A Theory of Learning

Excerpt from “Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age by Marty Neumeier (New Riders, December 2012).

By Marty Neumeier

The metaskill of learning is a form of metacognition, or “knowing about knowing.” It’s the self-awareness that comes from observing what you think while you’re thinking it. It tells you when and how to use a particular strategy to solve a problem or address a challenge.

We learn skills in a predictable sequence. We begin with the cognitive phase, in which we intellectualize the task and invent tactics to accomplish it with the fewest number of errors. Then we move to the associative phase, in which we worry less about errors than applying our skill to a specific task. Finally, we reach the autonomous phase, when we’re just about as good as we can get. Our skills have become habits—foundations on which we can build new skills.

William Edwards Deming was the American statistician and consultant who taught Japanese manufacturers how to compete with the rest of the world. Remember Toyota’s advertising tagline? “The quality goes in before the name goes on.” This was more than a boast. It was the reason Americans began buying Japanese cars instead of those made in Detroit. When Ford Motors finally got around to analyzing the difference between Japanese cars and American cars, it found that the only variation lay in the tolerances of the parts. The Japanese simply put more effort into precision and efficiency. This was the influence of Dr. Deming, whose advice had fallen on deaf ears in his own country.

Yet Deming was no bean counter. He was a teacher who understood that the most important things in life couldn’t be measured. Profound knowledge couldn’t be taught, he said, only learned through experience. While many people would agree that “experience is the best teacher,” he believed that experience by itself teaches nothing. You need to interpret your experience against a theory. Only then can you understand learning in the context of a system.

A theory is a model of reality that can be used to explain, predict, or master a particular phenomenon. It provides a framework for experience, so you can understand what happens—not at the event level—but at the system level. It helps you answer the question: What does this mean to me? Becoming an autodidact requires that you develop your own theory of learning, a personal framework for acquiring new knowledge. While your framework will be unique to your own situation, here are 12 timeless principles you can borrow from to construct it:

1. Learn by doing. First-hand experience offers the richest fuel for creativity. We learn better and faster when we use our senses, our hands, and our whole bodies in addition to our brains. You can read about dancing, but there’s no substitute for getting out on the floor. Business professor Roger Martin says experiences should be used intentionally to both “deepen your mastery and nurture your originality.”

2. Find worthy work. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Make sure the first one, and each one thereafter, offers new and valuable lessons on the path to your purpose. Try not to settle. It’s too hard to work with one hand holding your nose.

3. Harness habits. The brain forms habits when routines are shoved down from the frontal cortex to the basal ganglia. This will allow you to perform familiar tasks with little conscious thought, freeing up mental resources to concentrate on new challenges. Training your brain is a little like training a dog. Consistency and repetition recruit your neural networks to turn experiences into automatic skills. Of course, habit works both ways. Be careful how you train your inner dog.

4. Focus on your goals. Of the eight conditions for creative flow, five are concerned with focus: You must be able to:

  • Define clear goals for yourself.
  • Concentrate on the task at hand.
  • Become so deeply involved that…
  • …Your sense of time is altered, and…
  • All concern for the self disappears.

You’ll find that with practice you’ll develop a ready capacity for intense focus.

5. Learn strategically. You can learn anything, but you can’t learn everything. Read specifically on your subject. Appreciate great ideas with felonious intent. Keep a file of every idea you wish had been yours, and you’ll begin absorb the lessons of your heroes. Über-restaurateur Reed Hearon said, “If you read two books on a subject written by knowledgeable people, you will know more than 95 percent of the people in the entire world know about that subject.”

6. Cultivate your memory. Memory is like a garden. If you don’t tend it, your knowledge will wither from a lack of nutrients or suffocate from overcrowding. While general knowledge is readily available online, knowledge that’s specific to your craft or discipline needs to be available right when you need it. Knowledge is gained through neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to rewire itself through the learning process. “Nerve cells that fire together wire together,” as educator Stephanie Marshall put it. By the same token, you need to continually weed out older knowledge when it becomes obsolete.

7. Increase your sensitivity. What makes artists different from quotidian practitioners is their ability to make subtle distinctions between outcomes. This can only happen in the associative phase of learning, after you’ve mastered the basics of your discipline. But it doesn’t happen by itself. You need to consciously identify the nuances that separate the great from the merely good.

8. Stretch your boundaries. Personal growth demands that you constantly aim beyond your capabilities. When someone says he’s had 15 years of experience, you wonder if he’s really had one year of experience 15 times. Masterful practitioners are those who constantly stretch into new areas, even at the risk of failure. When Alexander Bell was imagining the telephone, he talked to an electricity expert named Professor Henry. Bell told Henry he didn’t have the electrical knowledge to bring the invention into existence. The professor replied with excellent advice: “Get it!”

9. Customize your metaskills. For purposes of this book, I’ve focused on five talents I feel are missing from our current educational models. But the metaskill of learning requires that you develop a personalized list to address your own situation and the requirements of your discipline. For example, Dr. Gerald Grow of A&M University offers this list of six metaskills for budding journalists: clarity, compassion, commitment, context, creativity, and centeredness. What are the metaskills that will drive success for you?

10. Feed your desire. I once asked my mentor, artist and designer Robert Overby, what he thought the secret of creative success was. He said it was the same for any kind of success: “The Big Want.” It’s the burning desire that can’t be extinguished with failure, lack of sleep, lack of money, or loss of friends. When you want something so bad you’ll never give up, no matter what kind of setbacks you encounter, success eventually will surrender itself to you. The Big Want is not a hardship. It’s a dream that carries you forward, and all you have to do is feed it.

11. Scare yourself. Courage is not the same as fearlessness. Instead, it’s the ability to move ahead despite your fear. When you confront your demons, you often find they’re more mirage than monster, and you advance by leaps and bounds. As Joseph Campbell quoted from an ancient folktale: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Every day your to-do list should contain this small item: “Scare self.”

12. Practice. There’s practice, and then there’s practice. Deliberate practice is the only kind that makes a difference. Training a skill involves performing an action over and over, deliberately and mindfully, until it becomes part of your muscle memory. Only then can you move on to higher levels of creativity and nuance. Shortly after Michelangelo died, a scrap of paper was found in his studio that contained a note to his assistant: “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.” Practice is the scaffolding of magic.

Though these principles may seem demanding, you probably can conquer the ones you need in several years. That’s not long in the context of a career. And as you begin to absorb their lessons, you’ll find yourself quickly scaling the heights of mastery.

Excerpt from “Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age by Marty Neumeier (New Riders, December 2012).

Marty Neumeier is a designer, writer, and business adviser whose mission is to bring the principles and processes of creativity to industry. He is the author of “Metaskills,” and his recent series of “whiteboard” books includes The Designful Company, about the role of design in corporate innovation; Zag, named one of the “top hundred business books of all time” for its insights into radical differentiation; and The Brand Gap, considered by many the foundational text for modern brand-building. In the 1990s, Neumeier was editor and publisher of Critique magazine, the first journal about design thinking. He also has worked closely with companies such as Apple, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, HP,
Adobe, Google, and Microsoft to help advance their brands and cultures. Today, he serves as director of Transformation for Liquid Agency in Silicon Valley. For more information, visit http://www.liquidagency.com/metaskillsbook.

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