I recently read an article that described one of the most popular online courses ever offered - a free course called Learning How to Learn by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski. I’ve been creating online courses for some time, so I’m always eager to learn about the process of learning and how the mind works. I registered immediately.
The dirty secret of eLearning is that dropout rates are extremely high (often upwards of 90%). Without the social pressure of appearing in class, and especially if the course is either free or not required, it’s very easy for more pressing items to permanently bump the class from your schedule. Despite my professional interest, the same holds true for me. I drop more courses than an undeclared sophomore on the 7 year plan.
But not “Learning How to Learn.” I incorporated the class into my morning study routine, and I’ve just completed all of the required materials. I found it so valuable that I’m planning to retake the course, this time also completing the optional materials.
It’s not particularly fancy - mostly video lectures immediately followed by short quizzes. But the insights presented in the course, and the practical advice that I’ve already implemented into my work and study habits, are extremely powerful. Some of the topics include focused vs. diffuse mode thinking, dealing with procrastination, the benefits of exercise, how memory works (e.g. better to try recalling material than rereading or highlighting), mental chunk forming, and interleaving study topics. The recommendations on dealing with procrastination alone are worth the price of admission (although there is technically no price of admission, it does take around 10 hours to complete, and time is always our most valuable asset).
In what sounds like a ridiculous lack of focus, in addition to running IsoDynamic, I’m also taking courses of study in digital marketing, Spanish, drums, and guitar. But as “Learning How to Learn” makes clear, “interleaving” different types of study material over time is far more effective than cramming the study of one subject or skill into a short time period.
Another golden nugget from the course is to focus on process instead of product. This may be the single greatest piece of advice I’ve implemented, since I’m often visited by a rowdy tribe of anger monkeys when I become too focused on accomplishing a specific task. Especially in the realm of technology, where everything changes - and breaks - constantly, frustration can be my constant companion. I’ve changed “I’m going to accomplish this item in the next 25 minutes” to “I’m going to learn about this for the next 25 minutes.” The irony is that this seeming “lack of focus” on results is helping me to accomplish far more, since I’m less frustrated by a seeming lack of progress toward a particular goal.
Martin Seligman, the influential father of “Positive Psychology,” has a theory of happiness summarized by the acronym PERMA. He argues that happiness, or more broadly speaking, well-being, has five key elements. They are:
P - Positive Emotion
E - Engagement
R - Relationships
M - Meaning
A - Accomplishment
My recent experience with accelerated learning seems to be driving an increase in my own feelings of well-being. I think this is likely due to an enhanced sense of optimism (P), engagement (E), and accomplishment (A), to use the PERMA model. Although not specifically framed this way by Seligman, I suspect that effective learning is a powerful driver of several of these well-being elements.
So what about the “R” (Relationships) in the PERMA model of well-being? Can we learn and improve on our abilities in the area of social skills and relationships? I believe that “soft skills” and “EQ” (Emotional Quotient/Intelligence) are highly underrated in terms of their importance to our lives, as well as the effort required to develop and enhance these skills.
When you think about it, social skills are the “greens fees” for having successful relationships, finding meaningful work, and finding love. In other words, aspects of life that are central to our happiness, success, and well-being. And because human relationships involve a virtually infinite variety of social cues and scenarios, it’s an exceptionally complex subject. Most of the learning that is done in this area is passed anecdotally from person to person - we don’t seem to have a great natural toolkit available to make progress in this realm.
I can testify to one thing about social skills - ALL my greatest regrets stem from hurting someone due to my own inability to navigate a social situation with sufficient grace and compassion. I frequently imagine how frustrating it would be if my brain were wired in a way that made it more difficult to pick up social cues. Learning how to improve would be doubly challenging.
But I think that social skills CAN be learned, and relationships can improve as a result. As Dr. Sejnowski points out in Learning How to Learn, social skills are housed in the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is also responsible for capabilities like complex analysis, decision making, and planning - all of which take significantly longer to develop (usually well into adulthood) than skills housed in other areas of the brain. So patience is key. The brain is also MUCH more elastic than previously believed1. Even though we may never become a master at something that we begin at a later age (I will never be a master level drummer - and my neighbors will back me up on this), or where our brain is wired a bit differently, we can still IMPROVE greatly. And that’s what really counts. Improvement, not perfection.
I think Deliberate Practice2 is the methodology we should use to learn social and relationship skills - the same sort of approach used by experts in activities as varied as basketball, foreign languages, and playing the violin. Deliberate Practice is about breaking tasks down into smaller chunks, practicing the most difficult material every day, interleaving skills, and spacing repetition out over weeks, months, and years - instead of trying to cram it all into a small number of sessions. Like running the 4 minute mile, the biggest barrier may be simply a belief in the human ability to improve social skills through practice. We need someone to show us how.
Who might that be?
I recently had an opportunity to ask an expert on the topic. In April, I attended Meeting of The Minds - Neurodiversity Where We Live Work and Play, a benefit sponsored by the incredible Temple Grandin School in Boulder. The onstage panel featured Temple Grandin, Steve Silberman (author of NeuroTribes), and John Elder Robison. I’d never heard of Mr. Robison prior to the event, but that was about to change.
Robison is a 60 year old man who did not discover he was autistic until the age of 40. Although he dropped out of high school in 10th grade, he is now an author (Look Me in The Eye, Running With Scissors, Be Different, Raising Cubby, Switched On), photographer, auto technician, entrepreneur, guitar designer, audio technician (for KISS and others), toy designer (Milton Bradley), and autism advocate.
He spoke so eloquently and persuasively that chills ran up and down my spine as he described the challenges he has faced in his life, his desire to see his autistic brothers and sisters treated humanely and compassionately, and to let the world know how much this community has to offer our world. I have no idea if Mr. Robison understood the effect he had on me - it’s hard to imagine he did. I struggled to choke back tears numerous times as he cast a spell over the entire audience with his stories and wisdom - all delivered in his unique and stunningly effective vocal cadence. As moderator Jason Lynch described to me during a subsequent conversation, it was like observing a new civil rights movement being born before our very eyes.
At the conclusion of the event, I sheepishly approached John Elder Robison to buy one of his books. But I also had a burning question I needed to ask. “As a person who has faced social challenges,” I said, “have you come to the point where you’re not only skilled at interacting with others, but where you actually enjoy it?”
This amazing, unique, accomplished person looked me straight in the eyes and said “Yes. I do enjoy it.”
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