March 29, 2021

4 Common Mistakes That Keep Us From Learning


    Our team had a discussion recently on how to optimize training for our strategy organization. Digital, CX, product, human-centered design, and agile are all fast-moving fields, and staying up to date is essential. When you cover a broad spectrum across the product lifecycle with a high level of customization, learning is non-stop.

    In this discussion, with some inspiration from recent reading, I realized that for learning to stick, we must personalize training for each individual’s context. 

    How can we craft the right learning and training program for ourselves to develop an understanding that can be applied to real-world situations? It starts by getting a few critical mistakes we make when training and learning out of the way.

    Mistake #1:  Not Being Patient With Our Own Learning Needs

    For most of our lives, learning is formulaic. Our primary schooling puts us through the same curriculum at the same pacing as our peers. College brings some choice of classes, but even larger class sizes with less time for one-on-one development. In our professional lives, we receive standardized training or the option of certifications, which can be the most formulaic of all.

    We each have different strengths and weaknesses, learning styles, and paces of understanding. We must seek to understand which topics come naturally for us and which don’t. Just because you are slower at learning a topic doesn’t mean you cannot learn it.  I always thought I was “bad” at foreign languages, but it likely was that I was just slower at this topic and carried a false perception of my abilities. 

    Are your biases preventing you from learning specific skills or performing in some situations?

    When we come across something we don’t understand, we can choose either frustration or patience. If you don’t understand something or can’t demonstrate a skill as well as someone else, it likely means you just haven’t put as much time in yet.  At that moment, be patient with yourself and focus on what methodologies might help you learn.

    Mistake #2: We Don’t Learn How to Learn

    I took a 4-week Coursera course called Learning How to Learn in my early 20s. I’d gotten through high school and college using memorization and test-taking abilities, instead of true learning. This course gave me a broader toolkit and an understanding of how learning happens in the brain.  

    I learned the value of taking breaks, periodic testing of knowledge, breaking up learning into smaller chunks, using case studies, and the importance of learning in groups. I learned that my all-nighters in college were counterproductive (though my final exam grade proved that already).    

    Since this course, I’ve read multiple books on how the brain works (most recently David Rock’s Your Brain at Work) and books on habit formation. Before focusing on any training, you need to understand how your brain comprehends information and recalls it later. Otherwise, you’ll spend your time studying, but not necessarily learning or retaining.

    Mistake #3: Giving Up Too Soon

    How do you react when you don’t know something? How many times will you try before giving up? What does your internal narrative say when you struggle with a new concept? Sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we know. At other times we don’t know, and sometimes we simply give up too soon when confronted with difficulty.

    I have the opportunity to observe individuals and teams react when they reach a problematic situation in a project where it’s unclear precisely what to do next. A client may pivot the requirements, someone adds a new constraint, or a tool isn’t working correctly in the situation. It could be that in a sales meeting, a client asks a question, but you lack the confidence to respond.

    First, ensure you don’t already know the answer. We all deal with impostor syndrome. Still, I’m surprised at how often people do have the answer or knowledge but simply lack the confidence that they’re correct. If you don’t attempt to answer a question or chart a path forward, you won’t reach your actual failure point.  

    Break the problem down into smaller parts to get to what you are genuinely struggling to understand. You likely have pieces of the answer or solution and just need to find the details you don’t to build a plan to address those.  Once you identify the true gaps, be patient with yourself.  Don’t grow frustrated, but instead see it as an opportunity for growth.  The important thing is to be excited that you’ve reached a failure point, but try to sit with the problem you’re having and doing your own research before saying “you don’t know”.

    Mistake #4: Building Superficial Instead of Comprehensive Knowledge

    Once you’ve identified something you want to learn, where do you turn? Be careful with the illusion of competence. For example, I have a biology degree, but I wouldn’t recommend hiring me to do genetic research. Certifications, coursework, degrees, etc., are helpful for building knowledge, but they demonstrate the ability to pass the test, not necessarily apply the knowledge. We see many people following “best practices” in agile, product strategy, design thinking, etc., without getting any benefit because their experience is theoretical.  I’m not against certifications, I’ve sought many myself, but learning to apply knowledge or demonstrate ability is the key to long-term success.

    We each learn through different methodologies – podcasts, books, videos, courses, certifications, conversations, applied experience, side projects, etc. Here are a few things to look for when building knowledge in any domain to ensure you’re well-rounded.

    • Examples & Case Studies – What’s a real-world example of the topic you’re learning.  If you want to understand AI and Machine Learning types, for example, identify organizations that have successfully leveraged specific methodologies to solve their problems.
    • Mental Models & Frameworks – Does the domain have mental models or shortcuts you can use to understand the space?  The double diamond in design thinking is a famous example.
    • Testable Applications – When you’re learning something new, find opportunities to test your knowledge as soon as possible. This could be explaining it to a friend to see if there are gaps in your experience, using it on the job, or creating a side-project for yourself where you can test your knowledge.
    • Principles, History & Theory – Do you understand the ‘Why’ of your domain? For example, do we know why organizations should use Agile Development, and when it makes sense? What use cases work better than others, and how should agile be measured for success?
    • Processes – Finally, ensure you have a strong understanding of how and process to utilize knowledge or skill. It’s even better to know when you can diverge from the standard approach to customize the tools you learn to fit your needs. We customize our Journey Map methodology for each client, for example, based on the problem they need to solve and unique organizational constraints as an example.

    These are a few basic things to watch out for when focused on furthering your education and career.  Be patient with yourself, customize learning to your own needs, work through your ignorance, and build comprehensive knowledge.

    Want to learn more?