Learning How to Learn

Why is the concept of “Learning How to Learn” so critical to building a better business, being a better father/mother, being a better community member or being better at anything?

Research shows over and over again that systems impact how an individual thinks and behaves. Research from high profile labs at MIT and UC Berkeley affirm top-down, authoritarian, 100 year old school systems hijack a child’s innate curiosity to explore and discover their world.”[1] Most of us in the United States are raised in school systems that are top down, authoritarian based and haven’t changed much in 100 years.

This past weekend I had the privilege of playing golf with three friends who went to Stanford University with me. Lane Nonnenberg and I were walking down the first fairway together and Lane said, “I heartily agree with what you wrote in your last article, regarding hiring the best, creating a clear purpose and senior management supporting teams to do the winning work.” Lane was an executive at HP for over 30 years, back in the day when David Packard and Bill Hewlett were actively involved. He said the successful managers at HP followed what I described in my article and the unsuccessful managers never could focus on team success instead of his/her individual success. The unsuccessful always wanted to teach/talk at people at the expense of listening and learning.  Our shared experience of top managers are antithetical to what we often experienced growing-up in our school years.

It is an environment where students are judged on their ability to imitate. Indeed, a theoretical "perfect score" on a written exam for some instructors is no more than a perfectly-reflected echo of the instructor's own understanding and knowledge of the content. In such an environment, it is no wonder that plagiarism is a problem, that students constantly and consistently ask, "But what do you want on this assignment?" This is the trap of a Teaching Environment. It is a focus on content and its delivery to learners. The model is based on the concept of modernism, a belief that knowledge resides in a specific location and is shared or transferred from the one who "knows" to the one who does not.[2]


Again, facing this kind of system for many years it takes an awakening of some sort to change. I often times find people who don’t change, just don’t know how to change.

We are easily stuck in biased emotional, cognitive and behavioral tunnels. Often people become victims and rail against the system, damaging themselves in the process while never discovering a constructive new way of thinking or behaving. The biases we develop in our thinking keep us, “Doing the same things over and over, expecting different results.”

So how do we rediscover our innate curiosity, ability to explore and discover our world? How do we shake off the anesthesia of thinking someone else has the answers. How do we wake-up to understand we still have our inner genius from birth and it is time to strip away the smothering aspects of life?

Learning is personal, because we all learn differently. In our culture our systems preach and teach success through a bias toward the quantitative aspects of life. Life is an art, not an income statement. Life is about doing, feeling, thinking and appreciating one’s innate gifts. Life is not an assembly line. The rich aspects of life, loving, painting, reading, listening, music, fly-fishing, sports, programming, mathematics, writing are all about connecting with one’s personal ingenuity, moving toward your vision, appreciating your present situation and learning to use all this information to move forward. It doesn’t mean that one throws away income statements; it does mean that one recognizes them as a tool, not as the purpose of life. Tools support the principles of living, they are not the principles.

One of the major principles of life is relating. When we listen to others and share our thoughts through relating we are using 95% to 100% of our intelligence. In other words we maximize learning through relating with others. Relating with others who have new and different ideas, help us to positively relate and appreciate life-long learning. I bet when you think of a “teacher, coach, or mentor” who positively impacted your life, she related with you. This may include suggesting new ways of doing things, using a new experiment to test new life principles, but most of the time it is the human connection that wins the day.

I had a miserable experience with trigonometry my senior year in high school. My mother found a UCSB math major, Jane Brashear, to work with me during the summer between my senior year of high school and my postgraduate year at prep school. I had been offered a football scholarship to Stanford and my future acceptance was contingent on getting certain grades improved and SAT scores improved. My first two weeks working with Jane were all about her ability to hold a safe space for me. This meant Jane was calm, considerate, encouraging and empathetic to my state.

My initial frustration was beyond the beyond. I was angry regarding my math failure and I was scared I couldn’t improve. I did have the courage to show-up and ask for help. It was Jane’s ability to relate to me that created the environment for my learning; in a way that was based on my needs…she was learner centric, not teacher centric. Jane was able to help me understand the value of W.

Timothy Gallwey’s (Inner Game of Tennis) brilliant thinking, “What did you learn and what did you enjoy about that shot?” In this case it was about doing trigonometry, not playing tennis and Gallwey’s principle was equally relevant to both experiences.

A few years later Len Rohde graced my life and encouraged me to learn how to learn (again). Len played left offensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers from 1960 to 1974 and was a perennial All-Pro. For two years, during spring football practice at Stanford, I had the privilege of Len volunteering his time to work with us. His demeanor was quiet, assured, supportive and enthusiastic. What an honor to have this perennial All-Pro support me.

Here I was a struggling college lineman playing against some of the best defensive linemen in the country and Len was helping me. Len always used his calm voice, maybe when something went really well his voice would rise in a deep tone of excitement, but he never screamed at me in frustration. He was always excited for my progress, my learning and he made this violent sport mentally enjoyable for me. He modeled being an antidote for fear. When I think of great managers, I think of Len’s genius. His genius being he was one of the best, he never had to tell you and he used his talents to create an environment for my learning. He projected the love of learning to me. Not surprisingly, Len went on to be very successful in the business world after retiring from the NFL.


Learning how to learn is a life-long pursuit. It is both a solo journey and a relationship journey. It requires courage to seek relationships with people. It requires individual commitment to learning how to learn. When you are in positions of power it is important to use your position to create environments for other’s success. Relate with others and take the time to quietly reflect on your journey to create more richness in your life.


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[1] Kerry McDonald, “Teaching versus Learning”http://www.wholefamilylearning.com/2016/05/teaching-versus-learning.html (May 4, 2016)

[2] Dave Rogers, “Teaching versus Learning Environments.” http://faculty.valenciacollege.edu/drogers/essays/teachvlearn.html