Student Mentality

This morning as I was mid-plank in the middle of my workout, the voice of a seven year old girl came into my head. "The secret to a good handstand or cartwheel is to really push through your hands, like you're pushing the floor away". I followed her instructions and my form improved. The voice was that of a girl we met at the park last week who gave my daughter an impromptu cartwheel lesson.

One of the things that I've learned in more recent years is that there's a difference between learning and education. This is my interpretation of it. Education is focused on outcome, on knowing some sort of 'truth', achieving an objective. Learning on the other hand is about the experience and process of change, of evolving your position according to your individual needs.

Obviously there are some circumstances where it has to be about education. I don't want a pharmacist who doesn't know how a beta blocker works, or what pharmacokinetics means. Domain knowledge is very important. I tend to want the teachers of those types of education activities to be experts in the area they're teaching. Or at the very least be a few steps ahead of me and not just be reciting a text book.

But learning is very different. Learning can be triggered by any source. It doesn't have to be an expert, it could be a random seven year old girl. Because learning is about a mindset, an openness to the world around you. Having a student mentality.

I've read two solid thought provoking pieces on this recently. In his book Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday illustrates it with the example of Metallica's lead guitarist. As the band got their first big opportunity, he sought out guitar lessons which is probably the opposite of what most people would do. Most would just revel in their success and ride the wave for as long as it lasts. But he wasn't satisfied with good, he wanted to be better. He kept bringing riffs to work on with his teacher for years, continually striving to improve even after the band got really successful. Because he knew there was always something he could do better.

Being comfortable about not knowing everything is what shifts education activities into an opportunity for evolution of the self. Its also what allows us to be open to all of the learning opportunities around us. Holiday writes

The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote.
it is not enough only to be a student at the beginning. It is a position that one has to assume for life. Learn from everyone and everything. From the people you beat, and the people who beat you, from the people you dislike, even from your supposed enemies. At every step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn - and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.

The other thought-provoking source was this blog post by Ramit Sethi about why it's so hard to find a great mentor or coach. He argues that its because we're often not very good clients...i.e. we need to have a student mentality. Sethi lists three signs of a great student: that you can afford it (time and/or money), you're mentally ready to learn, and you welcome the struggle. Learning isn't about making yourself feel good, it's about pushing yourself into new areas. That should feel a bit uncomfortable.

You can look for the perfect program. But until YOU'RE the right student, it won't work.

I think of how many times I've taken good learning opportunities for granted because I've been a poor student. For me, this particularly relates to educational activities. I can think of many examples of when I've completely dismissed an educational activity and disengaged from it because I didn't think it was up to standard. But I suppose there's something to learn even in sitting through a boring, un-engaging talk, a poorly facilitated workshop or reading a badly written article. For one thing, it's good to know how not to do it. But critiquing is easy. I think the more challenging activity would be to try and find the decent content despite the poor delivery. Maybe I'll set myself that challenge the next time I'm at a conference trying not to switch off after a string of dry presentations.

Learning is everywhere if you're open to it. Be open. Set yourself a challenge to learn something new every day and see what happens. Consciously seek it out every day. I bet it will lead to something good.