How to overcome the biggest roadblock to learning for highly successful professionals and exceptional students.
We naturally expect top ranked students and successful professionals in the sciences, engineering, medicine and business to be adept learners, so it may come as a surprise to find that these people actually have a high propensity for one of the most difficult problems when it comes to learning.
The problem I am talking about might be considered a matter of pride, or it may be thought of as a fear issue. The point is, when you are going to learn something, your present knowledge will be challenged. Your world view will be questioned. You will face occasional failure. All of these events will trigger your natural defenses to protect your pride and self image. That "defensiveness" is a major road block to learning.
An article by Chris Argyris suggested that professionals and successful students have not experienced enough failure to have learned proper methods to cope with the feelings of shame, guilt or inadequacy that go with failure. Whether that is the case or not, it is true that all people dislike being challenged about their knowledge or skills and will naturally tend to blame circumstances or other people for their own failures. Although this attitude is natural, it is not conducive to learning. In order to learn, you must be willing to accept that you will make mistakes, you will experience failures and you don't know everything. You don't even know everything you need to know to do what you're doing --nobody ever does.
Recently, an article by Henry L. Roediger and Bridgid Finn in Scientific American Online, talked about the educational conditions that most of us grew up in. The errorless learning model, based on the idea that if students make errors, they will learn the errors and be delayed in learning the correct information, was the rule for most of us in the US today. Teachers would often drill students over and over in close succession to avoid allowing them to forget. But research by Nate Kornell, Matthew Hays and Robert Bjork at U.C.L.A. published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition showed that learning improves if conditions are arranged so that students make errors. Their research showed that people learn better and remember longer if they are subjected to very challenging tests on the material they studied. It seems that you will recall better in the future if you struggle, even unsuccessfully, to recall information and reason about a problem before you recieve an answer. This research and similar efforts have led to some useful tips for learning: Before studying any subject, first come up with questions regarding what you really want to know about the subject. By challenging yourself this way and forcing yourself to recognize, in a concrete manner, what information you lack, you improve your chance of learning it.
Don't feel bad about your lack of knowledge: it is simply a fact of life. We are always doing the best we can with the knowledge we have. One way to deal with this uncertainty, a method common to many in leadership positions, is to believe that you do know all you need to. As a survival method, this works pretty well. You face the world with absolute certainty, feel like you are in control and you can be commanding and inspiring as a leader. The unfortunate side effect is that you close your mind to learning. You can't accept that you may be wrong, you can't accept that you're not fully equipped for the task and you won't tolerate challenges to your ideas, methods or actions. Another way to deal with uncertainty, a way that is more conducive to learning, is to simply become comfortable with being uncertain. You can still be a powerful, decisive leader, you just realize that you don't know everything, but neither does anyone else.
I wish I could help you resolve the discontinuity between the fact that great leaders tend to be absolutely certain of their goals and methods and the fact that such certainty closes the mind to learning, but I can't. The best I can do is suggest that you learn to accept your own fallibility so that you may learn, but also realize that the great leaders you aspire to emulate were just as fallible whether they realized it or not.
When you find yourself becoming defensive, feeling challenged about your knowledge or ability, step back and recognize that your reaction is one of fear. You don't need to be afraid and you don't need to be absolutely right. Allow yourself to question your knowledge and ideas just as you would someone else's. Listen, you may learn something.