Always Learning

Learning about the Gdansk shipyard in the Solidarity Museum with @Nigel Lynas
What have you learned in the last six months?

This is a question I sometimes ask when interviewing. It helps to tease out if someone has stopped learning — or worse, stopping thinking they need to learn.

When you are younger it is easy to think you have lots to learn. Then when you’ve worked for a while and learned a bit it can become natural to think you’ve learned lots. And that can lead some to consider they have less to learn. But after a few more years you will likely come to realise there is so much left to learn. So much that it doesn’t feel like less but more to learn, because you can see how much more there is.

Continually learning is important because it shows those who have a mindset to continually improve. So, what have you learned in the last six months?

Body and Mind

Learning can be for the body (skills) or for the mind (ideas). Some like to extend their abilities by learning new skills:

  • Learning a new language.
  • Learning a new musical instrument.
  • Learning a new sport or exercise.
  • Learning a new technique.

Others want to expand their mind by learning new ideas:

  • Learning a new concept.
  • Learning some new facts.
  • Learning how something works.
  • Learning a new technology.

Experience

Very often when hiring we distinguish between “experienced” people and recent graduates or undergraduates. Lets deconstruct what we mean by this.

By “experience” we mean those who have spent time doing the job as described. Those who have learned the skills and technical information needed to succeed at their job.

During interviews we attempt to assess whether candidates have met their goals or not by asking probing questions. We break down knowledge and skills needed for the role and ask questions to allow people to demonstrate how they have met these. And yet given this we often fallback on duration to help us. Does this really help?

“Have you got at least five years of experience in this role?”

This is not helpful. A person who learns more will have better experience that someone who learns less in the same time period. We should be on the lookout for those who are faster and more voracious learners. Faster learners are the people to hire — not just because of five years duration in a role.

But how do we recognise these people?

Self-Aware Learners

It’s difficult to quantify someone’s learning rate. What we can do though is understand how self-aware someone is about the ways in which they learn. Then we can find out the size and rate of things they have learned recently. This is why the interview question is valuable.

For example, if someone learns by “googling things” or “from the internet” it’s a sign they haven’t really thought too much about how they learn best.

I find I learn best by,

  1. Learning from doing. It is well known that you can learn more from your failures than your successes. Of course it is easy to not learn from your mistakes and that’s Not A Good Thing. This is why agile practices encourage experimentation with a short feedback cycle: to allow iteration to improve. I like to learn by doing and I find this is a good model for learning — start small, test it and iterate it.
  2. Learning from people around me. We can also learn from others if they are open enough. This is especially true when learning from others failures. It’s not easy to share your failures but learning from a trusted team is so much more accelerated than doing it all yourself. This is mostly unplanned learning. I find that this is the primary way I learn nowadays. There is only so much I can read. There is only so much I can do. But a team can do and read many multiples of what I can.
  3. Learning from reading. Reading broadens our minds even when we don’t know the writer. It doesn’t have to a tome either, browsing my twitter feed has introduced me to new and interesting thoughts. I have also found Medium to be a rich source of relevant ideas to me over the past year (especially when I tuned my recommendations by blocking the writers that I’m not interested in — there’s only so much self-help articles I can take).
  4. Learning from writing. I have been trying to write more this year. This has been both educational and cathartic. I find I enjoy writing (even if few are listening). It’s been educational because I now appreciate more than ever the importance of self-editing, third-party editing and empathetic reviewing. But more than this, it helps me refine my thinking. It pays to be more careful if your words are public.
  5. Learning from listening to a course. This is academic learning where you choose to take time out to learn something specific. Of course nowadays e-learning and MOOC have made this more convenient than ever. But this is always planned learning. I find multi-topic conferences work better for me rather than specific courses or post-graduate courses.

More New Skills Please

While writing this (more learning) I’ve realised I don’t try to learn new skills as much as I could. I spend more time learning new ideas. So during the summer I did a sprint duathlon for first time (and second time too). This was tough but reminded me why I prefer cycling to running. Next I’m going to have a go at cyclocross racing.

Peer group pressure can be an encouraging way to learn new skills. The Kainos Tough Mudder team have dramatically increased their exercise (skills?) throughout 2016. They also ignored their collective injuries and made it round the course. Kieran Barber even wrote about it.

It’s easy to be inspired by other’s learning. Many were amazed that Mark Zuckerberg spent time learning Mandarin to allow him to address a 30 minute Q&A session in China. davey.mcglade did this too with his dedication to become a half-marathon runner in such a short time.

Employers can help too. @KainosSoftware introduced a Skills for Me programme last year that encourages all staff to learn a new skill for free once a year. I spent a day learning to ride a trail bike in a forest (great fun). This has been a great initiative and has encouraged many to try new skills.

What new skills, ideas and lessons have you learned in the past six months?

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