Four Ways to Develop Learning Agility and Improve Perspective

There is a method to the way you learn, and it is personal to you.  If you’re not paying close attention, you won’t have thought about the assumptions you make and behavioral patterns you rely upon when you make decisions, think, and act.  Approximately 30 to 50% of executives experience some kind of executive or management derailment in the course of their careers.  Research suggests that this stagnation and underperformance can be attributed to a person’s failure to update his or her mental frameworks in the wake of new experience.

In other words, you can and should be learning from the breadth of your personal and professional experiences to develop systematic thinking.  Monique Valcour in Harvard Business Review describes this skill as “learning agility,” or “the capacity for rapid, continuous learning from experience.”

Agile learners are good at making connections across experiences, and they’re able to let go of perspectives or approaches that are no longer useful — in other words, they can unlearn things when novel solutions are required. People with this mindset tend to be oriented toward learning goals and open to new experiences. They experiment, seek feedback, and reflect systematically.

Develop a desire to improve

How do you develop learning agility?  Its foundation is a desire to improve through (1) the development of new skills and (2) succeeding in new situations.

Agile learners value and derive satisfaction from the process of learning itself, which boosts their motivation as well as their capacity to learn from  challenging developmental experiences.

By finding internal value in the process of learning through new experiences, agile learners “don’t get defensive” and are more “willing to take risks.”  The benefit to this mindset becomes clear when you consider being confronted with a new, uncomfortable, scary experience.  Instead of fearing moving outside of their comfort zone or risking public critique through open discussion, an agile learner broadens experience and improves his or her mental toolkit by taking advantage of the opportunity to learn in a new environment.

Four Mental Tools You Can Use to Sharpen Your Learning Agility

There are discrete practical tools you can use to improve your ability to learn from experience in meaningful ways.

1.      Ask for feedback.

Think of one or more people who interacted with you or observed your performance on a given task. Tell them you’d value their perspective on how you did, and ask what you could do differently the next time. To maximize learning from their feedback — and this is vital — restrain any urge to defend yourself. Thank them for their input, and then ask yourself what you can learn.

This practice depends on your mindset, and will not work if you cling to defensiveness.  Google’s Director of Executive Coaching and Leadership, David Peterson simplifies this into a retrievable motto: “There has to be a better way, and I don’t know it yet.”

The power of the motto lies in the word “yet.” As research on growth mindset by psychologist Carol Dweck has found, if you hold the view that there is always more to learn and embrace the process of wading into unfamiliar waters, you can free your thinking, dissolve your fear of failure, and power your success.

2.     Test Out New Mental Models and Approaches

Expanding your mental toolkit requires you to test and retest different perspectives, models, and approaches.

To identify new behaviors for testing, Peterson recommends reflecting on a challenge you’re facing and asking yourself questions such as “What’s one thing I could do to change the outcome of the situation?” and “What will I do differently in the future?” You can also conduct thought experiments, unearthing possibilities from trying out a different point of view. For example, one of my clients was concerned about leading the first team development offsite with her new team of highly talented country managers. With some reflection, she realized that she had gotten stuck in the perspective that in order to be seen as credible, she had to know more than they did. Since she was new, this was impossible. Holding on to that perspective would have caused her stress and undermined her credibility. By letting go of the assumption that she had to be the subject-matter expert and adopting the perspective that she could add greater value as a facilitator, she was able to design and carry out a meeting at which creative ideas flowed freely. The team, which had previously suffered from poor coordination, developed more collaborative relationships.

We all have biases in our decision-making, many of them hidden from our own view.  This is why developing a broad set of mental models is so important — they cause you to shift perspective and unroot hidden traps in your thinking.  Checking your assumptions and testing new approaches to familiar scenarios will allow you to explore effectiveness of these ideas.

3.     Understand cross-disciplinary connections

This is a key to reaping value from new experiences.  Studying and reading broadly provides you with little value if you do not let new ideas cross-pollenate and fertilize your other areas of knowledge.

Peterson has systematically applied principles he’s used to learn about wine to the domain of leadership development. Oenologists develop expertise by trying many different wines, comparing them, and discussing them with fellow experts. Borrowing these principles, Peterson realized that he could extend his mastery of leadership development by seeking out a wide variety of leaders to coach, comparing leaders to each other on various qualities, and discussing leaders with other experts.

You must have an area of expertise that on its face, has nothing to do with your profession.  But think harder and more deeply to see the connections.  How can you apply the lessons you learned during one area to the other.  This is one benefit of reading broadly across a wide variety of subjects – an understanding of seemingly unrelated areas of study will, upon reflection, turn into a network of mental models that help you approach and solve problems in new ways.

4.   Review and reflect.

To understand the lessons learned from new experience, you need to systematically reflect on those experiences.

A growing body of research shows that systematically reflecting on work experiences boosts learning significantly.  To ensure continuous progress, get into the habit of asking yourself questions like “What have I learned from this experience?” and “What turned out differently than I expected?” Leaders who demonstrate and encourage reflection not only learn more themselves, they also spur increased contextual awareness and reflective practice in others, thereby laying a foundation for higher levels of learning agility in their teams and organizations.

Make time to do this.  Put it on your calendar, and don’t let anything get in the way.  In my experience, review provides the most value if you do it regularly and purposefully.  My weekly reviews let me focus on details, tasks, and short-term goals.  Monthly reviews let me think about bigger lessons learned from projects and check progress towards annual goals. Quarterly and annual reviews let me take stock on my alignment with long-term and life goals.

Go and Seek out the New

Once you have built a desire for improvement and understand these practices, go and seek out new experiences, people, and information.  Valcour highlights the difference you can expect between career development and career stagnation by pointing to examples:

Learning agility also involves being open to new experiences, people, and information. Two senior management professors I’ve encountered at academic conferences over the years exemplify opposite ends of the spectrum. Professor A has a voracious appetite for new ideas. Despite his lofty academic stature, he converses just as enthusiastically with graduate students and junior faculty from little-known universities as he does with fellow academic stars, and he collaborates with a wide variety of scholars. Well into his 70s, he’s vibrant, energetic, and recognized as an active leader in his research domain. Professor B, by contrast, shows little interest in scholars outside of his familiar circle of followers. His presentations generally rehash old ideas; it’s been a long time since he produced anything new. Although he made many important contributions earlier in his career, the low level of learning agility he exhibits now accompanies his fading reputation. He’s fallen into the exact career trap the CEO is seeking to avoid.

artwork: By Peter Pöml [CC BY-SA 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/1.0)

Thoreau on Escaping Busyness through the Art of Walking

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

Are you trapped by busyness?  Finding and protecting the time to do the work that is meaningful and important to you requires that you slow down, remember your goals, and develop focus.  I’ve found that my ability to complete meaningful work is inversely proportional to how “busy” I am.  Accomplishing deep and satisfying work is the product of rejecting perpetual distraction, unending demands, and our modern culture of 24-hour responsiveness.

Science tells us today that even short lunchtime walks can help you cope at work, improve your concentration, heal your brain by soothing your mental state, enhances your creativity, and can treat depression. Although he did not have access to brain-scanning technology, Henry David Thoreau nonetheless presciently anticipated this present conflict in his essay “Walking,” in which he discusses the art, requirements, and benefits of learning to detach from daily distraction and find new and clear perspective in the outdoor world.  An outgrowth of journal entries from 1851, the essay argues that man finds “absolute freedom and wildness” in the natural world.

Thoreau argues that the benefits of walking in nature are found in understanding the art of sauntering, which we have in large part lost today:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.

Thoreau’s requirements are large: “four hours a day at least…sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”  To prepare one’s self, Thoreau announces a bold and demanding set of spiritual requirements needed  for a proper walk:

If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk. […]

No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence, which are the capital in this profession.

Setting aside four hours a day for a daily trek is an impossible goal for most of us these days.  It probably was an impossible goal for most of Thoreau’s neighbors as well.  Nonetheless, Thoreau’s short essay is a beautiful exposition on the value and purpose of walking and exploring, regardless of physical distance.  In leaving the daily mundane chores and obligations behind, we have the opportunity to find a direct connection to an improvement in health, spirit, and mental focus.

When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shop-keepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them — as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon — I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

While the physical benefits of walking are easily appreciated, the deeper benefits lie in the opportunity walking presents to develop mindfulness,  “a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant.”  Thoreau understands this point well, and turns his attention to the goal of mindfulness and the manner in which giving our full focus to the task at hand is essential:

Of course, it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations, and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is; I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder, when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works — for this may sometimes happen.

Thoreau describes here the instant of realization that we all have experienced, when we suddenly snap to attention after having been lost in thought, only to realize that we are occupied and engaged in some different task.  It is this mental drifting, this capture in the cacophony of our minds, for which Thoreau prescribes walking as the antidote.  For walking, in our great spaces, is the way to recapture Wildness.

The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind. […]

Life consists with Wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness, and surrounded by the raw material of life. He would be climbing over the prostrate stems of primitive forest trees.

And what do we find in Wildness?  New perspective.  New ideas.  Escape from the same paths of learning and thinking and doing that limit creativity and expansion and prosperity.  It is new ideas that and new thinking that excite us and attract us:

In Literature, it is only the wild that attracts us. Dullness is but another name for tameness. It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the Schools, that delights us. As the wild duck is more swift and beautiful than the tame, so is the wild-the mallard-thought, which, ‘mid falling dews wings its way above the fens. A truly good book is something as natural, and as unexpectedly and unaccountably fair and perfect, as a wild flower discovered on the prairies of the west, or in the jungles of the east.

When the afternoon energy low hits you tomorrow, and you find yourself checking your watch every ten minutes, take a walk.  If you have a list of phone calls and voicemails to return, take your cell phone and return the calls while you walk.  If you plan on an afternoon coffee break, walk to a different coffee shop a few blocks away, rather than simply visit the break room down the hall.  While I don’t accomplish it every day, my goal on most days in the office is to do my deep thinking and creative work in the mornings, and make phone calls in the afternoon, preferably while walking.  It revives me, clears my head, and lets me refocus on the task at hand mindfully.

Who knows?  While you probably won’t find Thoreau’s Wildness every day on every walk, you just might have spark the crash of creativity and new perspective of brilliance that Thoreau felt was lurking in the Wild:

Genius is a light which makes the darkness visible, like the lightning’s flash, which perchance shatters the temple of knowledge itself-and not a taper lighted at the hearth-stone of the race which pales before the light of common day.

photo:  Patorjk via Wikimedia Commons

The Cinder Cone and the Realization of Foster Huntington’s Ideas

Six or seven years ago, I began reading a blog named A Restless Transplant written and curated by a young man named Foster Huntington.  Over the years, it was a pleasure watching Mr. Huntington’s focus flow from idea to idea, from the American landscape, to style, to the nostalgia of college, to career opportunities in NYC, to life on the road.  His latest project was the construction of a more permanent home in the Columbia River Gorge, consisting of two treehouses, a skating pool, and a wood-fired hot tub.  He’s raising money for a new book project through Kickstarter.

His embrace of a dream is inspiring.  The scope and content of dreams is an individual thing.  Watch the film, and I hope that you find some fuel to help you chase down your own.

Changing Perspective – Books Worth Reading

Between preparatory school, college, and post-graduate schooling, I have experienced a lot of classes and lectures.  There are two that were superlative.  (I recognize the contradiction in terms, but I consider them to both be superlative).

The first was my prep school American History class, which our teacher, Doc Thomas, used no textbook, and taught American History simply with primary sources.  Some of these were written, like John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech, and the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and Kerouac.  Others were visual, such as the paintings of Thomas Church and his colleagues of the Hudson River School, and even the film Rebel Without a Cause.  The immediacy of experience, without the intervention of a textbook as moderator, was learning in a new way for me, and I never forgot  the lessons learned.

The second was Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University, the so-called “Great Books” class that ran us through the canon of Western Civilization at two books per week for the full year.  The material was the expected material and not the reason for my feelings on the class.  The blessing of the class was Scott Sandage, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who was at Columbia on a fellowship for the year, and gave insight into reading, world view, and life perspective that I had never considered.  I could write at length about the lessons of that class, but most meaningful was Professor Sandage’s point that through every moment of education – be it a book, a lecture, pursuit of a degree – we implicitly are looking to change ourselves.  We go to school and ask the school to change us.  We read the book and hope that the book will change us.  We view the painting believing that it will open some new insight or thought in us that we had not before seen or experienced.

I have been ruminating on this recently, particularly after reading a number of “Favorite Books” posts on other sites I enjoy (Farnam Street’s and Ryan Holiday’s lists are examples).  I like collecting lists of books, or records, or other experiences that I’ve had that I believe others will enjoy.  I do not claim that these are the “best” books, but merely that each impacted me in a memorable and positive way.  I hope that you find a new perspective in these.

Desolation Angels – Jack Kerouac

Desolation Angels is Kerouac at his best, full of rhythmically exciting prose and a conflicted vision of America.  The work actually contains two books – the first, Desolation Angels, chronicles Kerouac’s solitary  summer stint as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the the Cascade Mountain range.  Purportedly drawn up from his journals, the book reveals Kerouac’s alternating ecstasy and sorrow during his period of solitude.  Book II is titled Passing Through, and contains reflections of Kerouac’s travels through America, Mexico, Tangiers, France, and England. It is difficult to reduce any Kerouac to analytical review, but the book is important to me for a few key reasons.

First, the prose itself is rhythmically exciting, nearly poetic, in Kerouac’s grand vision of the “poetry of pure prose.”  It is a beautiful celebration of life’s highs and lows, its enthusiasms and sorrows.  Second, it contains the exuberance of On the Road, but stands from a place of introspection and greater perspective than the more well-known, but momentary and rapid-fire work.  As a result, the book provides wonderful insight into a mind overwhelmed with the beauty and immediacy of life, while simultaneously struggling with the pains of loneliness, attachment, and suffering that come along with those things.  The quality of Kerouac’s philosophical, psychological, and symbolic insights in the book is unparalleled elsewhere in his canon.

Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

After reading No Country for Old Men about five or six years ago, I did something I have done with no other writer.  I read nothing but Cormac McCarthy until I had finished his catalogue.  Blood Meridian is his finest work, on par with the finest moments of William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe.  I believe it is the finest piece of American contemporary literature that I have read. The novel is the story of a band of depraved and violent scalp-hunters on the Texas-Mexico borderlands in the 1850s.  McCarthy paints a world of immense space, stoic beauty, and ever-present dread.  McCarthy fills this world with characters capable of unspeakable evil and cruelty.  This is an unusual perspective on our American West, with no heroes, no salvation, only relentless violence and vengeance.  It is a mythic book, recreating Biblical stories in inverse ways.  At the end, you may have trouble beginning another novel, because the poetry of McCarthy’s exquisitely crafted language is just too perfect to leave behind.  This is truly an unforgettable work.

A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn (1922-2010), was a historian, playwright, social activist, and professor at Brown University).  This book is his master work.  People’s History attempts to tell a different story of American History, told from the perspective of the victims, the oppressed, the forgotten.  A controversial book, it is often adored and reviled by Americans depending on their particular view of the world, or perhaps, the view of the world that they want others to uphold.

The book has suffered some criticism of myopia or lack of citation in sections.  This is beside the point.  American history of too often taught from a sterile, reverent, and unchallenging perspective, focusing only on presidents and industrial heroes.  This book raises important questions about the collective assumptions and shared predispositions America holds with respect to its history, and challenges readers to evaluate otherwise familiar events in ways that they otherwise might never do. One should always be in the practice and habit of checking assumptions, and looking for alternative perspectives.  You may find new material or information that matures your own perspective, or you may find that the alternative is unconvincing and hold tight to your original views.  Either way, the exercise and practice of checking assumptions is invaluable, and Zinn provides a healthy dose of that.

Blue Highways/River Horse – William Least Heat-Moon

William Least Heat-Moon left Missouri in his van with no specific plan other than to drive the backroads of America, and discover the people and stories of the small towns of this country.  This trip led to Blue Highways, a remarkable and deeply human account of Americans, their hopes, dreams, and struggles.  Heat-Moon reveals a kaleidoscopic America in many ways, which increases in complexity and diversity with each new town into which he rolls.  At the same time, he finds common threads in American life, and an almost universal friendliness that propels him across the country as he tries to deal with the struggles he faces back home.

Years later, Heat-Moon and a friend make a second journey across America, this time by boat.  Starting in the Hudson River, they travel through the Great Lakes, across Lake Chautauqua, into the Allegheny River and down into the Mississippi River.  From there, it is upstream across the Missouri, and eventually across the Rockies before arriving in the Columbia River on their way to the Pacific Ocean.  Reminiscent of Blue Highways, River Horse adds a focus on the geology and geography of the country not present in the first book.  It is filled with the same cast of unforgettable Americans, whom Heat-Moon portrays honestly and kindly. Put together, these two books provide a wonderful “ground level” view of America.  Any of us who are too stuck in our local or regional worlds would do well to remind ourselves of the intricacies of life in all the far flung corners of our country.

A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway makes his account in this book of his post-WWI life in Paris, and his interactions with other American ex-patriates such as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The narrative is quaint, if not a bit bland.  The value of this book lies in its direct and clear expression of Hemingway’s writing process.  Thousands of books with millions of pages are now circulating Amazon and bookstores, all wishing to provide direction on the creative process.  Start with Hemingway.

The Way of Zen – Alan Watts

My true feelings of this book are too complicated and immense to describe in this post, and I anticipate writing a longer post on the book.  That said, I have studied Eastern Philosophy for 15 years now, and practiced Zen Buddhism for five.  The original source material is often difficult and impenetrable.  Interpretative texts are often misinformed and squishy books designed to sell at new-age stores, and miss the deep and challenging questions presented by Zen philosophy.  I have found no better voice on Zen, or Buddhism in general, than Watts, who was both surgically precise with his explanations, and demonstrably able to assist Westerners with comprehension through his anticipation of typical stumbling blocks.