Transform Learning into Growth

I love to learn. In fact, sometimes I love to learn just for the sake of learning: everything from history, language, and art to random TV trivia, mixing a new cocktail, and playing the banjo. (Yes, I’m serious.)

The real power of learning, however, is in the alchemy of taking knowledge and skills and transforming them into growth. To do that we must apply & adapt: Apply what we learn, and Adapt our thoughts and behavior. Transform learning and growth

The Knowledge-Action Gap

Too often we think about learning only as the accumulation of knowledge, rather than knowledge in action. I worked with a leader years ago who was highly invested in helping people learn, but she wasn’t focused on how people applied that learning to grow themselves or the business. She focused only on the definition of the word learn: “to gain knowledge or understanding of or skill in by study, instruction, or experience” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).  But learning is impotent without application. We must put knowledge into action to create impact. If we only accumulate or, worse yet, horde our knowledge and hide our talents, then we deprive ourselves and those around us of the potential for growth and advancement.

Parlez-vous Français?

I am all too familiar with falling into the knowledge-action gap. I began studying French shortly after I married my husband, Nicolas. Most of my in-laws, or ma belle famille, live in France and do not speak English. So, if I wanted to communicate directly with them, I needed to learn French.1

I took classes at the French Alliance (L’Alliance Francaise), I studied with Rosetta Stone, and my husband bought subscriptions to bien-dire and France-Amérique, magazines geared to the French-English bilingual community.  Learning another language as an adult can be an intimidating challenge, but eventually I felt I was making real progress. Then, we traveled to France.

Immediately immersed in the language, I felt nervous but excited to plunge into conversation with my in-laws, or at least dip my toe into the discussions. To say I was unprepared for the stream of conversation that gushed toward me would be an understatement. My in-laws were excited to see us, and eager to catch up with everything happening in our lives. The dynamic flow of discussion switched from one topic to the next, often losing the anchor of any context that might help me understand what the heck we were talking about. At times, I struggled to even pick out individual words, let alone understand and respond to a direct question.  As a result, immersion quickly turned into overwhelm. I pulled back, and looked to my husband as my translation conduit to help stem the flow for the rest of our trip.

I returned home discouraged, but I continued to study. My French improved, but only incrementally. It wasn’t until several years later (yes, years) when I changed my approach to learning that my ability to speak French really improved. Here are just a few of the ways I adapted my approach (which can be applied to learning anything, not just French):

Make Learning a Habit. I’m not a naturally structured person. I love spontaneity and variability. So, the idea of consistency and habit initially felt rigid and restrictive. Then, I read a little book called “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones2 and it radically shifted my mindset. I began to see habit more as a framework, like guardrails on my learning highway. This consistent framework meant I no longer had to spend precious time and mental energy making decisions about when and where I would study. Habit allowed me to delegate those decisions to my brain’s autopilot. I got up every weekday morning, and spent the first 30 minutes (and eventually an hour) studying French. After a couple weeks of building the habit, my body naturally carried me to the kitchen table each morning and, after my first cup of coffee, my brain soon followed. Once at the table, I was free to focus my mental energy on the creativity of learning, and the beauty and excitement of the drive between the guardrails. Ironically, this habit was surprisingly liberating.

Mix It Up.  I love to learn, but I get bored quickly. One of the ways I’ve always combatted that boredom was by creating a learning buffet. I’d study a little of one subject, then switch to a different subject. When I was younger, I even switched from studying English to practicing piano and then moving to math, etc. Unbeknownst to me, there was a method to my madness. The authors of “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning3 report that interleaving, or mixing together, different subjects or skills actually helps the “stickiness” of our learning. Applying that to learning French, I might first study verbs. Then, I would switch to listening to an online French news program. It’s all still French, but it’s completely shifting the learning modality from reading to listening. Periodically I’d even throw in a bit of Spanish, and force my brain to distinguish between the two languages. While it might be easier and faster to study one subject in a single block of time, in the long run we learn better when we mix our approach to learning and challenge our brains to work harder. Our progress may feel slower in the moment, but what we learn will stick with us better in the long run.

Quiz Yourself.  I once had a professor who did not give quizzes or exams. When I asked, “Why?” He said (erroneously) that quizzes don’t help us learn. Boy, was he wrong! We get caught up in the idea of quizzes or exams being a “test” of our knowledge that we either pass or fail, but quizzes and testing are actually a form of practice. Without practice, we forget most of what we learn. Working to retrieve information helps to interrupt the forgetting process and make our learning stick. Repeated retrieval with spaced gaps of time between practice sessions makes our brains work even harder and, therefore, makes our learning even stickier.

Apply Your Learning.  Take learning outside the safety of a classroom (or a kitchen table), and apply it in real-world situations, especially the parts you find most challenging. The most difficult part of learning a language for me is understanding people when they speak (oral comprehension). Alternatively, most people find speaking the language (oral production) the most difficult, but I’m actually better at speaking French than understanding it. (I know. It’s weird, but the results of my French language exam back me up.) So, I jumped headfirst into my resistance. I started listening to online French programs, initiated conversations in French with bilingual friends, and forced my husband to speak with me in French, rather than letting him default to English. (It was almost as though he didn’t want me talking with his family.)  The experience was not always pretty. In fact, often it was really frustrating, and sometimes downright exhausting.  But these experiences challenged my brain to apply my learning in different contexts. As a result, I had to adapt to conversations in the moment, strengthening my learning and making it stick.  I really started to improve, and eventually I found it much easier to keep my head above water in the flow of conversation with my in-laws.

Loop Your Learning Path

Growth is not a linear path (no matter how straightforward a growth model may look). Transform learning and information into real growth is less a consistent sequence, and more an iterative, ongoing loop: We learn, Experiment with our learning, Reflect & Debrief on that experiment, and then we Apply & Adapt to Experiment again implementing these new adaptations. We do this again and again. Each one of us can immediately tap our potential for growth when we start to make a habit of engaging in this learning loop:

Identify Your Learning Target. What’s one thing you want to learn? It could be personal, professional, or somewhere in between.

Clarify Your Inspiration. What excites you about learning that? Why are you interested in it? This “why” will help you stay motivated.

Build a Learning Habit. Begin to make learning this topic or skill a habit, even if it’s just 10 minutes a day.

  • Take A Step. What is one thing (just one) you’ll do today to start learning? (It could be as simple as watching a YouTube video, phoning a contact, or doing some research online.)
  • Get Messy. Give yourself permission to dive in, experiment, get messy, and have fun applying what you learn.
  • Reflect & Debrief. What went well in the experiment? What didn’t? What have you learned as a result?
  • Apply & Adapt. What will you do differently in your next experiment? What are the thoughts and behaviors you want to adapt to improve your next round of learning?
  • Repeat. (The “Lather” and “Rinse” are optional.) 

Put Knowledge into Action

The steps to build a learning habit are clear and simple. Growth, however, is more challenging and also beautifully messy. A good deal of that mess comes when we translate knowledge into action. As adults, we often hesitate to practice newfound knowledge and skills in real life situations because we’re afraid to make mistakes and look foolish (like plunging into the deep end of a language barrier with my in-laws). However, putting knowledge into action is a critical piece of how we learn and, therefore, how we grow.  When we let our resistance stop us from putting knowledge into action, we limit our growth. As a result, the potential of all that we could have accomplished and all that we might have become are left untapped and lost forever.

Give Yourself Permission

I’m still not fluent in French. I continue to learn and grow, but my in-laws seem to understand most of what I say, and they still seem to like me. (Even when I make mistakes, like saying, “I’m hot,” meaning “I feel warm,” but instead I’ve unknowingly just propositioned one of Nicolas’ elderly uncles).   When someone asks, “Do you speak French?” I respond, “a little” (un petit peu). My husband will argue that’s an understatement. While that may be true, my intention is not to be humble or “under promise and over deliver.”  Our biggest barrier to growth is our own mindset and our own hesitation to put learning into action. When I say un petit peu, it is more a signal to me to set aside my adult ego, and give myself un petit peu permission to dive in, experiment, have fun, and get messy.