How Learning Works

Most adults believe that learning makes their life easier. The more you know, the better you can fit yourself, your family, and your business or career, into the context of the world you live in.

Fit to context matters.

If you are out of synch with your surroundings, you will forever struggle – correcting previous actions that did not fit. That’s wasteful of both money and time. As my grandmother was fond of saying, “Waste not, want not.” Every organization pays lip-service to the learning idea, but many are not good at it.

Where to start

There are many strategic ideas.

  1. Quality control expert, W. Edwards Deming points out that many defects are designed in. The methods you use to solve your problems and exploit your opportunities matter. Do you ever think about methods as a key factor? How you think about a problem matters at least as much as what you think about.
  2. Resource allocation matters. Are there enough resources to solve the problem or is it 10% short of enough. 90% of the resources needed does not get 90% of the required outcome. Sometimes it gets 0%. In some areas a little resource – 20% can get 80% of the result. Pareto’s Law. You should be wise to that.
  3. Avoid perfect solutions when possible. There are many situations where the last 20% or so of the solution is too costly to have value. Know when. Quality control while building a nuclear reactor is not such a case.
  4. Build in flexibility to change. You should be able to adjust your course as circumstances change.
  5. Over-allocating resolve will likely solve the problem, but the extra is a cost with no benefit. People get used to having extra resources and become less frugal using them. That’s wasteful. You can see that in governments.
  6. Set up expectations and measure outcomes against those. Failure to measure adequately is a common and serious flaw. There is a maxim that says you cannot manage what you cannot measure. To not measure the measurables has the same effect.
  7. Failure is an experience and there is a lesson to learn each time. Failure to learn and repeating the mistake is needlessly expensive. As Senator Mitch McConnell has said, “There is no learning in the second kick from a mule.” Have the wit to absorb the lesson the first time it appears and integrate it into future decisions.

Ongoing attention

Have a system. It will have components like continuously recording information and comparing to expectations. That does two things. It forces accountability and it improves your expectation building ability. Things change. Early detection saves resources.

Take courses that can add to to your knowledge base. They probably won’t solve many problems, but they might give you a new viewing point to use. A different viewing point is a component of creativity.

Learn from others. Your own experience is too costly. Add to that, you cannot make all the mistakes possible. In the novel Clear & Present Danger, © 1989 by Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd, author Tom Clancy points out a fundamental waste saver.

“Fundamentally he was an amateur – though a gifted one – who learned from his mistakes readily enough, but who lacked the formal training that might have enabled him to learn from the mistakes of others ……..”

The things to know

  1. You can only spend a given amount of time or money once. If you waste it, it’s gone. Resources you don’t waste can be used for other purposes. If you shrink the defect rate from 10% to 5% it is like adding more capacity. Free. You build every defect twice.
  2. Experience is the best teacher and for the price it damned well better be. Don’t miss the lessons.
  3. There are people who sell experience. Know who they are and use them when you are out of your own skill space.
  4. Just as there is no such thing as a completely new idea, there is no such thing as a completely new mistake. Mistake avoidance is a valuable skill. Notice the ones others have made.
  5. Most mistakes can be avoided by known methods if you can see them soon enough.
  6. Planning should include mistake estimation and avoidance

The takeaway

Learning requires technique. From a book. From experience. From observation. Some of each.

Avoid over-learning. Assess how you will use the knowledge. If it is foundational knowledge, going deep will provide insight into what comes later. An individual need not know as much law as a lawyer. Learn the questions and know whether you need to know the answer, or if you can get it from others. It is not worth your trouble to learn how to do anything you seldom do, or will only do once.

Assess the way the knowledge fits with what you will use it for later. That will allow you to pick up on what has most immediate use. Using knowledge is what consolidates its value.

Organize yourself for optimal effect. As a teacher, Richard Feynman understood. “First figure out why you want the students to learn the subject and what you want them to know, and the method will result more or less by common sense.” That will never let you fall into the trap of trying to know everything.

Enjoy. Learn something every day and life will be exciting.


I help people have more retirement income and larger, more liquid estates.

Call in Canada 705-927-4770, or email don@moneyfyi.com

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