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Early in my career, I was a 6th-grade teacher in an inner-city school that was politely ranked as “difficult.”

One of my early moves was to make homework optional.

My learning agreement with students was that they would have to put in the work if they actually wanted to learn anything.

While I could teach them almost anything, I couldn’t actually make them learn anything.

It helped if I could spark sufficient interest and curiosity to kindle inner motivation. Then suddenly, students were delving into topic areas on their own and enjoying it.

While I couldn’t force kids to learn, it was up to me to provide a positive learning culture and present opportunities. One little guy who struggled to read suddenly became an avid reader. He was keen on hot-rod cars. I accidentally (on purpose) left a couple of hot rod magazines lying on my desk. He asked to take them home. I said he could bring them back and read to me the parts he liked the best.

And a reading program was born!

While there’s some overlap in the understanding of these terms, it’s generally known as unstructured learning, leveraged learning, and self-directed learning.

One enormous benefit of my stint in the teaching profession was that I became steeped in the “Socratic Method” learning system. This allowed me to perpetually channel my inner 4-year-old to ask questions. That’s something I cherish to this day.

This learning approach has worked well in becoming a leadership practitioner in Project Management and then as a Founder and CEO.

How It Works

Everything we learn in formal education is well structured and predefined.

First, teachers and professors tell us what they think we need to know. Then at regular intervals, we cram to prove that we understand what they’ve been saying all along.

The process takes anywhere from 12-20 years, and we compete with peers to get good grades.

When we hit the real world, many of us hardly apply what we’ve spent years learning in a formal setting.

That’s unless we pursue specific things for what we currently do or intend to do. (I.E., Accounting, Law, or Medicine)

 

“We have sold ourselves into a fast-food model of education, and it’s impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies,”  Ken Robinson, the author of The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.

How It Can Work

The real question is, how do you learn the hard, essential things that matter to your success in life and career? How do you explore and dig deeper into complex topics you deeply care about?

In the mid 90’s, I came across an article published by the Center for Creative Leadership that put forward some bold ideas about how people learn at work.

70% of what we learn is from hands-on, on-the-job training, problem-solving, and just plain doing it.  20% is from trial and error, failure, peer learning, and observing others, and 10% from formal classroom training and courses.

Much like your daily weather forecast, it’s not highly prescriptive. The great thing about this model was that it recognized that up to 90% of our work-related learning can happen very informally.

This new way of looking at things spawned a whole new movement of “learning organizations” characterized by strong teamwork, and a high capacity to solve problems.

“Being a student is easy. Learning requires actual work.”
— William Crawford

I embraced this style of unstructured learning many years ago. I followed curiosities, read many books, and reached out to experts I knew who succeeded in the things I was interested in.

Many significant achievements that I’ve been a part of over the past decades are directly attributable to unstructured, self-directed learning.

It’s also important to recognize that everything necessary we’ve learned or accomplished is because of a teacher or a guide. In my instance, many teachers. It just wasn’t formal. Quite often, they didn’t even realize they were teaching me.

Consider this: If you or I set about to climb Everest, where conditions are harsh, and every step could be a life or death decision, we’d definitely want a Sherpa guide.

Hard skills don’t lend themselves to some YouTube instruction or easy hacks. I’d like someone experienced to show me that way and teach me step-by-step on the path forward. Right?

While mastery is the goal, I consider myself an ever-learning practitioner in the topics of Leadership, Human Behavior, Faith and Spirituality, Organizational Development, Investing, Coaching, Consulting, Writing, and Film Making, to name a few.

 “Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” Richard P. Feynman

Unstructured learners find and stick to learning methods that work best for them.  They find a “flow” that creates an environment and routine to sustain the creative learning process.

Build your own “learning scaffold” that can be used over and over again.

I’m amazed watching my grandson assemble complex and functional Lego creations from a bucket of random pieces. He has a personal creative learning process that he developed, follows, and repeats with every new product he produces.

 “Perseverance, pleasure, and the ability to retain what you learn are among the wonderful byproducts of getting to learn using methods that suit you best and in contexts that keep you going,” Kio Stark Handbook for Learning Anything.

If you don’t love the process of learning, this probably won’t work. Sometimes, it’s necessary to master a new skill or topic to advance your career, but this is when you find your bigger why and hold on to that motivation to keep learning.

The Basics

Here are some of the basics that can help you become a successful unstructured learner:

  1. There’ll be core content and foundational basics to whatever topic or discipline you pursue. So, immerse yourself in the basics first.
  2.  Find topics that augment and support your life’s purpose — it’s fundamental for sustaining the process.
  3.  Know what learning methods work the best for you and then explore, search, and discover. Build a personal learning scaffold that you can re-use.
  4.  Channel your inner four-year-old and ask endless questions. It takes at least 5 “why’s” to start getting to the bottom of things. Ignorance can help you dig deeper and learn faster.
  5.  Know what you don’t know — and use that to ask the basic questions. It’s astounding to me how ordinarily smart leaders deflect and B.S. their way through stuff when all that is needed is a simple “I don’t know.”
  6. Find a guide and/or cohort of like-minded people who share your interest.
  7.  Create your own feedback process. Double down on what’s working

Every unstructured learner invests in their unique process. Build your learning method and make it your own. Tricky things, topics, domains, and skills take time to master.

If you’re curious enough, don’t be afraid to invest in hard skills that will serve you for life. Commit to a process you can sustain.

Don’t rush it and burn out. Learning anything new will probably change your life for good.

The joy of mastering new skills or figuring things out on your own is a fantastic and worthwhile experience.

Until next time.

P.S. This October, I’ll once again be offering LeaderLab TM, a high-value blend of Executive Training and Coaching for successful applicants.

Watch for details in your inbox in the coming weeks.