How I now know

Following on from my last post on 20 Things I have learnt since entering the world of work, I wanted to reflect on and explore my own learning — why do I learn, what do I learn and how do I learn?

© Pablo Orcaray

To start off with, I know it has changed considerably in the last few years. Over that time, a combination of factors have led me to want to learn in different ways. Some of them are more obvious — (the perception of!) being time-poor and noticing that I have my own knowledge gaps as I progress in my career. Others are more subtle and have been made possible through increasing access to information powered by technological advances, all of which has made me more aware and more curious to further my understanding to learn just-in-time, on-demand and at my own learning rhythm.

Moreover, the title of this article has been chosen to reflect the understanding of my current learning steady-state (how I now know) to the desired state (now I know how). I have learnt from a variety of sources of information. Mostly people of varied backgrounds and with a broad spectrum of life and career experiences, mixed with a motley assortment of online resources and learnings. That combination of formal and informal learning has allowed me to discover more about myself than I never otherwise would have learnt, and outsourced the expedited learning through association that would otherwise have taken a much longer time to accrue.

Simply, I am deconstructing this article into three separate sections: (i) Why do I learn? (ii) What do I learn? & (iii) How do I learn?

Why do I learn?

Lifelong learning will be a pre-eminent concept for us all to consider in the next few years. As advances in technology will create new jobs and automate others. The World Economic Forum’s Report on the Future of Jobs outlines both immediate and longer-term priorities for economies and governments to consider in light of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution. The longer-term priorities mainly cover rethinking education systems and incentivising life-long learning, given the impending displacement of jobs, even in what we currently see as moderate to higher-skilled white-collar occupations. Continuous learning is fast becoming an economic imperative.

Pedalling back to today, we need to take control of our own learning and use all the information we have available to us to make as informed decisions as we can, and to go someway to future-proofing ourselves in the labour market. It’s therefore increasingly hard to learn just-in-time, as technology advances at such an unpredictable rate — so I default to fundamental skills for the 21st Century that have a broader, interoperable value than particular technical skills. For example, I actively promote the value of trendspotting; that is dynamically interpreting patterns of data in a way to identify a high-level commonality upon which informed predictions can be made. As data has become more and more superfluous, it has become increasingly necessary to consume just enough of it that you have a good enough amount of information upon which to base your decisions.

I also learn because a broader library of information is now accessible in ways that I never thought were possible growing up. You can learn more or less anything, often through a two-step process which involves a search engine and a link to the source of your choosing. As my friends mention in their From Content to Digital Experiences, most site visitors bypass the homepage and go straight to their desired content, however meaningful that experience is.

Lastly, I learn because it can be joyous. As one of my largest career influences Sir Michael Barber has often mentioned, including in the video below,

Sir Michael Barber on Joy & Data, 2015.

learning should be challenging, because when you achieve your intended learning outcomes, the result is more joyous. It’s a sentiment that I do wholeheartedly agree with. The more difficult the challenge is, the more rewarding when you achieve the result. I have learnt that through both academic and professional experiences.

What do I learn?

I’ve increasingly prioritised my learning to be contained within three broad areas, to ensure both focus and purpose:

  1. Sector-specific learning: for me, this is currently learning as much relevant information as I can about global education, from a broader view on trends in education at the thought leadership level, to a deeper-dive into the nuances of particular education systems. Much of this learning also happens through my daily experience of work, with top-ups from further reading and supplementary experiences, conferences and contacts.
  2. Foundational literacies: it’s increasingly dawned on me that I will certainly need to know more than the basics in an applied sense in the domains of finance, enterprise and entrepreneurship and technology. These are particularly important, as I consider them to be the building blocks of meaningful existence in the 21st Century.
  3. Tailwind industries: these are industries that I know that I will need to know about, but have neither the volition, nor base level of skill or knowledge to delve deep into. This is usually due to a high perceived barrier to understanding even the most basic dialogue around such industries. Examples here include Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, Cryptocurrency and Robotics.

How do I learn?

My model, cadence and rhythm of learning has fundamentally changed over time. I’d previously refer to fixed, large-scale sources of truth, that provide purely factual news digests. Over time, I have migrated to a model that is inherently more flexible and just-in-time. Perhaps controversially, I no longer read anything cover-to-cover, word-for-word. Instead, I learn through two modes: explicitly for-purpose content and skill acquisition, and in many ways, the reverse; serendipitous, experience-based learning with direction and purpose but without structure, deadlines and fixed intended outcomes.

I consume: I’ve deliberately made this more encompassing than just “reading”. Confession: I haven’t read a book cover to cover since university. The reason for this is simply that I now treat books as reference material and only dip in-and-out of when I’d like to reference something specific. The advent of the Kindle has done little to change this habit (unsurprisingly, I don’t own one!). Instead I prefer to consumer content through articles, podcasts, YouTube and newsletters, supplemented by a live feed of news through Twitter, and specialist publications.

Here are a few I like:

  • As far as education goes, it shouldn’t just be about The Guardian. The Edtech Podcast is high-up on my list for lunchtime / commutable listening.
  • For the latest Thought Leadership on the the most critical topics in education, I’d encourage you to actively follow our Open Ideas work at Pearson, led by Laurie Forcier and Vikki Weston.
  • The National Centre for Universities and Business has been a great source of learning for me around University and Business cooperation and innovation. Their State of the Relationship Report is a fantastic read.
  • Tim Harford has been somewhat of a hero for me ever since The Undercover Economist, simply because he actually made the connections between Economic theory and the practical manifestation of that in the real world.
  • In a similar vein, Ben Thompson continues to astound me with his in-depth analysis of strategy and business at Stratechery.
  • Raconteur, founded by Freddie Ossberg is one of my favourite publications. Their Future of Work piece in particular features a number of informative, yet insightful short articles.
  • Perhaps one of the least well-known sources, David Jackson of Founder’s Notebook has some fantastically apt and concise chunks of knowledge, stories and excerpts — particularly this note on managers’ biggest mistakes in HR.
  • A criminally under-used source of great insight, tends to be Industry reports produced by consultancies like McKinsey Global Inst.
  • CognitionX is my go-to source for all things AI. tabitha goldstaub and Charlie Muirhead have done a fantastic job at democratising access to Artificial Intelligence, in a manner that only makes you want to learn and discover more.
  • VCs tend to blog regularly, and well. I admire their concise, yet punchy insights. I’d recommend following newsletters and blogs, such as those from Marc Andreessen here, Benedict Evans here, and Fred Wilson here.
  • Product Hunt + AngelList have reinforced my view that a mindset of enterprise, curiosity and discovery yields great results. The community feeling is one that translates well even if predominantly online. I’m hoping many corporates can learn a thing or two from the way Product Hunt has evolved over time and engages with its users.
  • Mattermark Daily by Nick Frost provides me with another trusted channel of high-quality reading around entrepreneurship and startups — but importantly from a first-hand, professional’s POV.
  • The Y Combinator Monday Morning Macro is a staple of my inbox, but actually I have been more interested in their MOOC, “How to start a startup” from Sam Altman and team.
  • I have recently come across Offscreen magazine which serves an underrepresented niche around the human side of tech — bringing a new dimension to reading about the latest developments in technology.

I keep mini Encyclopedias of learning in Evernote, from articles that I’d like to read or reference later (no need for Pocket therefore…) on all the topics above and on topics like M&A that are still close to my heart. It’s kind of like my own curated suite of reference materials, retrievable in an instant.

It’s also good to wonder. Sometimes this starts with Wait But Why but often is supplemented with countless YouTube videos. I would say that I have watched at least one video a day for the last 8-10 years; from content I’ve missed (mainly documentaries), content I cannot access geographically (talks and lectures) and content I enjoy (vlogs, lifestyle and gaming). I would strongly argue that consuming content in this way has meant my peripheral knowledge has improved dramatically. Going one step further, I do believe that immersive content experiences are a very significant component of how learning continues to stay relevant for learners of today and tomorrow.

I act: (though not enough!) while it’s worth accumulating knowledge, consuming content in the various ways above is only really valuable if put into practice. Sometimes, it’s that reference point that makes you interesting; other times it’s a useless fact. One thing I hope to get better at doing is translating learning into practice. The main driver for this is to maintain relevance in an ever-changing labour market amid particularly prominent global economic uncertainties. I am a firm believer that to be a relevant leader of the future, I will need to:

  • Be equipped with a foundation of knowledge through my own personal experience, or available on-demand, just-in-time.
  • Work on “live projects” that are by definition, continuous examples of one’s skill and capability inside and outside of the normal day-job.
  • Demonstrate evidence of targeted up-skilling — evidenced and validated by third parties where possible.
  • Possess a “hybrid vigour” from a diverse network of people and experiences that collectively improves my own performance and productivity.
  • Collect a portfolio of unique identifiers (micro- and macro- experiences) that represent and evolve my skills, character, attitude and behaviour
  • Retain a legacy of shareable (or previously shared) content and impact through others as a result of mentorship — including reverse mentoring and personal development of others
  • Continue to be adaptable to change and uncertainty, retaining a positive outlook and visionary leadership
  • Delivered / delivering impact in solving one or more of the primordial economic or social challenges in the world.

With that in mind, I am looking to do a few things:

  1. Start a sideproject, inspired by the work of the Product Hunt community, including Ben Tossell and others. Icebreakery (thanks Jack Cornes, Dallas Elliott) — a Product Hunt for Icebreakers, is the first step in that direction with more planned (learning from Jack Mara welcome). I currently seek no benefit from this other than to learn how to build a community as I go along. Provenance — would have been my sideproject if it didn’t exist already, and is one of my favourite businesses. As a related practice, I try to think of one idea a day on my daily commute, mixed with the occasional bit of busuu.
  2. Write a book — on one of two topics (help me decide!); YouTube for Good — how the platform and the creator community can be optimised for delivering impact on society written in a Tim-Harford-esque style OR something yet to be truly considered on Intrapreneurship in Corporates, from the perspective of a young professional. On a related note, I am enjoying The Corporate Startup from my colleague Tendayi Viki.
  3. Continue to seek out new and varied experiences, learning from people I respect and admire. For instance, I am interested in how Mentat (Saad Rizvi), Learnerbly (Rajeeb Dey), Viridis Learning (Felix Ortiz), Freeformers (gifernando) among others continue to deliver impact.
  4. Continue to work with the organisations I support to deliver impact: Faculti, The Circle of Young Intrapreneurs (more here), Aquinas Trust, One Million Mentors and others.
  5. Play some Badminton and Big 2 — because I love them and don’t do them enough!

I reboot: I think it is always useful to take stock of what you have done, what you seek to do, and what steps you need to take to get there. Often this activity is best precipitated by a holiday or excursion of some kind. The years do seem to fly by and it’s very easy to lose a sense of direction and perspective. I use a few devices to maintain a continual freshness, allowing me to reboot myself for the more challenging aspects of continuing to want to learn.

  • One thing to look forward to — I always have something in my work calendar for the upcoming week that gets me excited about learning when I look on a Sunday night. It can be anything; a conference, a public-speaking event, a conversation with your mentor, a big internal presentation, a professional development course, or reconnecting with a colleague or contact.
  • Choose your inbox policy and stick to it — I am rather obsessive about this and apply a 24/7 policy on emails that means I reply to anything whenever called upon to get to Inbox Zero. I understand that this does not work for everyone; however I would advocate a policy that is not fluid, to afford yourself with your dedicated allocation of time to learn.
  • Have someone hold you to account — you need that person who will check up on you to make sure that the things you said you would do are actually happening! This is particularly important for acting on what you have learnt and something I definitely need to get better at doing! Part of it is also setting achievable and manageable goals in shorter bursts and injections rather than unwieldy ones.

As a self-reflective piece, I have enjoyed writing it; I hope some of it resonates and would love feedback on the bits that do and don’t. If you are reading this line, then I can only thank you for persisting with the read!

You can feel free to contact me on Twitter or LinkedIn.