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Learning About Learning

May 29, 2020 | 13m

Gain Actionable Insights Into:

  • How to prioritise new knowledge to absorb in a sea of information
  • Why it’s okay to be overly eager about action, but not for results
  • The importance of unlearning what you’ve learnt


Learning in the Digital Era

In today’s digital era, information has never been easier to access than at any other time in history. Everyone, you and I included, can simply Google their way into the largest knowledge base in the world. Yet even amidst this time of great change, an old proverb still holds true; you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

This can also be understood in the context of learning, even when limitless data and information are at your fingertips. In fact, the sheer amount of information out there can also represent an obstacle to one’s learning journey. Even though knowledge resources are plentiful, those who do not hunger for learning will remain ignorant and eventually stagnate or become obsolete as digital transformation continues to impact business. You can’t force the horse to drink if it doesn’t want to, and it’ll grow weak, eventually die of thirst if it persists in not drinking.

However, for those who do want to improve themselves but are unsure of how to maximise their learning efficiency, the insights to follow should help you in learning how to learn. They will also serve as guiding lights for those with the hunger to learn but are unsure of how to make their journey through the vast sea of information.

“Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.” ― E.M. Forster

Your Learning Attitude

Learning should be a naturally cultivated attitude more than anything else, as natural as the act of breathing. While it can sometimes be challenging, it should never feel like a struggle to get out of bed in the morning, something you need to force yourself to do.

Once, we helped organise a big workshop; it seemed to be proceeding quite well. When I asked one of the participants for their experience, he explained how he felt there was zero learning. That took me by surprise, since even bad workshops have their takeaways, and you get to learn what not to do. At that moment, I felt bad since we indeed could have organised a better workshop, but it was coupled with a sense of sadness for that person’s experience. Three days into the programme, he expressed learning nothing throughout its duration.

What I took away from this scenario was that the process of learning shouldn’t be an on-off switch, but one that is constant. If you’re talking to your boss, there’ll be something worth learning from the occasion, regardless of the conversation itself being good or bad. After the experience, on your way back to the office, take some time to revisit the situation in your mind. What did you learn from this? What could you have done or said differently? If you achieved a positive result, what did you do differently that led to it? Your learning attitude should fundamentally include such a process of inquiry.

It’s true that you may need to devote some time to acquire certain skills and specific knowledge. However, it’s the presence of learning as a natural aspect of life even outside of these occasions which establishes it as an attitude more than a trainable skill.

Reflection for Retention

Learning is only part of the equation; the other crucial part has to do with absorbing and retaining what you’ve learnt. From personal experience, absorbing knowledge after a workshop or a particularly good conversation isn’t hard if you reflect upon your experiences shortly after. I’m not talking about mindlessly filling out the obligatory post-programme feedback forms that formally document your experiences; real reflection should come from within and be thoughtful, not something you need to force yourself to act on. Does this sound familiar? That’s because reflecting is also part of a healthy learning attitude.

In today’s business world, everything’s becoming faster and everyone’s becoming busier. The result? The act of reflection finds itself buried under the endless hustle, and many people may not feel like they have the time to reflect upon what they’ve learnt. They may also be hesitant to dedicate reflection time in what they feel is a time-consuming process.

But reflecting doesn’t need to be time-consuming; in fact, just two minutes is enough to further process what you’ve learnt. Just concluded a very positive conversation? Experienced a very productive meeting? These incidents are ripe for self-examination and introspection – think back and consider if there was anything you did well, on an individual level.

When you’ve identified these positives, you can harness them as learning points to apply to similar situations in future. In time, such frequent reflections can be fully integrated as part of your learning process, becoming a subconscious activity.

Even when the incidents are rooted in negative sentiments, reflection still has a part to play in the learning process. In any given incident, regardless of the good or bad that’s occurred, whether you succeeded or failed, there’s something worth learning from it.

When reflecting and analysing your experience, one perspective is to approach it like peeling a fruit – firstly, separate away the good and bad sentiments surrounding the event. These feelings can affect you on an emotional level and cloud your thinking, distracting from the learning process. Instead, focus on the issues. If you managed a poor result, think about what you could have done differently, and give yourself a reminder for next time. If you achieved a good result, were there any changes to your approach this time that represented the turning point towards success?

It’s still useful to reflect even in a team scenario, where responsibility is split and the performance of the team is taken as a collective whole. Within the team, what good contributions did you make? If the team did not do well, what could you have done to help boost their performance? On a wider level, if the business ecosystem played a role in helping you succeed, which elements of the ecosystem were particularly useful? Further analysis can pave the way for a conscious effort to leverage these elements to drive future successes. Insights exist both in failure and in success and are simply waiting for you to unearth them.

If you want to learn more about yourself, use another perspective that focuses specifically on your feelings to trace their origins. For instance, why do I feel the way I do in an uncomfortable business situation? By determining the root cause of this unease (perhaps, that I was feeling the way I did due to a lack of preparation) one can take it as a learning point to avoid repeating the same mistake.

Moreover, looking inwards also helps when taking part in a learning programme or session. When you’re in a specific learning venue, whether it’s an online course or attending an in-person lecture, relating the study material to your life story can boost your knowledge absorption. With the content linked to your work situation or an event in your life, it’s easier to establish and recall this information in your memory banks.

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Riyaz Mulla

Head of Leadership Learning & Talent Development

Tech Mahindra



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