Posted by: malstott | December 18, 2012

Exercise the Brain: Learning as a Lifestyle

10391659-running-brain-cartoon-characterWhen I was 20 years old I landed a Cessna 152 on a runway in Pontiac, Michigan. It blew me away. I was by myself in this flying machine and no one but me could get it to the ground safely. I knew what to do because I had practiced with an instructor many times. But actually doing it was a thrill like few others in my life. This wasn’t a requirement for a class. It wasn’t a necessary skill to propel me in my chosen field. It wasn’t even very logical to learn this “flying thing”. It was expensive, time-consuming, and even a little risky. But I love airplanes, always have. So when I had a chance to learn to fly, I didn’t hesitate.

The world in which we live gives us opportunities all of the time to get outside of our comfort zones. The rate of change in our work lives can be overwhelming. Leadership changes, mergers, acquisitions, change in strategy, downsizing, right-sizing and re-engineering….stop the roller coaster, I wanna get off!  But this crazy carnival ride provides us with learning opportunities. Our ability to learn and evolve has never been more taxed but this is a good thing if we rev up our brains and get going. I’ve put together some helpful hints for embracing the cycle of learning on and off the job.

  1. Monitor your level of “stretch” – If you have been in a job for a while you are likely to get comfortable. You know your job. You understand the ins and outs. You know who to call. It is time to change jobs. This doesn’t have to be a new company or really even a whole new job. You can take on a project or work on something that is cross-functional. Moving laterally in a company is often encouraged. Climbing sideways up the “lattice” rather than simply climbing up the ladder is a wise way to build a base of experience. Don’t allow yourself to get bored in a job. If you have to leave a company to keep up the rate of learning – do it. Shame on any company for letting that happen.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask why – We should have learned this as kids but grown-ups tend to lose their curiosity. It is ok to explore and not be satisfied with an answer. Even as a manager or even an executive it is impossible to understand it all and your team will appreciate honest questions and a willingness to be taught.  This technique of asking why is a valid “lean” principal. Ask the question five times to get to the real root of an issue.
  3. Lean into the fear – Most of us get butterflies when asked to present in front of an audience. Some of us get nauseous. Some love the rush. Fear of presenting in front of an audience is one of the most common fears out there. But there are other fears in the work place. It is hard to speak up in a large meeting especially when your ideas conflict with others. It is hard to bring up an issue with a boss especially when it is personal or controversial. It is scary to take a job where you are not the expert. Leaning into the fear can be the right thing to do if your quest is positive. It will teach you about your limits and your strengths. You will learn about yourself and you will see how great you are. If you fail…you will learn even more.
  4. Allow for ambiguity – When you are sorting out a new area and you don’t have a full understanding it is important to let the unknowns rest for a time. This is especially true on a new job. It is easy to be discouraged because you don’t get it but slowly but surely the picture will come into focus. During those times of uncertainty the best questions are asked and the most wisdom is offered. You are fresh to the problem. What is “obvious” to many won’t be to you and that is a good thing. Be confused but be ready to absorb new bits of information to help fill in the missing pieces.
  5. Intuit – This means “to understand or work out by instinct”. This works most of the time and if you are on a steep learning curve for most of your life you need to hone this skill. Given that people who are learners are used to figuring things out and used to gaining information through their many senses, this probably will come naturally.
  6. Joy in the process – One of the greatest gifts we have as humans is the ability to take on new information. We are able to continue to form new ideas and perspectives and skills throughout our lives. There is plenty of evidence available that the more we use our brains the healthier they will be. My father who is in his eighties is re-learning calculus. Why? The answer is simply that he appreciates math and enJOYs the process. Go for it Dad!

Flying an airplane, sailing a boat, learning how to program in C, understanding differential equations, tackling software defined networking technology…it is all the same. Stretching the brain cells to comprehend something new can be hard but if you embrace it and make learning a lifestyle not a task for school kids, it will turn into a joyous process.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”     Mahatma Gandhi

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