Back in May I realized that Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself was a cornerstone piece of writing that I need to reread annually. Its simplicity of language belies a depth of clarity and analysis about what it takes to understand oneself and, from that strong foundation of self-knowledge, build a successful personal and professional life. I’m grateful to my friend and colleague Ankur Shah for sending it to me.
While most of the topics Drucker covers about self-knowledge and taking feedback were topics I’d expected to see, I was pretty taken aback by the section titled “How Do I Learn?” I’d just never given the questions he asks any thought. An excerpt:
How do I learn? The second thing to know about how one performs is to know how one learns. Many first-class writers – Winston Churchill is but one example – do poorly in school. They tend to remember their schooling as pure torture. Yet few of their classmates remember it the same way. They may not have enjoyed the school very much, but the worst they suffered was boredom. The explanation is that writers do not, as a rule, learn by listening and reading. They learn by writing…
Some people learn by taking copious notes. Beethoven, for example, left behind an enormous number of sketchbooks, yet he said he never actually looked at them when he composed. Asked why he kept them, he is reported to have replied, ‘If I don’t write it down immediately, I forget right away. If I put it into a sketchbook, I never forget it and I never have to look it up again.’ Some people learn by doing. Others learn by hearing themselves talk…
Am I a reader or a listener? and How do I learn? are the first questions to ask…
I found this perplexing because I honestly had no idea if I was a reader or a listener. I didn’t find school torture at all, I read like crazy, so it seemed like I had to be a reader.
But the more I sat with that answer the less right it felt. My best insights come by talking things through with people. It’s only through hands-on, digging in conversations that things become real to me, that I can imagine how a solution will interact with the real world – what will and won’t work, and what’s holding something back. I’m a talker/listener.
And then I started to think about all the reading that I do – what do I make of that? Specifically, I started thinking about how well I recall things. There are a lot of people in my life who have incredible memories; my wife is one and I know I don’t hold onto information the way she does (wish I did). As a stark reminder of this, last month, just before I threw out 15 feet worth of 10 year old business school cases, I flipped through a few of the binders and was humbled by how little I recalled of the more than 1,000 cases I’d read. (Existential crisis on the cost of business school left for another day)
If I’m a listener and a talker who loves reading, and if I read to push my thinking, then I have to do something about reading differently. It occurred to me to make my reading a bit more like blogging, by forcing myself to process information by capturing it and writing it down. My parameters were to make the notes as visual as possible, to keep it to a page, and to focus on big concepts.
I had my first go at this for another “must read and reread piece” last week – The Theory Behind the Practice: A Brief Introduction to the Adaptive Leadership Framework by Heifitz, Grashow and Linsky.
What I’ve learned so far from this is:
- The decision that something I’ve read is worth processing in this way is itself important
- The little drawings of people and all the visuals help a lot. For example the person holding the flag is the “leit,” (source of the word “leadership”) who went out ahead of the army carrying the flag. He was often killed. Kind of impossible to forget the heat you take as a leader with that little drawing floating around in my head.
- For the way my mind works, all I need the notes for is prompts, so they can be brief. That is, without the notes a year from now I’d only remember 25% of the big concepts in the piece (e.g. the difference between technical and adaptive leadership will stick either way), but the moment I see high-level prompts in my notes I’m transported back to the full concept. No need for the notes to provide all of those details
Creating these notes was easy enough to do with a 31 page HBR article. I suspect for a 250 page book it will take more doing, but I’m going to give it a go, because if I can’t boil it down what are the chance that it will affect my actions for more than a month or so?
What about you? Do you know how you learn? Once you’ve figured it out, what do you do differently?