LEARNING IS THE PROCESS of modifying experience. Experience is the interaction of external events with our own internal being. It is far more than the simple acquisition of knowledge and skills. Viewing learning in this way has many important implications.
Learning is both active and passive
Given how much money is invested into training and education, and how many books are available on just about every subject imaginable, one could be forgiven for thinking that learning is a well planned, active and quite demanding process. On the contrary, the majority of learning happens simply through being exposed to new experiences over time.
After my first year of living in China, I returned home with a fairly satisfactory level of Chinese, but I was still determined to keep up my studying. I spent a good few months studying on my own mostly reading to keep my comprehension levels up. But after a while I felt I was making very little progress and struggled to motivate myself, so I stopped about a month before I returned to China. Then on my first day back in Shanghai, I got hopelessly lost when I was walking around People’s Square. In the course of one hour I had to stop and ask around 15 strangers for directions! As I was talking to these random strangers I suddenly realized that my Chinese was much better than before, and much better than I had given myself credit for back in England!
As I reflected on the source of my progress despite my lack of effort in England, I realized that exposure through reading, combined with time was all it took. A lot of the time in learning, the active part is simply the act of exposing ourselves to new experiences, but with enough time, the exposure is translated behind the scenes by our unconscious minds into new ways of interacting with the world around us.
Learning is immersive
You cannot learn to swim without getting your feet wet. You cannot learn to sell without actually selling. You cannot learn to work without actually working!
One of the biggest complaints I hear about a lot of new graduates, who have just started working, is that they lack basic communication skills, creativity and professionalism. That’s not really surprising given that students generally don’t devote a lot of time to developing these skills. This means that every year universities are producing graduates who are not ready for the workplace, which in my opinion is something that drastically needs to change, not just in China but all around the world.
One thing that universities do succeed at is producing graduates who think in particular ways. University is designed to make people experts, exposing them to genuine experts in the field, surrounding them with other people who share a passion for the field, and being guided to solve problems using particular methods and viewing them from a particular perspective. This is what immersion is all about.
One of the biggest causes for failure in corporate training programs is lack of immersion. It is assumed that simply attending a workshop is enough, when actually the most important part is after the training, when they are back in the office surrounded by their colleagues and immersing themselves in their work.
Learning results in new choices
In any one situation we have several choices of how to react. The reaction we choose will normally be the one that is the easiest and most rewarding. As we encounter new experiences, the number of choices we have will either increase or decrease.
One of my friends used to have a very nice job. It paid very well, the company provided him with luxurious accommodation, a nice company car and a very promising future. But he always felt there was something missing in his life. Then one day he was invited to a coaching seminar. As he attended this seminar, he slowly began to realize that executive coaching was exactly what he had wanted to do all along. It would fill the huge gap in his life. As soon as the seminar was over he was never the same again.
When he returned to work he took his new attitude with him, which created a lot of problems. He stopped caring about his work, he stopped putting in as much effort, he even took leave one time without notifying any of his colleagues! Inevitably, this new attitude got him fired. This came as a huge shock to him, but also presented him with the opportunity to kick start his career as an executive coach. And that is exactly what he did. Now he has written a book, has his own company and is considerably happier than he was before.
What this story demonstrates is that as he was exposed to a new experience (Executive Coaching), he was presented with new options; new ways of viewing his current job, new career choices, new goals. All of these changed his attitude to his present circumstances, which led to him eventually changing his circumstances.
Sometimes it is not a case of new options being presented to us, but having our existing options removed. Debra’s father was a huge part of her life as she grew up. He was an extremely charismatic figure, being highly respected among their community for all the things he did to take care of the people around him, such as coaching the little league baseball teams that no one else wanted to take. He took great care of his family, and for Debra in particular he was always there to pick her up whenever she needed him.
But one day, all of a sudden, Debra’s father passed away. It happened just two days before Thanksgiving. Everyone was devastated. People from all over the community came to Debra’s house to pay their respects as Debra and her family were in deep mourning.
For Debra, life without her father meant starting all over again. She’d never previously been able to consider what life without her father would be like, but now she had no choice. For the first few months she was terribly depressed. Over night she went from one of the happiest, most outgoing people her friends knew, to someone who was permanently depressed and stayed at home crying on the sofa.
Over time, Debra re-evaluated her father’s passing and realized the cause of her suffering was the fact that she viewed it as a loss. She came to realize that instead of viewing it as a loss, she could redefine her life purpose to be to represent her father’s legacy. This helped her come to terms with her loss, which ultimately helped her continue with her life. Now Debra is a successful author and even working on a movie script.
Debra had a major option cut out from her life, which took her a long time to adjust to. Eventually she managed to accept life without her father and live in a way that she previously could not have imagined. Sometimes options are removed from our lives, and if we wish to carry on we have no choice but to simply come to terms with that and make do with what we have.
No matter how we learn, it is always through experience. It is far more than just new knowledge and skills, the power of learning allows us to change the way we experience our life and the world around us.