// what do you think?


Are You Actually Learning Anything Or Just Gathering Information?

I’m very fortunate to have had the opportunity to come to Harvard Business School and doubly fortunate to work for such a great company that sees the value in developing and educating their employees. Most of large, publicly traded,  agencies don’t do this kind of thing for their employees. The cost eats into their short term revenues. I can guarantee that the value of the ideas brewing in my head are many, many multiples greater in value than the cost of sending me here. How do I know that? Because I have learned how to learn.

I’ts no secret that I was diagnosed with ADHD and several other “learning deficiencies” when I was younger. I was even told I wouldn’t graduate high school. What that really means is that I have a lot of energy, an overly active mind and I don’t learn the way most people do. It doesn’t mean I can’t learn, it just means I learn differently. The problem for most people is that they never learn how to learn.

  • If they’re *normal* They coast through public school and college (or at least achieving passing grades without too much trouble) because the education system is set up to maximize information transfer for the majority. It is not set up to maximize knowledge creation.
  • If they are more like me (a.k.a. not normal), they struggle to pass but not many learn how their brains work, they just know they don’t work like most people.

Among many things yesterday, John Kotter talked about some really great leaders and how these people were learning machines. They came from challenging backgrounds and they learned. In fact they’re still learning and growing. I’m talking about learning in the sense of knowledge creation, not just fact gathering. The kind of learning that leads to growing intellectually, emotionally, technically, spiritually and professionally.

  • Most people stop learning in their 20′s and they stop growing. They graduate college and that’s it. This is true of far more people than will admit it. It’s true of the majority of people I see “working at jobs.”
  • Successful people stop learning and growing in their 40′s. They learn and grow just enough to reach a certain level of success and then they stop.
  • Great leaders, the truly great ones, never - NEVER - stop learning and growing. Ever.

Sure, you read a lot, you have broad cultural tastes but here’s some very simple questions to think about:

  • Do you only read fiction? Do you only read non-fiction that’s directly related to your job? Do you read things you may not like or agree with?
  • Do you regularly try new things. Things that are uncomfortable and hard and take time?
  • Do you watch reality TV?

Okay that was a cheap shot. Yes, I know you need to unwind, blah, blah, blah. But seriously, do you know what you could be doing with that time? </soapbox>

No you don’t have to go to Harvard to gain knowledge and grow. I don’t even believe that you have to go to school. I have found for me, that once I learned how to learn that formal advanced education programs are a great way to supplement all the learning I do on my own. But everyone’s different.

With a humble heart and open mind you can learn from anyone, anywhere at any time.

It drives me crazy when I go to a conference or a seminar or a class or read a book and I hear people complaining that they didn’t learn anything. Then you weren’t listening. You can always learn something, even if it’s not what the person intended you to learn. Okay fine - yes, you can probably even learn something from reality TV.

The Final Missing Ingredient

But it takes application. I firmly believe that reading all the books in the World and getting multiple PhD’s won’t do you any good unless you do something with it. You have to apply it to some venture or teach it to someone else or even just share it in a blog. Learning is process and it doesn’t really happen until you complete the cycle and apply it and in that process of seeing what happens with the information, that’s where learning happens.

If you’re reading this, you’re gaining information, you probably gain information all day long from Twitter and email and a million other interaction. But what are you doing to turn that information into knowledge?

No seriously, what are you doing? Please leave me a comment and let me know. If nothing else consider it a small next step in your knowledge creation.

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About Tac

Social media anthropologist. Communications strategist. Business model junkie. Chief blogger here at New Comm Biz.

  • http://twitter.com/LenKendall Len Kendall

    My approach:

    1) Always being enrolled in one part-time class (currently am doing comedy writing at Second City Chicago)
    2) Always having at least 1 weekend project (this one involves illustrating)
    3) Always saving 1 long-form article from my weekly consumption, and saving it for the weekend to read in-depth and analyize
    4) Cut my tv viewing down to less than 3 hours a week
    5) Having long term projects that require weekly attention (for me it’s the3six5.com)
    6) Remembering to be a tourist in my own city (going to museums/art shows 2-3 times a month

  • http://twitter.com/madhurisen Madhuri Sen

    Lovely piece, Tac :) . The bit that caught my attention was not maybe what you intended it to be….but that the fact that you were diagnosed with ADHD as a child!..my son has that, he’s 11 and I worry - though I know I shouldn’t really. Somehow reading this made me feel better. So thanks. About your q about what I do with all the information overload - well its usually try to join to dots to make sense of it all….but a lot of times just end up getting a terrific headache trying to do that and lie back as I’m doing now on a Friday evening. But then I ABHOR reality TV!

  • http://twitter.com/spincycle3 David Patton

    So much of learning is questioning how you are reacting or thinking. I find that you need to reset the things you take for granted on a regular basis and question your opinions.
    I’m always surprised at how many people lose this ability to “self-check.” They think they know what they need to know and do what they need to do.
    I think that’s why adults find teens so annoying. They are always questioning themselves and what adults take for granted. But they are maximizing their ability to learn.

  • http://jeffhurtblog.com Anonymous

    What am I doing to turn information into knowledge? I’d like to shift your question slightly. What am I doing to turn information into learning?

    Information does not equal education. Education does not equal learning.

    Information is facts, data, stats and research. Education is an activity designed to bring about changes in the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of individuals or communities. Learning is an active process that takes place in the working memory. The learner abstracts meaning from attended words and visuals, and integrates them with existing knowledge in long-term memory.

    To learn something, we actually have to think about it. Thinking is work. It takes place in our short term memory and moves to long term memory.

    Reading something is not necessarily thinking. Listening to someone does not actually require thinking. That’s why so many people don’t learn when passively listening in lectures. If they take notes or discuss the lecture, there is a higher chance that they think about the topic and maybe learn it.

    For me to learn, I need to think about what is being said, connect it to past experiences and then think about how it’s relevant or applies to my situation. That takes time. Often, I want to talk about it to help in processing the information. Or I write about it.

    That’s what I do to turn information into retained knowledge and learning.

  • http://twitter.com/mattwhiting mattwhiting

    From what I can gather, lifelong learning is really about being able to hold on to that childlike sense of wonder. Excitingly asking why and then forming opinions and acting on new information is what allows us to continue to learn. So often, as you note, as we get older (for some and possibly most this is by school age) we’re less inclined to explore as rote memorization often is prioritized above creativity in standard education settings.

    Though it’s easy to fall into the trap of just going through the motions (and then sitting down at the end of the day to unwind in front of whatever happens to be on TV for those that haven’t cut the cord), I find that asking why and challenging preconceived notions is what ultimately helps to move beyond information gathering to active learning.

    Great post.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Len, I think you’re a wonderful example of an active learner. Thank
    you for sharing your approach. I love point 6, that’s something I need
    to do better.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Madhuri, being ADHD is a gift to me. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
    That doesn’t mean it was easy though. Lots of tutoring, summer school
    and lots of frustration and tears as a child.

    I will point out though that most boys get their ADHD from their fathers.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Questions are so powerful and so annoying at the same time. LOL.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Much better put than my attempt. Thank you or sharing.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    There are no better learners than children are there. Thanks.

  • http://trinidarlin.blogspot.com/ Avi H

    It’s amazing where you can learn and how. I am back in school as well and some of the best lessons have definitely been out of the classroom and I actively seek opportunities to find out more, or experience things I have not experienced both personally and professionally. It’s great. And yes, I do watch reality tv - the brain needs a rest every week! C’mon!!! :-)

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