How We Learn

Here, a chat about one of the most important topics in our lives, learning. Since it affects every part of life and everything we do, “business day” is as good as any to post it.
One of the more costly aspects of society is that we so often confuse education with the classroom. The classroom is only one place that we learn. In fact, most of the really well-educated people I know got less than 5% of their knowledge in the classroom. And I can find others with several college degrees who are very poorly educated.
My own review of how I have learned breaks down into 5 categories. 
The first one I call “study.” (I am looking for a better title if you have one.) When you read a book, magazine or newspaper; when you attend a lecture; when you watch a documentary, you are “studying.” In this category I include everything that we might call “passive” learning. However, since no learning should be passive, it’s important that we do all of these actively. Even if you never say a word in that lecture, challenge (in your head) everything you hear. Argue with that author. Make notes on what you read. List what is missing or wrong about the article. Stop the documentary DVD in the middle and take notes. Study actively.
The second way I learn is through conversation. I have probably learned more from other people than from any other source. A lecture that turns into a discussion is conversation. Brainstorming over a beer or the kitchen table is a conversation. Meeting strangers on planes and “sucking their brains dry” is conversation. Talk to people who don’t come from where you come from, who don’t agree with you. Ask ask ask. Listen listen listen. Debate. Engage.
The third way I learn is through observation and travel (which is just observation with a bigger radius). Go into a supermarket, look at the goods on the shelf, and you should be able to tell me the age, income, family size, and ethnicity of the people who live around that store. Go to a bookstore and tell me what they are reading and interested in. Go to a museum, and study which exhibits attract people first, for how long. How does it differ by age or gender? Go to a mall food court and tell me what upsets people, what is missing in its design and menu offerings? What can you tell from the types of cars in the parking lot? What can you tell from a person’s bookshelf? Study the eyes of the students in the class and tell me whether they are learning or not. Get out and see the world, or even your own county or city! Go to a foreign country for a week, come back, then tell me what those foreigners would find odd about your country? In that foreign country, study the shelves of a supermarket and tell me what you learn. What is different about Mexico compared with the US? What is the same? What is unusual about that TV ad or billboard? Why did it catch your attention? Watch the land below from your airplane window seat and tell me how those folks down there make their living. The answers are everywhere, all around us, all the time. Right under our noses. Opportunities come flying at us, begging for our attention. Keep your eyes and ears and open. Notice your environment. Observe.
(Note that you can learn a great deal in a museum, library, or bookstore – each of which can have study elements and observation elements.)
The fourth way I learn is through experience, which I like to call trying, failing, and succeeding (once in a while). Just go do it. Try stuff. See what works. Stop what doesn’t work. Repeat what does work. Until it doesn’t work anymore. Then try something new. Anything.
The fifth and final way, perhaps the rarest these days, is thinking. Internal conversation. Take what you have read, what you have seen, what you have heard, what you have tried. Breathe deep. Think about it. What did you learn? What are the implications? What patterns can you see? If you have a problem, ask why? Then ask why again. Why did the plant close down? Because the conveyor belt broke – why did it break? Because we didn’t do our inspection last month. Which was because Jack was sick. Always think deeply, go to the next level. Why am I mad at Jerry? No, really why? Take your time. Be alone. Cogitate. Meditate. Fill tablets with your own diagrams, summaries, lists, and theories. If you practice this enough, you will learn as much from yourself as from anyone else. But do the other four first!
I would love to hear your thoughts; just comment on this post or send me an email at



  1. Hello Gary,

    Enjoyed your comments. One way I learn is to project, that is, model how I think the issue, place, or thing should be constructed, then inspect what is apparent. I find that by modeling, I open my mind to possibilities which then makes me prepared to experience what I find by inspection. This allows me to be free of the constraint being ignorant of the target issue, place, or thing.

  2. Hi Bob,
    Thanks for your comment. Can you clarify it for me?
    What do you mean by model?
    Are you saying that before you see something you try to imagine what it should be like?