Learning to learn

The other morning, while I was half groggy and caffeine craving, my youngest daughter asked me during the car ride, “Mom how do you think?”.  Now my youngest daughter is a chatty Kathy in the mornings and questions like these are par for the course.  I did however have to think about how I thought.  She waited for a minute, which is very long for a kid.  Then felt that her mother was being quite obtuse and tried to give me some examples so we could get to the answer faster.  She said, “Well, Mom I think in a cartoon strip.”  I was a little startled.

Startled, because when I am in the middle of a thought process, my mind races, stops, jumps on another bus and then on to another.  There are mind maps, word puzzles, half baked ideas left stranded somewhere along the road to nowhere.  It also got me thinking about how we learn and how often we actively engage in learning.

The process of learning for adults is interesting says Deb Peterson and she cites Malcolm Knowles, a pioneer in the study of adult learning.  He observed that adults learn best when:

  1. They understand why something is important to know or do.
  2. They have the freedom to learn in their own way.
  3. Learning is experiential.
  4. The time is right for them to learn.
  5. The process is positive and encouraging.

Companies can definitely learn something here and promote a more conducive environment to accelerate any form of learning if their training modules contained these qualities.

Apart from books and the usual suspects, other places of learning include


Our world is changing so fast and while we are out earning a living, our kids are learning the language of social technology.  They are gaming.  They are instagraming.  Some are facebooking. Some are YouTubing.  They are communicating in code constantly.  Their language is abbreviated, visual and one to many.  They are first movers, demanding, preferential and fickle and in some cases the perfect target audience for a beta.  Regular conversations with my children has resulted in many aha moments for me.


On the other end of the spectrum is the rich experience that the seniors bring to our lives.  Of mistakes made.  Of lessons learned.  Of wisdom gleaned. In many companies, people who have been around for a longer time have so much to share.  Knowledge harvesting can actually stop teams from repeating mistakes that have already been made.  Who hasn’t heard some one say, “We did this launch this way a few years ago and it didn’t work.”


Give the intern or the newbie a chance to speak at meetings. Brainstorming should not be fenced.  I remember being a newbie on a team and whenever I tried to say something, the manager would say “Well that is not how we do things around here.”  After being reminded about that ten times, I learned to start doodling on those conference calls instead.  Young ideas, untested ideas, eager ideas may not always be practical but there is a freshness and an enthusiasm that will hit the mark once you give it some water and sunlight.

The Others

Sales thinks marketing is a revenue drain.  Marketing thinks Sales should do better.  Finance carries a big stick.  HR doesn’t understand people.  Stereotyping is boring and prevents crossover ideas.  When I juggled my executive MBA and my full time job at Shell, I got a chance to try many hats albeit briefly.  I got a view into Finance and ROI.  I studied organizational change.  Business Information Management, Operations etc etc.  Obviously I enjoyed some more than the others and ended up doing my thesis on online marketing but I was grateful for the 360 view. On the other side, regular dialogue with customers, business partners, vendors can provide some insights into improving the way the business is run.

This can be applied at home, in the community, at school.

Did I leave anyone out?

🙂 My point exactly.

Wisdom is not assigned to a select, tried and tested few experts.  Life is not a ladder.  It is a series of bridges.

Learning is everywhere.  Everyone has something to teach.  Every situation has something to offer.  In success there is best practice.  In failure there is room for improvement.

All that is needed is curiosity, interest in another viewpoint, to really listen, to ask the right questions and the ability to change your mind.

Learning cannot happen if you are opinionated.

“Get over the idea that only children should spend their time in study.  Be a student so long as you still have something to learn, and this will mean all your life.”  ~Henry L. Doherty

Book MarkPicture courtesy vladimirkush.com
Book Mark
Picture courtesy vladimirkush.com

The ROI for life

Picture courtesy http://www.fotosearch.com

I was at a workshop a while back and enjoyed all the learning that came my way. It was facilitated by two instructors who partnered well despite their diametrically different teaching styles . Phil was a slim second generation American Chinese and Bill was a retired booming alpha male with a Donald Trump personality sans the hairpiece. Could almost hear the “You are fired” echo in the classroom.

I walked in expecting a sedate, boring class where I could possibly open up my laptop and keep working through class. I ended up pleasantly surprised and learning about corporate finance, despite my knee jerk reaction to fiscal prudence.

It is not easy to talk to middle management. They are a bit jaded and tend to feel that they do know it all. Besides they have so much to do, so many miles to go before they sleep. Bill bounces in and gets everyone going, asking us to stand up introduce ourselves and throw three facts, one of which is a lie. That was that little spark that told me that I needed to put my laptop away, sit back and allow myself the luxury of learning.

While Phil calmly provided the foundational input for what we need to know about finance, Bill would jump up, pace the room like a tiger, introduce a simulation where four companies are competing in the marketplace. Each company was given a management team to make key decisions on product mix, production capacity, marketing and development costs. Decisions that would impact our revenue, profit, cash flow and the share price.

To cut to the chase, the teams had fun, competed, collaborated and probably learnt some along the way. On the last day, Bill announced the winning team (which was ours, btw) and said that everyone won. Corny yes, true yes. Everyone did win. At least all those, who for a few days put away our jaded selves and opened our mind to learning once again.

Growing up the popular complaint was always “Mom, can I not go to school today?” or “I can’t wait to get rid of my books and not have to sit for another exam.” Years pass and we all do grow up, at least in lieu of birthdays. I will not talk about emotional intelligence as that would be another topic for another day.

So the train has stopped at the first station and yes, you no longer have to study for exams. Suddenly you are an adult, eager to join the workforce become financially independent and blah blah blah. You now realize that hey, work means still living by the alarm clock. Projects to finish, politics to grapple with and that hateful word…accountability.

Moving on to the next station, you probably found someone special, settled down and have a couple of kids. Mortgage, rent, taxes, school meetings and you link up with friends from your past on facebook and you are back to reminiscing about the the student life and the good old days.

You reminisce so furiously because you do miss learning. The stimulation of the mind. The joy you get when you have that eureka moment. Even the most cynical of us, cannot but be thrilled when the pieces of the puzzle fit together in the maze in our mind.  

On the last day, Bill was very eloquent and instead of telling us to remember ROA, ROI, ROE, he reads out this passage below. I had heard it before. Heard different versions for the last fifteen years, in fact. But hearing it again at a finance workshop of all places, made me stop and pause once again. I went up to him and thanked him and Phil for a great workshop and said “I loved your course” and joked that “I didn’t open my laptop”. He said “I didn’t ask anyone to shut theirs. It is not my place to ask you to choose to learn. That has to be your desire.”  

So true.  

“The Station”
by Robert Hastings

Tucked away in our subconscious is an idyllic vision.
We are traveling by train, out the windows,
we drink in the passing scenes of children
waving at a crossing,
cattle grazing on a distant hillside,
row upon row of corn and wheat,
flatlands and valleys,
mountains and rolling hillsides
and city skylines.

But uppermost in our minds is the final destination.
On a certain day, we will pull into the station.
Bands will be playing and flags waving.
Once we get there, our dreams will come true
and the pieces of our lives
will fit together like a completed jigsaw puzzle.
Restlessly we pace the aisles,
damning the minutes – waiting,
waiting, waiting for the station.

“When we reach the station, that will be it!”
We cry. “When I’m 18.” “When I buy a new 450sl Mercedes Benz!”
“When I put the last kid through college.”
“When I have paid off the mortgage!”
“When I get a promotion.” “When I reach retirement,
I shall live happily ever after!”

Sooner or later, we realize there is no station,
no one place to arrive.
The true joy of life is the trip.
The station is only a dream.
It constantly outdistances us.
“Relish the moment” is a good motto.
It isn’t the burdens of today that drive men mad.
It is the regrets over yesterday and the fear of tomorrow.
Regret and fear are twin thieves who rob us of today.
Regret is reality, after the facts.

So stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles.
Instead, climb more mountains, eat more ice cream,
go barefoot more often,
swim more rivers, watch more sunsets,laugh more, cry less.
Life must be lived as we go along.

The STATION will come soon enough.


On children, change and bending without breaking

Picture courtesy http://www.fotosearch.com
I wrote this a while ago and thought this was worth reviving given the nature of this blog.
When I allow myself to relax and watch my girls, I walk away with some wonderful insights.

Take the whole concept of change. It is everywhere.  It is constant. Who moved the cheese? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. If you don’t change, you will not evolve. Right, we get it. And over the last couple of years, with the global financial meltdown, even Joe the Plumber gets it. The avalanche has started and it will leave no person unaffected.

We listen to all these mantras and continue to resist change in all ways possible. Why? Because change is a hard six letter word. True change is to re fashion, re mould, renovate. This is hard because we program ourselves to resist. Another ‘re’ word. Darn, I do not want to give up my cozy armchair of old habits and use that new wooden chair with no cushion. Like Goldilocks, it’s too hard, it’s too soft, and I want it just right.

Children, however, are faced with change constantly. Every year, they have new teachers, new classrooms, new schedules, new friends, new enemies and new challenges. My daughters who went to different schools last year went from familiar to unfamiliar with a manic schedule, new faces, a new bus route, more homework and new projects. They experience change again in January when the first semester ends and another one starts with new electives. I am in awe of their resilience and their ability to weather change.

Adapting to change is not easy, like the inverse bell curve, you will bottom out but when you climb out of it, your reality shifts. As we grow older, we tend to relegate discovery to the basement. We become hard wired and rigid. Fear replaces wonder and we lose our agility along the way.

  • Accept the change.
Voluntary or involuntary, the more you fight the change, the harder it gets. Like the Chinese finger puzzle, you sink deeper and deeper into the stronghold. Downsized, laid off, new job, new home, new city, new spouse… It is done. You look at the cards you have and figure out how to work the deck. Kids walk into a new class every year. Yes, they do complain about their teachers but they know that this is a fact of life.


  • Don’t hide your feelings
When you hit the trough of disillusionment (I just love the Gartner Hype Cycle), reach out to your family and close friends. We have no trouble with the happy face but would rather suffer alone than admit that the curve ball that life just threw at you is more than you can handle. That cold, clammy whisper that tells you that you cannot cope is very real and the sooner you talk about it, the easier it becomes. Little ones come home and rattle off their woes. “Hey mama, I hate xyz. She made fun off me in class.” Or “I don’t want to go to school anymore.” The issue is still there but sharing it is great therapy. Everybody hurts, everybody cries.


  • Don’t look back
Or like that Greek myth, you turn into stone. Which is what happens when we stay in the past, we cannot move forward. The past is always sepia colored and despite the flaws in the pictures, we knew the past so it was safe. If you have moved to a new place, embrace it whole heartedly. Don’t hanker for your old home. We cannot live in two worlds at the same time unless you know a lot about time travel and the string theory. Children rarely stay in the past or worry about the future. They might miss it but they are too busy being in the present. And they just don’t have the bandwidth to fear the future.


  • Experiment with change
My 7 year old is always “pushing our buttons.” She is ready to go anywhere with little or no notice. She runs after a butterfly, grabs the neighbor’s dog by its tail, says hello to everyone in the supermarket and lives completely in the moment. Instead of fearing change, we can practice flexibility by starting with small practices like taking a different route to work, ordering the bento box instead of the usual sandwich, or learning a new skill.  Discard homogeneity and embrace diversity.

In the words of the greatest change management guru, Darwin,
“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent,
but the one most responsive to change”