Reflections on lifelong learning

John Carroll

Back in the 1990s, during the heyday of American management’s quality revolution, one of the movement’s many battle cries came in the form of a question: “Why is it that there’s never time to do the job right the first time, but there’s always time to do it over?” Workers and managers alike would shake their heads, as many likely still do today, over systems and processes generating results that fall short of expectations.

Achieving quality in producing and delivering products and services requires a continuous improvement process, which in turn forces a continuous learning process. Fix one part of the process, study the results within the new process, identify the next bottleneck or flaw and address it. We know what’s broken when we study and learn the workings of an operating system. The same holds true for individuals on a path to improving their lives personally and professionally. If that, too, is a continuous improvement process, it also involves continuous, lifelong learning.

 Groundhog Day learning

Perhaps you’re familiar with the movie Groundhog Day. Actor Bill Murray’s character endures a seemingly endless string of experiencing and enduring the very same day repeatedly, unable to escape the cycle, until he begins to learn from his experiences. Our lives are similar to such a plight in this: life provides lessons for us along the way. To the degree that we fully learn a specific life lesson, we earn a diploma of sorts and are graduated to other lessons. To the degree that we don’t get the lesson and it shows in our results, we get the lesson again and again until we’ve passed the test as it were and earned our own graduation day.

Here’s an example: the first time a person consumes an excess amount of an alcoholic beverage, he or she is likely to suffer ill effects the following morning and perhaps longer. By connecting the dots and comparing notes with others, this person quickly realizes that feeling bad the next morning come from the beverage consumption the evening before. Having learned an immediate lesson, this person finds a way to reduce or eliminate the amount of consumption, thereby preventing the pain and suffering. Or has he?

From time to time, people who have experienced this situation and seemingly learned from it will forget that undesirable feeling or misjudge a specific factor as circumstances change. It could be that there’s a different beverage involved or that there’s a more highly toxic mixture. Regardless, the behavior creates a similar result, a likewise unpleasant experience containing a similar lesson, and he or she learns once again that over-consumption makes it challenging to function painlessly, effectively and efficiently the day after.

In other words, life continues to provide a lesson until the learner proves with his or her choices that yes indeed, the lesson is learned and the mistake or behavior generating the undesirable results will no longer be repeated. So the new question regarding learning from life experiences would read this way: Why is it that we never seem to have the time to learn a life lesson the first time it presents itself but we always have the time and opportunity to take the lesson again later?

Learning styles

I’ve watched through the years as many colleagues and friends have taken the initiative to identify attractive areas of learning, whether they were intended to add professional capabilities or to access heretofore untapped reservoirs of personal potential.

As with most areas of life, the spectrum of learners runs the gamut. At one extreme are those uncomfortable without a self-help or business management book within arm’s length. At the other we find situational learners. The former can quote the latest and greatest nuggets from Jim Collins to Jack Welch and everyone in between. They also tend to have a favorite reading spot in the local mega bookstore. The latter seem to have a system of finding the answer to a single key question, learning the solution well enough to implement it and moving easily and quickly back into another mode.

They’ve also identified the shortest distance between the book they need and the front door of that same bookstore. The former seem to remain in a research mindset, their internal search engines ready to identify the next great issue and answer. The latter are relieved to have the learning issue addressed for the moment, hoping that they can get back to work or play, whichever happens to be their primary mode of life.

The common thread running between these disparate approaches to learning is the level of activity. Both profiles can easily engage in nearly constant motion, whether it’s moving in and out of learning quickly or moving deftly within a learning and improvement process. Even reading requires eye movement and page turning or scrolling a computer screen, with motion typically more apparent among those who are in and out of learning in as short a time as possible.

There is a third learning profile, one that runs a bit contrary to the searching of the avid learner and the quick-hit style of the situational learner. This profile is that of the reflective learner. This person has a style that includes periodic, if not regular, unbroken blocks of silence, during which he or she reflects on recent events, personal interactions, moments of insight and occurrences of synchronicity to absorb the lesson value from any or all of them.

For example, a reflective learner might replay mentally a conversation he or she had with a co-worker or manager. During the replay, he or she can take note of a particular piece of information that surfaced, a specific tone used in discussion of a particular topic or even a facial expression betraying another’s thoughts and feelings about a company policy.

While there are those who can and will reflect on previous conversations as they get on with the activities of the day, the reflective listener gains greater value from the exercise by finding a quiet area void of people, media and other sources of distraction. The solitude often invites a higher level of insight and therefore a higher value of learning to its student.

It has been said that we learn more from our failures and setbacks than we do from our successes and desired outcomes. By adding true reflection to the immediate past of such occurrences, we also climb the value scale with the lessons available.

 Wisdom defined

If one of the objectives of learning is wisdom, it would be appropriate to know what wisdom looks like and why it’s valuable. The latter is relatively easy. A person might want wisdom for the capacity to make good choices in life. The definition can vary from person to person, depending on perspective and other factors.   Some define wisdom this way:

 Wisdom = experience + reflection

 This means that we gain in wisdom, at least in this life, by collecting experience and then reflecting on it to catch the many lessons and advance. The catch is that, in our rapidly changing society, where information and many other things move faster than ever before, people spend less and less time in reflection. If that’s true, then by the definition above, there is less wisdom to go around. The irony of the times, then, is that in a world in which wisdom should hold even greater value to make sense of such rapid change, there’s less time devoted to gaining wisdom.

Lessons and business cycles

Let’s look at the lessons life presents and how we need repeated opportunities to learn before we get it. Take the economic cycles that the United States has faced through its history. A downturn in the economy provokes extreme reactions as many organizations downsize, cut expenses and generally whine their way through the tough times.

As the economy strengthens, business returns, money loosens up and companies begin to believe their own press. In other words, they don’t stop and reflect on the past cycle and understand that it’s always just around the corner. Many become fat and happy and find themselves unprepared once again for tough times ahead.

For those who learn the lesson sooner rather than later, the strong economic time becomes the ideal period to accelerate improvements throughout the system that provide a defense against the coming tightening of the economy. Those who don’t are bound to repeat the lesson, again with wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Another illustration comes from selection. A particular person isn’t getting the job done and receives a termination notice. The manager responsible takes no real time to reflect or analyze the situation and rushes to fill the vacancy. With little more than a “fog the mirror” test to qualify candidates, he or she hires the replacement and watches as history repeats itself with below acceptable performance for that person in that role.

With a bit of analysis, the manager could understand that the issue itself wasn’t a people issue at its root. Therefore, replacing the person doesn’t address, remove or even alleviate the root cause and history rewinds and plays again.

I’ve heard people postulate that with each successive lesson in the repeating cycle, the stakes multiply. What they’re saying is that the cost, the toll taken on those involved in the lesson increases with each repetition. That alone should be incentive to stop and reflect to prevent a tougher outcome in the near future.

Experiential learning

Having just relocated our daughter to her new college environs, we’re receiving a few new lessons ourselves. How well we learn them remains to be seen. One of the primary encouragements we’re getting from school administrators is that of allowing our child to learn through making a few mistakes on her own. It should be noted here that these lessons should be in matters that fall well below the threshold of life-threatening issues.

Is the same true in a business or organizational setting? Consider the associate who would much rather try something and learn from a failure than buy into someone else’s thinking. There’s a strong energy present to experience, observe, reflect and apply the learning. It’s no wonder, then, that learning from a book or course could be very unattractive to such a person.

Tips and tools for reflective learning

Suffice it to say that sitting still is less popular than ever in the present day, and encouraging people to do so often gives one the feel of sending someone on the latest version of Mission: Impossible – they simply decide not to accept the mission, primarily because the price is too high. At the risk of getting a similar response, let’s look at some ways to gain wisdom through reflective learning.

·     Start a journal – While this is certainly not a new concept, those who add entries to their journals on a daily or regular basis report value in their own attitudes, stress levels and more. The moments in which we write the events and insights from our day provide insight usually unavailable by mental replays we conduct while we’re driving or multitasking.

·     Write morning pages – Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way, (Pan MacMillan, 1995) makes this the very first of her recommendations for the   process of creative recovery. The practice is straightforward and simple. Write and fill three tablet sheets of paper (8 1/2 x 11 works) each morning.

The content of the pages can be anything you choose, from prayer or repeated phrases or sentences to an extended to-do list and a one-sided, get it all out on the table  argument. The pages are free form writing and simply provide an outlet for the   mental and emotional junk that can clutter our days. By taking out the mental and emotional trash, as it were, early in the day, you take advantage of a clearer head, a more highly creative thinking function and a lighter mental load for the day.

·     Find and establish an alone zone – This can be a place in your home during a specific time of day, such as early morning. It can also be a safe spot where  being among people still qualifies as solitude. For me, early morning at the beach qualifies as an alone zone. While people and their dogs sparsely populate our local beach at that time of day, they keep to themselves for the most part, allowing the majestic backdrop of the ocean to act as the curtain preventing  distractions during time there.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.” By making reflective learning part of an overall learning strategy, we can be lifelong learners at the highest level.

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