Why Are So Many of Us So Bad At Learning?

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Learning is vital to the success of an individual, as well as for the organization that employs him. Yet, most of us still don’t know how to do it.

The more I read about learning, the better I am able to appreciate that it’s about behavior, not knowledge. “Learning is a consequence of thinking, not teaching,” writes Ron Carucci in his article “When Companies Should Invest in Training Their Employees — and When They Shouldn’t” for the Harvard Business Review, but the environment in which many of us find ourselves in simply doesn’t support that behavior.

A lot of us — myself included — are guilty of seeing learning as a way to fill knowledge gaps, gain information, and “prove” we know what we are supposed to know. But learning really shouldn’t be a means to an end. Rather, it should be seen as a gift that keeps on giving.

If you have the time, tune in to David Asch’s TED Talk “Why it’s so hard to make healthy decisions”. The behavioral economist may be talking about healthcare but a large part of his talk is relevant to learning too.

It’s Not That We Don’t Know Better, It’s That We Are Not Doing Better

On Jon Corzine’s 2007 accident, Asch makes the observation that the Governor of New Jersey “did not have a knowledge deficit [he knew seat-belts save lives], he had a behavior deficit. It’s not that he didn’t know better. He knew better. It’s that he didn’t do better.”

This same logic can be applied to learning. By now, pretty much all of us would have gotten the memo that lifelong learning is important, that organizations that embrace learning are going to be ahead of those that don’t, and that an individual’s development is inexorably tied to his willingness and ability to learn.

But why hasn’t the message sunk in for so many of us?

What are we’re doing that’s making us so bad at learning?

Listen to Asch’s talk, and you’ll recognize that we make decisions about our personal development pretty much the same way we manage our health.

“Hard work pays off in the future, but laziness pays off right now.”

The “Best” People Find It The Hardest To Learn

The best performers in an organization are already successful and good at what they do. And because they rarely fail, they don’t learn from failure and, they also think they have no need to learn. Even if these employees’ commitment to the company is real, the motivation for continuous learning could be missing because they just don’t see a problem, yet. And, by the time they realize they have a problem, they become defensive.

People Are Not Feeling The Loss

Many leaders package the learning experience as an exercise where people stand to gain something if they participate. In reality, the fear of missing out is actually a stronger driver. What if everyone started out the year with a kind of “bonus in escrow”? For every learning milestone you fail to hit, some money gets taken away. According to Asch, “Those who had a loss-framed incentive met their goal 50 percent more of the time. It doesn’t make economic sense, but it makes psychological sense because losses loom larger than gains.”

People Are “Unconsciously Incompetent”

What if people aren’t being intentionally resistant to learning? What if they genuinely have no idea that they need it? According to data, people are actually “unconsciously incompetent” in 20–40% of areas critical to their performance. This — as you can imagine — can be problematic because you can’t fix what you can’t see. It is therefore crucial for instructors to test confidence as well as knowledge, and prompt learners to admit when they are guessing. The goal here is to help people get comfortable with voicing any doubts they may have about doing their jobs well.

Of course, learning is multi-faceted and a wide variety of factors can influence how and what we learn. If learning is a consequence of thinking, we need to not only reflect upon what we learn but also think about the inherent biases that negatively impact the entire experience, and how to thoughtfully address them.

Join us in an ongoing conversation about Learning and Personal Development. Drop us a note at hello@smartup.io for a chat on how we can help your organization do better at learning.