Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Joy of Juggling and Learning to Learn

In less than 20 hours, you can significantly increase your learning skills.  The general method applies to a wide range of skills and competencies. The specific approach, learning to juggle, has life-long benefits.

How Do We Learn a New Skill?
I often use juggling to get people to think about how we learn and then discuss what learning methods are most appropriate for different types of skills and competencies.

You can first ask people how they would learn to juggle and they will typically come up with a list like the one below.

You might start with one approach, encounter failure(s) and turn to another approach based on what you discover through your initial attempts.

A Great Way to Learn Quickly from Failure
Juggling offers so many opportunities to learn from failure -- I'm only half kidding here.  Failure is inevitable in learning to juggle and it's quite prevalent at first. Unless you're learning to juggle with clubs or knives, it's not dangerous.(2)

Juggling makes us learn from failure whether we like it or not.  With immediate feedback and a very quick cycle of trial and error, the learning curve is steep.  Deliberate practice makes us learn faster (see Anders Ericsson's research on deliberate practice, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers) but I'm convinced that simple practice through repetition of the most basic elements of the skill also builds the muscle memory needed to focus on more difficult elements of the skill.

Easily Measurable Progress
Juggling is within everyone's reach.  It's like riding a bicycle. Everyone can learn to ride a bicycle and everyone can learn to juggle.  It is therefore a great tool to help nurture a growth mindset in people (See Carol Dweck's Mindset: The New Psychology of Success).  A key advantage to juggling is that progress is very easily measured.  It is only frustrating in the first five minutes of practicing a new skill when you're missing almost all the balls.  Once you've accomplished a single pattern (one cycle of throwing and catching all the balls), you can increase the count and learn variations and new skills.

I'm now reasonably proficient with the three-ball cascade and two-ball fountain with each hand individually.  My next challenges are the four-ball fountain pattern and the three-ball shower.

Learning the Next Skill
This morning, I made my first attempt at the three-ball shower.  While I had seen it done, I had no understanding of the pattern and whenever I tried, my hands reverted to the cascade pattern.  Finally, I searched for a visual on the web that would show me in slow motion what was supposed to happen. Once I understood what it should look like, I was able to deconstruct it.  The lateral passing of one ball from one hand to the other without throwing in the air was the new movement I was struggling with.  So, I practiced that movement with just one ball.  I think it took me a full five minutes, which is ridiculously long when you realize that you're just throwing one ball from one hand to the other. Somehow I wasn't catching it.  Once that was mastered, I picked up a second ball.  Within a few minutes, my brain recognized a nice circular pattern created by the two balls and it became instantaneously easy.  Now I still have to figure out how to add the third ball to the shower.  I read that more height is required than for the cascade. (3)

Learning to Deconstruct - Deconstruct to Learn
The larger point is that like in juggling, many skills can be learned relatively quickly when they are deconstructed carefully (that is the basis of Josh Kaufman's claim that you can learn anything in 20 hours).  It looks silly to practice the basic element of a skill  (one ball throws), but that's how the body and brain learn to do it easily so the focus can be on other challenges. When you learn how to drive, you have to pay a great deal of attention to everything,including the amount of pressure your foot is putting on the accelerator and brake pedals.  With practice, you no longer have to constantly think about that and you can concentrate on other things, like keeping a close eye on what other cars are doing, not just controlling your car.

(1)  Tennis balls can be a little too big for a beginner.  Their main disadvantage, however, is that they bounce and they roll,  As a beginner, you will spend a lot of time running after dropped balls and therefore tennis balls are not ideal.  One way to deal with this challenge is to practice by the side of a bed, facing the bed so that balls drop on the bed and not to the floor.

(2) Since you're likely to bend down to pick up fallen balls regularly, warming up your calves and hamstrings beforehand might help or you'll just be a little sore the next day and you'll wonder what you did. That won't happen if you give up after five minutes but if you insist and you practice for 30 minutes, be warned. Of course, if you do 100 squats on a daily basis, this won't affect you that much.  If you don't squat to pick up the balls you will hurt your back, which is worse.

(3) Update:  Using the learning strategy of spacing learning, I came back to my practice with three balls later in the day and managed up to five counts. Within a week of starting to learn this skill, and focusing on it daily, I was able to consolidate it and consistently manage 10 counts, with a record of 30 by the end of the week.


Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Do you have a blogging Strategy? Think before you post

A LinkedIn blog post and mindmap posted by Marco Bertolini (Ou faut-il publier: Sur un blog d'entreprise ou sur Pulse de LinkedIn?)  a week or so ago prompted me to think about my own blogging approach.  The map below is meant as my initial effort to conceptualize how to think about it.

"Think before you post" in this context isn't so much about whether or not to post (though that comes into play in terms of WHAT to post), but more about WHERE to post WHAT depending on the nature of the post and the intended audience.

Click on the image to view in other window/enlarge.

I consider this map to be "half-baked", definitely a work-in-progress, and therefore I'm comfortable posting it here on my personal blog rather than as a response on the LinkedIn platform.  Still, there are ways to create linkages between the two without creating unnecessary noise (see Nick Milton's post about the Signal to Noise Ratio on Social Media).  The more natural the linkages, the better.

In addition, since I want to promote the idea that maps are thinking tools, I have purposefully NOT connected specific items on the map.  Draw your own connections!  That's the idea.  I don't have the solution for you, just a possible thinking framework.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Anatomy of Aha! Moments

I have come to define a aha! moment as an insight, a moment during which you suddenly realize something, you make a connection between something you knew and something new.  The key, as in any learning,isthat it is new to you.  A aha! moment is a personal insight.

After much consideration and one key aha! moment, I've decided to keep this blog going primarily as a reflection of work-in-progress or a venue for working out loud.  Except that these expressions, with the word "work" in them, do not really apply to what I am doing here.  I shall call it "learning in progress" and "learning out loud."

This particular decision came slowly but was consolidated as a result of reading a LinkedIn post about whether it was better to post on LinkedIn vs. a company blog. While technically,this is now a company blog (Fillip Consulting,LLC), the company is me and it will likely always be a "personal blog" in that sense.  As a result of some reflection based on that LinkedIn post, I realized that I could and probably should keep this blog for more regular, somewhat half-baked insights and ideas, and if/when I come up with something worth more attention,I could always post it on LinkedIn in or attempt guest blogging.  There is a great deal of value to half-baked insights and ideas. Capture them somewhere!  You never know what other half-baked insight will collide with them and inspire you.

Let's consolidate this approach by sharing a couple of aha! moments from yesterday:

To Study and to Learn
The question "How do you study?" is not the same as "How do you learn?"  It is not the same for two reasons:  1) you can study efficiently for a test and forget almost everything soon thereafter, resulting in very little long-term learning.  That's what cramming is all about; 2) When we talk about lifelong learning, or workplace learning, informal learning, or learning by doing, we are not talking about "studying", we are talking about a more organic form of learning [I'm not sure "organic" is the right word here]. It is that form of learning I am most interest in understanding better. 

Paradox of Knowing
I am most inclined to write about whatever it is that I am currently exploring and learning about.  It's much more exciting. The neurons are connecting.  I can almost feel the electricity.  When I try to write about things I (think I) know well, it feels boring and totally uninteresting.  Mature connections in the brain don't feel that exciting.  So,the excitement comes from learning,not knowing.  The good news is that the more you know the more you can connect new things to that knowledge.  The more you know the more you can learn.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

How to Earn People's Interest in Your Ideas and Projects (Sam Horn)

Here are my notes from today's Exploring Leadership Colloquium at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.  The speaker was Sam Horn, author of Got Your Attention! and other books.

It immediately reminded me of Hooked, by Les Edgerton, which is about "writing fiction that grabs readers at page one...".  The connection between the two was the fish on the cover of both books. Apparently (I'm skeptical), people have shorter attention span than fish.  Luckily we have more brain power.  The point is that whatever you're trying to sell, whether it's an idea or a product, you've got about 60 seconds.  By then, the decision makers you're trying to convince have already made up their mind.  If you didn't hook them by then you've lost.
Click on the image to enlarge.

As a side note, and while this is not the first time I've noticed this, professional speakers like to pepper their talks with quotes from famous people.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Lifelong Learning: Opportunities and Challenges for Learning Junkies

What's a "learning junkie"?  Someone who compulsively registers for classes, listens to podcasts, reads broadly, signs up for countless Facebook/LinkedIn groups, thinks MOOCs are the best thing since sliced bread...  Some people get addicted to one particular kind of learning opportunity, others just pick up everything they can.

The typical learning junkie is someone who 1) didn't attend college or dropped out because they found it more stimulating to learn on their own, to learn exactly what they wanted and how they wanted; or 2) attended college, liked the student life, went on directly to graduate school and perhaps even kept on going with a Ph.D., more for the fun of learning than anything else; or 3) feels withdrawal symptoms when not able to visit the local library to pick up a new pile of books.

The term "junkie" suggests an obsession with learning and has a negative connotation.  So what could possibly be wrong with learning?  Is there such a thing as learning too much?  I wouldn't go that far but I would admit that it is possible to go too far and focus so much on the learning and not enough on the doing and living a full life. Of course, who am I to say what constitutes a "full life"?

The key is to channel all that energy into productive learning activities and in particular, into actions and an action-learning activities.  Learning for the sake of learning may be fine but if you want it to have an impact on your life, take control of your learning.  Don't let it consume you!

Let's try to be strategic.  How much do you really want to / need to know about a particular topic? Will the Wikipedia page be enough?  Would a couple of well-written articles suffice or do you want to dive in with some assistance through a formal course or training program?

The challenge is not so much to find learning opportunities. Those abound.  Here are a couple of examples I just came across:

Hard to resist, I know!

Focus your efforts by developing a learning strategy and learning plan.  Develop a long-term vision, annual learning goals, and a more detailed monthly learning plan with specific activities.  (Yes, I can help you with that!)

Time is precious.  Decide what you want to learn, how you want to learn it, what level of mastery you will be satisfied with.   Make sure you're using effective approaches, not just your preferred learning mode.  Don't just read about something go figure out a way to "do" it, practice it in a real life setting.

That's why I like Toastmasters.   You can read a hundred books about how to make great speeches, how to communicate better, how to deliver great presentations, how to be an effective leader and nothing much will really sink in to change how you perform in the real world.  Until you start practicing the skills involved, little is really being "learned."

Toastmasters forces me to practice a whole range of skills for which there is always room for improvement AND it allows me to explore new areas of interest all the time since every speech opportunity is an opportunity to learn and share something new.  Tomorrow, I'm doing a short technical presentation on Search Engine Optimization.

Toastmasters: Better than Psychotherapy and Cheaper than a Ferrari

- Are you a learning Junkie?
- Learning Junkie: Are you taking the right course? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself
- Are You A Learning Junkie? You're Killing Your Business (Video)
- Learning Junkie (Pinterest board)
- Addicted to Insight

This is my 300th post.  Hard to believe.