Up to recently, I only knew of one meaning of “learning”: that is to take in more knowledge, or to improve one’s existing knowledge.
So it’s mostly about information and knowledge. About what one knows.
But with time and more experience in management, communication and work in general, I realized that there’s another type of learning that is even more important for one to make progress in work and life.
And it’s not quite the above type of learning more knowledge.
A second type of learning
In this second type of learning, it’s about observing one’s behaviors and learn from them. Not about what one knows, but about what one thinks and more importantly, what one does. It’s about our behaviors.
This second type of learning is more practical, but also more difficult to do, because it’s not about learning about some external knowledge, but about ourselves. And that’s why it’s way more difficult: our ego may feel “attacked”.
And this type of learning to adjust our behaviors is best done through receiving feedback from colleagues and people who work and see us frequently.
No one, including those with a very high level of self-awareness, can self-observe our full range of behaviors and their effects on others as accurately as our co-workers, friends and family.
As such, I’ve come to realize that learning to give and receive feedback well is one of the most valuable tools in one’s toolbox for life-long learning.
In fact, I’d venture to say that this skill should be at the very top of the list of sub-skills of effective communication and leadership. A person who is not open-minded enough to take in feedback and to make proper adjustments is not a person who is growing: a person of some talent, maybe, but not a person who is flexible enough to acknowledge mistakes and learn from them.
Learning and responsibility
One of the most fundamental reasons for learning, whether it’s about knowledge or behaviors, is to achieve our work / life goals.
We learn, we adjust because we realize that we haven’t met our goals, we haven’t met our KPIs, or haven’t had the kind of relationships we want. Those dissatisfaction motivate us to learn.
When we start to take full responsibility for our results, we feel a deep desire to learn and to improve. A heart-felt commitment.
When we start to take full responsibility, the need to be right is no longer at the top of our mind. We no longer want to “win an argument” or to be “the smartest person in the room”.
In fact, those behaviors are quite the opposite of taking responsibility, because they often mislead us to place our need to be right above results (personal, or of a group).
By nature, I enjoy reflection and am quite eager to learn new things. So for most things, I pick them up at a reasonable pace. But it took me a really long long time to realize the validity of this concept of responsibility and learning.
And of course, not by myself, but with the invaluable guidance of “The 15 commitments of conscious leadership” book: a book I highly recommend for those interested in learning a new way of taking full responsibility.
The learning formula
When a mistake is made for the first time, it’s simply a mistake. There’s always new things we haven’t known, so no big deal about that.
But for a long few years up until very recently, when I made mistakes I simply “moved on”.
As someone with an analytical mind, I certainly tried to figure out the causes of the mistakes. But I didn’t think hard enough about them to get to the root causes. As a result, the solutions or the new experiments I took also didn’t adequately address those root causes.
In summary, I simply moved on, without learning all that can be learned from each mistake.
And now I’ve realized that’s exactly the formula for getting stuck. Because I’d keep making the same type of mistakes again and again and again.
Maybe it was too painful to look squarely at those mistakes. And probably because I wasn’t mature enough then to be able to calmly look at my situation objectively.
If I look at them too deeply, they’d reveal something bad about myself: such as some limitations of my skills, some “defects” of my personality, some incorrect judgement, or any other things that can’t easily be fixed. (As mentioned above, an ego-related challenge).
I was doing too much, and thinking (deeply and calmly) too little.
So that’s why I felt brightened coming across Ray Dalio’s 5-step formula for achieving goals, in this famous book: Principles: Life and Work.
Here are the 5 steps:
- Have clear goals.
- Identify and don’t tolerate problems.
- Diagnose problems to get at their root causes.
- Design a plan.
- Push through to completion.
That’s it. The steps are so simple and easy to understand we underestimate how hard it is to actually follow them.
Most often, I got stuck at point 3 because I wasn’t willing to face problems squarely and think hard about the root causes of those problems.
When I fixed the surface of a problem, I could press ahead for a while before I got stuck again.
Or in the rare cases where I could summon the courage to look squarely at the root causes, the root causes often appeared so big or “unsolvable” that I stopped wanting to face them after a few days. I then tried to fix a more surface problem to have “some actions”.
Overtime, I’ve come to appreciate more and more the beauty of facing root causes squarely, in life or work.
They are hard, definitely; not solvable? sometimes.
But regardless of whether they’re hard, unsolvable or anything else, they’re problems we have to face and overcome.
Solving surface problems is often like kicking the can down the road. We’d see them again soon enough.
Own our commitments
Now, we’re committed to learning and have a clear learning process.
But how do we know if we’re really committed?
I’ve mentioned feedback from other people above. And now, I want to mention a second type of feedback.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” is often the right thing to do. And the reverse is also worth following: If it broke, please fix it!
Too often, I wasn’t willing to face the ultimate test of commitment: results.
If the results aren’t as expected, something is broken and it’s time to learn and adjust. The unwillingness from my part to learn, following the 5-step learning process above, was a clear indication that I didn’t commit as much as I said.
I didn’t quite accept this way of reasoning (and that was also part of the problem) until I learned from the Conscious Leadership book.
There’s a wonderful short paragraph from the Conscious Leadership that’s stayed so vivid in my mind that I want to quote here:
Commitment is a statement of what is. From our perspective, you can know your commitments by your results, not by what you say your commitments are. We all committed. We are all producing results. Conscious leaders own their commitments by owning their results.
Yes, a big realization for me:
We’re all producing results. And via results, “Conscious leaders own their commitments by owning their results.”
People who are committed respond responsibly to their results, by learning seriously from them.
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