10 Practices for Learning While Doing

learning while doing

A while ago, I came across an insight by blogger Angie Mizzell that has stayed with me:

“They never really tell you how unsettling it feels,” she wrote,  “to be a parent, while simultaneously trying to figure out how to be a parent.”

So well put. It struck me that these words hold true for almost everything important we do. We are husbands and wives while we learn how to be husbands and wives. We care for aging parents while learning how to care for aging parents. We learn how to deal with fear while afraid. We learn how to lead while leading. We learn to do our jobs while doing them. We have to fix the plane while flying it.

As Charlie Gilkey has written at his blog, we have to fix the plane while flying it.

The Most Important Skill You Can Learn

Yet most of us forget, again and again, that learning-while-doing is what we’re all up to. We walk through life feeling like we are supposed to know, projecting that other people know, and feeling stressed out when we don’t know.

It’s no wonder. We were told to go to school for 12 or 16 or 20 years to prepare for being a grown up:

Step 1. Learn.

Step 2. Gain Mastery.

Step 3. Execute!

That’s our mental model, but reality looks more like a feedback loop, where not-knowing, doing and learning happen in rapid succession hundreds of times each day.

We need to start seeing learning-while-doing as an art and a meta-skill. Learning-while-doing is a unique mode of action. It requires unique practices, and a particular mindset.

Approaching life in a conscious learning-while-doing mode has many benefits. It allows us to become skillful faster, to refine our approaches again and again.

When we look at life through the lens of perpetual learning-while-doing, we get humble. Really humble. Puffed up chests and certainty and righteousness fall away.

Anything we are working on becomes more interesting, rich and nuanced, because we view it through the lens of learning. We can enjoy the journey in a different way.

10 Practices For Learning While Doing

What’s is required to do learning-while-doing well? What practices promote it, and what gets in the way? Here are my top ten practices for learning-while-doing—drawn from my own experience and that of my coaching clients.

This month, pick one major area of your life in which you learn-while-doing (i.e. managing others, meeting your customers needs, being creative, raising children, etc.). Over the course of the month, try on these ten practices in that area of your life.

A Learning Orientation

1. Embrace Not Knowing. You really, really aren’t supposed to know it all. Your neighbors and co-workers and the perfect family down the block? They don’t know it all either. Take a moment now, and see if you can embrace not knowing. Remind yourself that others don’t know it all either. Let your shoulders drop. Exhale. Once you really embrace not knowing, you can begin to work with reality – rather than resisting it.

2. Be Here Now. If you aren’t awake to the feedback and data available in the moment, you can’t learn-while-doing. It’s that simple. To cultivate your ability to be present, focus your full attention on simple activities when you are doing them. For example, when you are listening to another person, sitting in traffic, or waiting to speak in a meeting, bring your full attention to a point of focus. When your thoughts drift, simply bring your attention back. As your ability to focus increases, so will your ability to be present to learnings that emerge in the moment, while you are in action.

3. Reframe Your Goal. When we set a goal only to “succeed” in a particular activity, we often approach the activity with tunnel vision. We’re so focused on the outcome we want and on executing on the plan to get there, we can’t see red flags or perceive information that would help us get there more quickly or easily. See what happens if you shift your goal from trying to achieve the desired results to learning how to achieve the desired results.

Gathering Learnings

4. Reunite With Your Long-Lost Curiosity. We’re born with immense natural curiosity. Then social norms and often, our educational experiences, squash it. When you embrace not knowing, you give yourself permission to be curious. When you set a learning goal, you give yourself an incentive to be curious. Naturally, curious questions will start to arise: What really works here? Which is more effective, a or b? What got us stuck? Follow these questions. Let your curiosity lead you into valuable learning.

5. Put On Your Lab Coat. Run little experiments. Try out new approaches, new language, new actions. Observe the results, and refine your approach accordingly.

6. Tune In To Results. Gather feedback from others about the impact of your actions. Feedback from others isn’t right or wrong – it just represents the subjective view of the individual who gave it. For that reason, look for themes and focus less on outlying comments. Ask for feedback informally, or use a free feedback tool like Rypple, which allows people to easily share anonymous, online feedback tailored to your questions.

Explore the learning you can mine from internal feedback—from your own emotions or internal sensations. For example, what depletes your energy and what increases it? What leaves you with a knot in your stomach and what leaves you feeling confident and content? As you are doing, pay attention to the internal feedback you receive.

Sustain Yourself & Reinforce What You’ve Learned

7. Find Peers. Learning-while-doing can feel stressful, even scary. Find community or relationships that give you support, encouragement, and remind you that other people are doing just fine learning-while-doing.

8. Put It in Words. As you frame and articulate to others what you’ve learned, you’ll clarify it and teach it to yourself. Teaching is one of the best ways to learn. Speaking is one of the best ways to absorb your own insights.

9. Go Up to the Balcony. Build into your routine daily, weekly or monthly rituals to reflect on what you’ve learned.

10. Know That Learning Is Conscious and Unconscious. Sometimes you’ll have an “aha moment” and walk away with an insight you can articulate. But often, you’ll absorb learning rapidly and unconsciously.

What happens when you put down the attempt to know it all, have it together, and do it right, and instead embrace fully that all work is learning-while-doing work? What shifts when you recognize that others, like you, are simply learning-while doing?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments.

Photo by mikebaird

8 thoughts on “10 Practices for Learning While Doing”

  1. Tara, you raise a crucial point here. When we were babies we only managed to walk and talk by learning and doing. Falling over and picking ourselves up again. Trying syllables and sounds until we find and make words. It’s inherent in us to learn, improve and re-learn. It’s how we’ve gone from baby to child to adult. Yet, no sooner have we reached adulthood, we abandon the very process that has served us well to this point. If there is one thing then that we need to learn is to never stop doing it.

  2. Enjoyable post. I particularly like number 4.

    Our curiosity seems to be most sharp as children, then wanes somewhat as adults and then returns to a degree as we struggle to keep up as older people.

    It is interesting how as adults our curiosity is mostly quashed by ego and the pretense that we always know the answers.

    Truth is we never learn until we admit that we don’t know.

  3. Tara: Great post. I totally agree that life is about living and learning and we all need an approach for making sure that happens. I thought the tips that you provided were very helpful. I thought what you said about embracing not knowing was important. Once we acknowledge that we don’t need to have all the answers, we open ourselves up to searching for answers and learning. Great post.

  4. Thank you for mentioning a quote from my blog in this post. Accepting that I am learning as I go, instead of pretending that I already know, can alleviate a lot of stress and keep me open to the lessons that are being revealed. I loved this post!

  5. Indeed, our life is a learning-while-doing process. I love the idea that learning-while-doing rquires a particular mindset, which is embracing “I don’t know”. You have provided very useful tips for learning-while-doing.

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