things

If you want to pick up a new skill or strategy, there are several steps I'd suggest. The first is maybe the hardest.

Get comfortable making mistakes. There was a reason our teachers would have us do our first math assignments in pencil. Remember? It was so that we could easily erase things and start again. You can't hold yourself to a standard of excellence on your first try. But giving yourself permission to struggle is potentially the hardest thing to get right.

Embrace a growth mindset. If you haven't read Carol Dweck yet, it's not too late. It means believing that you have the capacity to learn and grow – that you don't have a fixed set of skills. And the moment you embrace this paradigm shift, it makes learning new things so much easier.

Get a coach. Of course a coach is going to tell you to get one. But if coaches didn't help, you wouldn't see professional athletes hire several of them (nutrition coach, strength coach, mental coach, etc.). When you want to learn something new, you need to find someone who knows it and can point you in the right direction.

Bring your interest and excitement. A book I'm reading on How People Learn is an incredible read. One of the lessons, when it comes to instructional design, is that most things don't matter nearly as much as the personal interest and energy that comes with someone who is excited about what they're learning.

Shape your own path to learning. Now, to be clear, I'm not talking about learning styles (which has been debunked). I'm talking about matching your motivations to your learning path. We created the new Motivation Code assessment (MCode) to help you discover your own motivational map, so you could use it on things like your approach to learning.

  • If you're a driver, create a set of tasks to overcome as a way to learn.
  • If you're a relator, set up some informational interviews to guide your process.
  • If you're an orchestrator, create a cohort to learn with.

You get the point. How you're motivated can shape how you bring your energy to a new learning environment.

Why is it so Important Right Now?

Back in 2017, the World Economic Forum did research to say that the half-life of business skills was 5 years. For context, the term half-life refers to radiation. Here's one definition:

half-life, in radioactivity, the interval of time required for one-half of the atomic nuclei of a radioactive sample to decay (change spontaneously into other nuclear species by emitting particles and energy), or, equivalently, the time interval required for the number of disintegrations per second of a radioactive material to decrease by one-half.

What does this have to do with business skills? It means that a business skill learned today would be applicable for the first 5 years, for sure, and then decay after that (maybe another 5, 6 or 7 years before no one needed it).

To put it into perspective, the skills my dad learned for his job had a half-life of 20 years.

And in the HBR article I read today (and the reason for this post), they're suggesting that the new half-life of business skills is 2.5 years (with some skills in tech half of that).

There's never been a more important time than now to embrace lifelong learning.

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