3 ways to become a learning machine

In CULTURE & SOCIETY, EXPLAINED, FEATURED, INDUSTRY 4.0, WORLD

Paolo Gallo

Senior Advisor to the Chairman, World Economic Forum Geneva

I smile whenever I look at my university diploma hanging on the wall because everything I learned then is no longer relevant now. Does it mean that we should stop wasting all this energy, time and money on the university? Not really: rather, as soon as we complete our “formal studies”, we need to become learning machines. I’ll rephrase it: we must become machines of continuous learning. We have no choice or we will be out of the game, left behind like cavemen after the Stone Age.

For a period of 25 years, as an HR executive, I began interviews with candidates by asking: “What have you learned in the last six-twelve months?”. Unprepared for this kind of question, many candidates weren’t able to answer: the interview was over.

If you have a Bachelor’s degree or a Master’s, do you consider it as the point of arrival, or the beginning of your journey? If you consider it the point of arrival, you’re deceiving yourself. Our long-term success and fulfillment rely on us constantly cultivating our minds. Do not think of your abilities as something immutable, but as something that you can develop over time.

I am convinced that we must have learning agility. By this I mean the ability to remain open to new ways of thinking, to learn continuously in an innovative way, to reflect, to go into unknown territories, and to leave behind our complacency and our torpor. Someone, somewhere is learning faster than you. To become machines of continuous learning, we must not forget three important rules:

Rule 1: Don’t be too much of a specialist.

Let’s start with a question: if you think of Leonardo da Vinci, what word comes to mind? Painter? Scientist? Writer? Inventor? Architect? He was all of these: as the embodiment of the term “Renaissance man”, he roamed between disciplines, avoiding the kind of excessive specialization that stops us being able to think and understand in terms of systems.

So the first rule is not to limit our learning to a single subject. Steve Jobs once explained why Apple products were so stylish, clean and perfectly designed: when he was a student, he attended a calligraphy course and wanted to translate this aesthetic into his company’s products. The design of Apple products is now iconic.

Returning to Leonardo da Vinci, the polymath once said: “Learning never exhausts the mind”. While few of us can aspire to his dazzling achievements, his appetite for learning is something we can all embrace. And learning is not something that happens uniquely at university, at night school, or at a professional course in your office. What we do in our spare time can provide lessons to energize our working life.

You coached an amateur sports team? You started to learn how to manage a team. You tutored students? You learned how to motivate people. You sold something, whether putting a piece of furniture on eBay or by doing an odd job for cash? You grasped the psychology of buyers. You took on an advisory role in local politics or volunteered in a campaign you believe in? Then you understood the complexity and dynamics of a group. You took visitors around a museum or showed them the sights of your city? Well, you learned how to capture people’s attention. You worked as a bartender? Kudos, you mastered a formidable skill: managing difficult (in this case, drunken) clients. You were a babysitter? Well, you fostered a sense of responsibility. In other words, many seemingly trivial jobs can still be key elements in your work experience.

Try to eat food that you cannot pronounce the name of, to learn 50 words from a foreign language, to mingle with people outside your usual tribe, to learn to read music, to memorize poetry, to get lost in a city you do not know (my advice: try Venice), to volunteer in a project you don’t really understand, to read a book you would not usually read, to switch off TV at least five days per week, to listen to music you would not normally listen, to watch a movie without volume to understand by observing body language: in other words try to get out of your comfort zone and dismantle the way you usually think. Learning will occur in a mysterious and magical way.

Looking out: A boy stands in an archway in Venice || Image: REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Rule 2: Failure is part of success, if we learn from it

I have a serious problem in accepting that the opposite of success is failure. On the contrary, I believe that a key element of success is failure, provided that we learn from it. Over the course of our lives, we collect many successful failures, those experiences which may be galling at first but which ultimately teach us not to repeat the same mistakes. You learn by making these mistakes. As the Chinese philosopher Confucius wrote: “I hear and I forget. If I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” To this one could add, “if I’m wrong, I do not forget, I learn and I can explain it to others.”

As reported in the book “Work Rules!” by Laszlo Bock, head of the innovative People Operations at Google, the United States spent $156 billion on employee training in 2011, a staggering amount. Like Laszo, I do not think much of traditional learning methods, in which one person speaks while others listen and take notes; in a corporate setting, this is better known as “death by PowerPoint”. You learn a lot more by actually trying to do something new and considering failure not as some kind of fatal disease to be avoided at all costs, but rather as a healthy step in our learning process. Let me share some examples.

Who missed 12,345 goal attempts in his basketball career? Michael Jordan, who scored on “only” 12,192 shots, is arguably the greatest basketball player of all times. Thomas Edison created almost 10,000 failed prototypes of his electric bulb, before succeeding.

In the business sphere, what do Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have in common? They all failed several times before succeeding in their endeavors, as this intriguing article explains.

Henry Ford wrote that failure is the best opportunity to begin again more intelligently. If we are never wrong, we have never learned anything of substance. Learning really means getting out of our comfort zone; in some cases, it can mean suffering before our ideas take off. Johannes Houshofer is a professor of psychology and neurobiology at Princeton. He posted a version of his CV on Twitter that was a long list of failures, explaining that failures are part of our learning experience, not something that we have to hide. If I were to write the list of my own failures this blog would be at least 30 pages long and, as my career progresses, my list of failures becomes truly impressive. So, I have invented a term for myself. I have collected successful failures and learned a lot from them.

Rule 3: Learning never stops

You never stop learning. In 1938, Ingeborg Rapoport had just finished writing her thesis in medicine and was about to become a doctor but, because of the odious racial laws passed by the Nazi regime, she was denied the qualification because of her Jewish heritage. She emigrated to the United States, where she continued her studies in medicine, working in many hospitals as a pediatrician and neonatologist before returning to East Germany in her fifties, where she founded the first clinic of neonatology East Berlin. In 2015, the University of Hamburg decided to remedy the injustice and, after 77 years, she defended her dissertation of 1938 and obtained her Degree at the age of 102 years. For her commitment to learning and fighting this injustice, she is one of my heroes.

So: become a learning machine, enjoy successful failures and don’t stop learning even when you are 102. Let’s invent the future by investing in our learning. It will be – most of the time – a joyful journey to freedom, as nobody will ever take away what we have learned and our choices as people.

Note: This article was originally published on World Economic Forum

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