The Learning Process

What’s Actionable in this chapter:

  • Provides tools to help you improve your ability to learn new things.


Learning equals Change

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?  One!  But the light bulb has to really want to change


If you are reading this I assume you’re open to learning.  That’s great!  Learning should be an important part of everyone’s daily life.

I’ve found over the years that there’s a huge difference between teaching and learning.  Teaching is what one person tries to do to another.  Learning is what one person does to themself[1].

Most people see teaching as someone telling someone else what to do.  A teacher stands up in a class and gives a lecture.  A parent explains to a child how to perform a task.  Or a Master tells an apprentice how to perform some function.  However, there is an incorrect implication in this model.  The incorrect implication is that it’s the telling or the showing that’s the critical aspect in the learning process.  The incorrect implication is that the teacher is like a television broadcaster, in that they just have to broadcast the information to be learned and somehow magically there’ll be learning.

My experience suggests that the critical part of learning is the student wanting to learn not the teacher wanting to teach.

The bottom line; learning does not require a human “teacher” at all.  Many people learn on their own just from living!  Some people even learn in spite of a teacher.

Sure, a teacher may have knowledge of a particular subject that the student does not.  A teacher can lay out the structure of a thing and the best order to learn things. And a teacher can provide personal experiences that can help illuminate a thing.

But it’s not the knowledge of the subject matter that creates learning.  The thing that creates learning is the ability and desire of the student to want to learn.  The most crucial role of a teacher is to help the learner see the value in what needs to be learned and the benefit in learning it.

I measure the value of the teacher by the ability of the teacher to excite the desire to learn in the student.  And I measure a student by the students desire to learn.

I find the best teachers are those that spend the most time teaching the student WHY they need to learn something.  The best teachers find what the learner wants to achieve and then helps them achieve it.  Mark Van Doren said it well, “The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.”[2]

The reason this is important is that I want you to understand that you can start your learning right now.

You don’t need a “teacher.”  You don’t need me.  Experience itself can be a great teacher.  You can learn just from living and observing life around you.  You can learn from books, the Internet, listening to the radio, or watching TV.  You don’t have to wait to go to a “classroom” to learn.  You don’t have to sign up for classes to learn.  The world is constantly providing learning opportunities.  You just have to take advantage of the learning opportunities as they present themselves.

This goes back to the Salad Bar image I presented earlier. As you go through your day learning opportunities present themselves like items in a salad bar. You just have to decide which ones to take and which ones to leave.

In my efforts here, I’m not trying to teach you.  I’m trying to get you to want to learn.  I’m trying to show you the huge benefits in learning.   It is up to you to decide that you want to learn.  And, while I may be able help you decide what you should want to learn, the actual learning will be up to you.[3]

Everything I’m saying in this book is based on the premise that learning must start with the learner.  Everything I believe is based on the idea that you need to have a desire to learn.  The greater your passion, enthusiasm, and excitement for learning then the greater your chances of actually learning!

My role is to help ignite that passion and excitement.  There is an old Buddhist saying that articulates this quite well, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”[4], [5]

What I’m trying to do is get you to start with the simple statement, “I want to learn.”  Only after you’ve decided you want to learn can you ask the question, “What do I need to learn?”  They say that even a journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step.[6]  The first step I would ask you to consider is to look inside yourself and decide that there are things that can make you better.  Then, the next step is to try to find those things and try to learn them.

I looked up the word “learning” and found that pretty much all the definitions said something like learning is “the acquisition of knowledge.”  I know it’s presumptuous of me, but I think they all have it wrong.  That thinking so 19th Century.

To me there is a clear and important distinction between knowledge and learning.  Webster says both “Knowledge” and “Learning” are synonyms and both are “Nouns.” [7]  I, on the other hand, see only knowledge as a noun.  I see learning as a verb[8].  And I don’t see them as synonyms at all.  Knowledge is a passive word.  Learning is an active word.  Knowledge is the accumulation of THINGS.  Learning is what you do with those things.  It is like saying that having a television is the same as watching a television.  Or having a computer is the same as using the computer.  Or having a filing cabinet full of stuff is the same as using that stuff.

The reason learning equals change is that learning implies that you were in one place before you learned something and after the learning you are at another place.  Learning implies movement.  Learning implies that somehow you’re changed.  If there is no change then there is no learning!

Think of a filing cabinet.  As you live your life you acquire pieces of paper.  Some of those pieces of paper are trash and you throw them away.  However, some you may need someday, so you save them, and file them away for future reference.  The pieces of paper you filed are “knowledge.”  Knowledge is information you acquire for use sometime in the future.  The point is that while you may use that knowledge, you don’t have to use it.  It can stay in the file cabinet forever and never be touched again.  I’ve a lot of crap filed away that I will never use.  I have bank statements from 10 years ago.  I have cancelled checks from even longer.  I have equipment manuals for equipment I no longer have.  Yes, it is knowledge.  But I’ll never need it.[9]

The reality that you can accumulate knowledge with no change in behavior is crucial to understanding why learning has to equal change or it’s not really learning.  I get a quarterly Social Security Statement telling me how much I will get when I reach different retirement ages, 62, 66, and 70.  The information on this statement doesn’t materially change.[10]   So I just file it when I get it.[11]  Nothing on that statement will cause me to change my behavior.  I’ve accumulated a lot of these statements, but so what.  I continue on my life, executing my plans as before.

Let me use a computer example.  An important component of a computer is its “memory,” where the computer stores bits of information.[12], [13]  However, just storing the information is meaningless.  It’s when you use that stored information to do something that the information becomes meaningful.  In fact, I suspect that your computer is full of stuff in memory that you will never use.

Going further with this computer example, Windows has a thing called a “Registry.”  The computer uses this Registry to remember important things about all the applications you use.  The problem is; the Registry can get so “cluttered up” with information you no longer need, it actually will slow down the computer.  The Registry on a Windows operating system is a lot like one of those “Hoarders” you see on TV.  It captures everything and throws out nothing.  At some point, the Registry may even be so cluttered with useless crap that your computer may stop working altogether.  At that point, you have to either, bring your computer into a shop to clean it up, or buy a “Registry Cleaner.”[14]

It is the same with a paper filing system.  The more stuff you have to go through the longer it takes to find something.

Learning on the other hand is the active use of that knowledge to do something.  Learning changes behavior.  I understand that knowledge is needed for learning.  I think that’s why Webster defines learning as the acquisition of knowledge.  However, the reason learning is so difficult in many cases is that people assume there is an “absolute” positive correlation between the quantity of knowledge acquired and the quantity of learning.  But there isn’t.  You can acquire a great deal of knowledge and never change.  And you can acquire one small sliver of knowledge and you whole life is turned around.

There is not always a direct correlation between the quantity of knowledge and the quantity of learning

Many people acquire a great deal of knowledge and don’t change at all.   As Calvin Coolidge said, “The world is full of educated derelicts.”[15]   And others can change on the smallest piece of knowledge – the proverbial, “straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

The key point here is that you never know what specific piece of knowledge will cause the change in behavior, so you have to keep accumulating knowledge until you have enough information to actually change.[16]



Learning is a Relative Term

Learning is a relative term.  There is a continuum in learning – from a lot of learning and a lot of change – to a little learning and little change – to “0” learning and “0” change – and even on to negative learning and negative change.


On one end of the learning continuum is positive learning that results in positive changes.  On the other end of the continuum is negative learning that results in negative changes.  And in-between there is any amount of both positive and negative learning.

I’m going to talk about this in a lot more detail later in this section when I talk about setting learning goals.  But for now, let me just say that how much the change leads to the achievement of the goal you’ve set out, determines the positive or negative learning value. If the learning takes you on a path toward your goal, it’s positive learning; if the learning takes you on a path away from your goal, it is negative learning.

Some examples of positive learning; learning to lose weight, leaning a better way to drive to work, learning about a great way to invest money.  Examples of negative learning; you want to go on a diet and you learned about a new “fad” diet[17] that was not very good for you and actually could physically hurt you, but you tried it anyway.  Or you have cancer and learn about some new “miracle cure” and you try it, but it is a fraud.  You wanted to get healthy and lose weight but you learned something that changed your behavior that actually moved you away from that goal.  Those would be examples of negative learning.

I need to make a small nuanced point here.  I call learning that is just a small amount of learning “reinforcement” learning.  Reinforcement learning happens all the time.  Let’s say you think that BMW is the greatest car ever made and you read that Motor Trend Magazine proved, through extensive research, that BMW is the greatest car ever made.  You’ve not changed your opinion.  You believed BMW was the greatest car ever made before you acquired the new knowledge that Motor Trend Magazine has proof.  And you still believe BMW is the greatest car ever made.  You’ve not changed your conclusions.  All that the knowledge did was reinforce you beliefs.  The new knowledge simply provided you with more facts to support your conclusion.  This is reinforcement learning.

By the way, there are people out there that only look for reinforcement learning.  The clinical term is “Confirmation Bias.”  We all do this to some extent (just some more than others).  We just need to be aware we do it and try to avoid it as much as possible.  Given all the things there is to learn, there is little incentive to seek out reinforcement learning.

The reason I single out reinforcement learning is to provide a counter argument for those people who don’t think learning equals change.  When I talk about this in my classes, many of my students disagree that learning equals change.  They will tell me that you can learn something and not change.  I clearly understand that.  That is why I came up with the learning continuum.  I recognize that some learning will result in very little change – almost imperceptible change.  But I see it as change none the less.  Even in reinforcement learning you do change, albeit slightly.  In that if you have to present an argument in support of your position you have more ammunition.  But, why would you spend any time at all on reinforcement learning?  If you have a choice, wouldn’t you want to spend your limited amount of time on learning that would result in the most change?

Let me provide a couple more examples of things that are a bit higher on the learning continuum.

  1. Example #1 – Driving to Work:  If you drive to work the same way every day, and you do not intend to change the route you take, then there is no reason to learn other ways.  If someone were to come up to you and tell you that they’ve learned a new route to work that you could take, you might listen politely, but you would not have to really pay attention to them because you have no intention to change.  If it was a class and you knew you’d be tested on the different ways to drive to work, you might memorize the new ways, but after the class you would quickly forget them because you are not going to change, so why spend the energy to remember them.
  2. Example #2 – Buying Something:  We all have products we like.  I happen to like Chevron gas because it was “Techron.”  Techron is an additive they put in to clean the engine.  And I believe a clean engine is a good thing.  I will go out of my way to find a Chevron gas station because I think Chevron is the only gas that has this cleaning additive.  Now, if I learn that other Gas companies have a cleaning additive as good as Chevron, or if I learn that Techron is not that good as a cleaning additive, or that it really doesn’t matter if gas has a cleaning additive or not, I would change my behavior and buy my gas from a different gas station.  The key here is if you are working for Shell Oil and you want me to buy Shell gas instead of Chevron, then you need to get me to learn that either Shell gas has as good or better a cleaning additive as Chevron or that I really don’t need a cleaning additive in my gas at all.

If I do not intend to change to another gas station, then I don’t need to learn about how the kind of gas you use could improve performance of a car.

So, after all this discussion, I offer my definition of learning.  I define learning as the acquisition of knowledge with the intent to change behavior.[18]

Learning is the acquisition of knowledge with the intent to change behavior.

Since learning equals change, it’s important to make sure we’re focused on the right change.  It’s easy to make a mistake in picking something to change and change the wrong thing.  Let’s say you want to learn to stop smoking.  So you say I want to change my behavior and not smoke.  However, a better thing to change might be to learn to live a more healthful lifestyle.  By focusing on your total lifestyle, you will learn to stop smoking.  But you will also learn to eat better, reduce stress, exercise more, and manage your alcohol drinking.  By only choosing to learn to stop smoking, you may stop smoking, but you have not maximized your potential for success.

Or, how about this example:  Someone is unhappy in their marriage so they get a divorce.  That’s clearly a change.  Yet they find that they are still unhappy after the divorce.  Perhaps they changed the wrong thing.  Perhaps they should have changed themselves and not the marriage[19].

What’s Actionable about all this?  It is absolutely important to want to change, but you have to make sure that you are changing the right things.


Categories of Learning and Change


There are two broad categories of learning.  The first category is to learn something you don’t know; like a foreign language, cooking, or physics.  The second category is to learn to change something you already know, like stop eating fattening foods or stop talking so much and listen more.  Additionally, there another two broad categories of change.  The first category are changes you make to yourself, like going on a diet.  The second category are changes you get others to make, like getting your boss to give you a raise.

Of those categories, learning something new is easier than learning to change something you already do.  And getting others to change is easier than changing yourself.

Learning something new is much easier because you don’t have to change existing behavior.  That’s why learning is easier as a child; you don’t have to unlearn anything.  Everything is new.  Whatever is being taught is fine.  But as an adult, learning is more difficult because adult learning most often revolves around changing your already learned behavior in some way, and we know that changing your behavior is very difficult as I will talk about at length later in the book.

Getting others to change is also often easier than changing yourself.  For an example, let’s go back to the salad bar analogy.  Let’s say you want spinach on your salad but the spinach is old and wilted.  You could simply ask that fresh spinach be brought out.  In that simple example you are asking someone else to change.  You are asking them to bring out more spinach.  Or let’s say you think the salad bar should include a low fat Italian dressing.  You tell the owner and the owner replies, “You’re right, we will include that from now on.”  You got someone else to change.  You, personally, didn’t have to change anything.  You got someone else to change.

For the sake of clarity let me use some more examples.  Let’s say you are tired of cleaning up your kids’ rooms and you want to change that situation.  You want your kids to clean up their own rooms, so you tell them to clean up their room.[20]  Or if you are the boss and you want weekly status reports, you simply tell your staff to send in weekly status reports.  Of course there is a catch here.  The inference I’m making is that the person you are asking to change can in fact change.  So the inference is that the salad bar owner can get fresh spinach, or your kids’ can clean up their rooms[21], or that your staff is capable of producing a weekly status report.

Now let’s talk change you do to yourself.  I have tried to eat less fat for years, yet I love a good Ribeye steak with a lot of marbling.[22]  I find changing my eating habits very difficult.  I want to change, but I find change in this area very difficult.

Now What?

OK, you agree that you want to change.  Is that it?  Is that all you need to do?  Unfortunately no!  Wanting to change and changing are two different things.  There are many out there that want to stop drinking, want to stop smoking, want to lose weight, want to not get angry as often, or any number of things they want to do differently.  But they find it extremely difficult to change.

I was listening to the radio the other day and I heard a caller ask the talk show host, “Why can’t I change?”  The response of the host was that the caller needed to read her book.[23]  Realizing that was not going to be enough, the host went on to say that “fear” was preventing her from changing.  The host told the caller that she needed to “visualize the result” and “believe” that she could achieve her goal.  She needed to overcome her fear of the goal in order to achieve the goal.  That actually makes sense to me.  But are those suggestions really going to change the caller’s life?  I think not!  While those are nice words, are they actionable?  It would be great if the caller, or listener for that matter, asked themselves, “Oh, that’s what I’ve been doing wrong, I’ve not believed I can change.  All I have to do is believe I can change.  WOW.  I’m cured!”  But that’s not the way it works.  Change is difficult and rarely happens as a result of one brief conversation with a call in radio show.

Some people think change is like turning on a light bulb.  It’s quick and easy.  You just decide to change and voilà, you’ve changed.  I don’t agree.  I think change is like water building up behind a dam.  It takes time and a lot of pressure to break the dam.  And often times the dam never breaks.  And “change” never happens.

And when I think about why I personally find it difficult to change I think it’s because I get discouraged and stop trying.  I think that the dam is so big and the amount of water coming in behind it so slow that it will never fill up.  I truly understand why change is so difficult.  It’s hard to keep trying in light of huge hurdles facing us when we try to change.

But this is a critical point about how you treat others.  When asking others to change you need to understand how difficult it’s to change; so you need to cut them some slack.

Change is hard

Let me ask you a question.  What if you went to the doctor and the she told you that you had to make a difficult and permanent change?  What if she said that if you didn’t change your ways, you would die sooner – a lot sooner?  Do you think you could change?  I’m not talking about simple change, like in the kind of phone you use or the way you go to work.  I’m talking about real life or death.  Do you think you could change when the chips are really on the table?  Could you make a major change if your life was at stake?

If you said yes!  When it really matters you’re sure you could change.  Of course!  No Problem!  If that’s what you believe, I would suggest you’re most likely fooling yourself.  I suggest that you probably wouldn’t be able change.  And it’s not just me that believes you can’t change; most researchers agree that change is hard. [24]  Even when the stakes are life and death; change is hard.

You may even know people that have been told that they would die if they didn’t lose weight, stop smoking, or reduce stress; yet did none of those things.  I personally have experience in this.  I know I need to lower my cholesterol by eating less meat, but I find it very hard to do.  Change is hard.  Very Hard!

That’s not to say that you CAN’T change.  People do change!  It just very hard to change!

The reason I say that while you can change, change is very hard, is I want you to manage your expectations.  In business we live by the motto, “under promise; over deliver.”  I want you to try to change, but I also want you to understand that change is so very difficult.  I want you to understand that there is no “magic bullet” for change.  I want you to accept that change is hard for everyone, not just you.  I want you to understand that because change is so hard, you need to manage your expectations about how much you can change.  And, as importantly, you need to manage your expectations about how much others can change.

Why is it so important to understand how hard change is?  What is actionable about this discussion?  There are two important points here I want you to remember:

  • Since change is so difficult you shouldn’t expect others to change.
  • You should not expect changes to your life to come easy.

Of course I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to change if you see something that needs changing.  And I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to change others if you see something that they need to change.  I’m just saying that because change is so hard, it’s helpful to practice a great deal of patience; with ourselves and others.

Since change is so difficult you should not expect others to change.  And since change is so difficult, you should not expect changes in your life to come easy.

When you look at successful people, one trait many have is that, while they engage in lots of positive thinking, they don’t underestimate how difficult it is to change themselves or change others.  Many will tell you that embracing the belief that you can succeed is the first step toward success and is extremely effective to help create and maintain motivation.  But, they will also tell you that is just the first step toward success.  Big changes require a lot of effort and a great deal of persistence.  My personal experience is that those that think change comes easy are not equipped for the journey and considerably increase their chances of failure.

Having said all this, I want to make a very important point.  Even if change is difficult, there are tools available to help change.  I cannot change the fact that my eyes don’t work as well as they used to.  So, I use reading glasses to help me.  I cannot change the fact that I cannot spell well.  So I use a spell checker[25] to help.  I cannot change the fact that I’m only 5’10”.  So I can use a ladder to help me reach things.  If I want to stop smoking, there is the patch and gum to help.  And if I don’t like that I’m going gray, I can dye my hair so no one knows.  There are a lot of tools to help us change.


Tool Belt Approach to Change

What I propose in this book are simple tools that can help you change.  Which tool you employ will depend on your particular situation.  I call this the “Tool Belt Approach.”  You often see workers with tool belts filled with all kinds of tools.  They don’t know which tool they will need for a specific task so they have a lot of different tools they use depending on their needs.  The point of the tool belt is to have those tools handy for when they need them.

That is what I want to accomplish with this book.  I want to provide you with a lot of different tools to help you make better decisions.  And I want to help you understand the different situations that would call for different tools.

One more point about using tools to help us change.  You’ve seen flight simulators.

Pilots have to log a lot of hours every year in a flight simulator.  The purpose of the flight simulator is so they learn how to use the tools available to them in case they need them.  And the purpose of requiring frequent and recurring time in the simulator is so they can practice using the tools a lot so they will remember how to use them when they really need them.  The tools I offer here in this book are like those tools pilots practice in the flight simulator.

In order to pick the right tool for the job you need to know three things:

  1. As much about the thing you want to fix as possible

  2. The capabilities of the tools available to you

  3. You own capabilities.

The following section will explore the first point of learning as much as possible about the thing we want to fix, which in this case is “change.”  Then in the Chapters on Setting Goals, Improving Communication, Getting Good Information, and Making Better Decisions I will offer some more simple tools to help you change.

Finally at the end of this book I will provide some ways to understand your own capabilities so you will know which tool to use in which situation.

The goal is to help you understand some of the natural laws about change, which in turn will help you understand the obstacles to change, which will then help you pick the right tool to help you change.


Why Change is so Hard

I’ve heard it said that if you find yourself in a tree, you better figure out why you’re there before you jump down, because the lion might still be waiting.  I like this saying because it gets at the heart of my approach to problem solving.  Before you take any action you need to study the situation.  In addition to understanding what your choices are and what the probable result of your actions would be, you need to understand the “WHY” of your situation.  You need to know why you got into the tree in the first place.  You need to understand why the lion is a risk to you, and why you even need to get out of the tree.  The “WHY” of a thing is clearly as important, or perhaps even more important, than the, “what,” “when,” “where,” and “who” of a thing.

The “Why” of a thing is much more important than the, “what,” “when,” “where,” and “who” of a thing.

Having said all that, let’s get into it.  Let’s look at why change is so hard.  To begin with, I like using the image of an “obstacle” because while many obstacles cannot be overcome, many can!  You can go over them!  You can go around them!  Or you can blast them to smithereens! In terms of change, some of those obstacles are obvious and once seen can be easily overcome.  However, some of the obstacles are hidden, unconscious, and/or unavoidable.  It’s those obstacles that really make change so hard.


Obstacles to Change

There are 2 broad categories of obstacles to change; environmental and biological.

Environmental obstacles are those things around us that make change difficult.  Some are other people.  Some are the tools we use.  Some are built into world around us.

Biological obstacles are those things inherent in our physiology that makes change difficult.  We are born with genetic predispositions.  Our bodies have immune systems and control systems that try to keep the body from changing.  We are programmed by our family and our culture.  And we have desires, tastes, and needs that are difficult to suppress.  Our brains are “pattern recognition” engines.  Our brains, like to put new things into existing patterns.

Each type of obstacle is different and requires different tools to overcome.  So I will discuss each separately.


Environmental Obstacles to Change

I’m going to provide some examples that describe some of environmental obstacles to change.  This is not intended to be a complete list.  I provide it only to give you a glimpse at the general nature of environmental obstacles to change.


Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.[26]

Inertia exists.  It is a physical law of nature.  We see it all the time in ways from obvious to subtle.  Inertia is the tendency of any object to resist change.  If it’s at rest it likes to stay at rest.  If it is moving in a straight line it likes to continue to move in a straight line.  In order to change something you have to exert some force.  This is one of the fundamental principles that order our environment.  And is one of the key environmental obstacles to change.

Here is a simple test.  Ask a friend or family member to stand up.  Go up to that person and gently push on their shoulder.  You will see and feel an immediate resistance.  This is Inertia.  Things resist change.


Dominate Design Obstacles

The first example of an environmental obstacle to change is something in business we call a “Dominate Design.” [27]  The best example of that is the QWERTY keyboard.



Believe it or not, the QWERTY keyboard was originally designed to slow down the typist.  Apparently, because of mechanical limitations of the time, early typewriters couldn’t go very fast.  Key jamming was a huge problem.  Christopher Sholes figured out that if the commonly used letters were scattered widely over the keyboard it slowed people down.  Additionally the QWERTY keyboard puts the most commonly used letters on the left side of the keyboard (3,000 English words can be typed with the left hand alone, while only 300 can be typed with the right hand alone).  The placement of the keys were designed to slow the typist down and as a result reduce the amount of jamming.[28]

Now that we have electronic typing, jamming is no longer a problem.  And many bright entrepreneurs have tried to get people to use more efficient keyboards, but with no success at all.


Here are a couple of examples I got from a simple Internet search on “Alternatives to the QWERTY keyboard.”

Dvorak Simplified Keyboard            Wolf King Warrior           New Standard Keyboards ABC


But, even though jamming is no longer a problem, all attempts to change the keyboard to something more efficient have failed.  Why?  Because the benefits to change are not worth the effort to change.

People have learned to use QWERTY keyboards and they see it as too much work to learn something new.


Dominate Design

The QWERTY keyboard is considered a “Dominate Design.”  A Dominate Design is when a particular technology becomes so standard that everyone uses it.  And changing away from it is very difficult.

There are all kinds of examples for this.  VHS videotape and then Blu-Ray DVDs became the dominate design.  The dominate design for word processing and spreadsheets is MS Word and MS Excel.

There are a number of reasons why we like these dominate designs.  First, you don’t want to think about making things work with other things.  You want to be able to buy a product and know that it will connect to all the other products you have.  Next, you don’t have to learn a new system.  Once you learn a dominate design, you know it.  It would be too much of a hassle if every time you brought a new product you had to spend the time to learn it.  And finally A dominate designs allows everyone to focus their efforts on making things cheaper because they can focus on process improvement.[29]


Ruts in the Road

There’s a story going around that may or may not be completely true but makes sense for my purposes here so I’ll use it.

In the old days all roads were dirt or stone.  Over time ruts would be gouged in the dirt by the wheels of the wagons.  It is said that Julius Caesar noticed that as he conquered more distant lands his war chariots and supply wagons kept getting stuck in the ruts of differing widths.  Caesar fixed the problem by setting a standard width and imposing that width under Roman law for all the occupied lands.  Over the centuries this became the traditional standard.  The width of most roads today is based on the roads established in Middle Ages, which in turn were based on the old Roman cart.

Here is another story about the same point.  When we visited the University of Maryland on a college visit with my daughter, we were told that when they built the “Quad” the builder did not put in any pathways.  He waited a couple of years to see where people walked and then cemented those pathways in.

Do you see my point here with these two examples?  Notice how once a path is taken and ruts are created society has a tendency to cement those ruts in, which then tends to make all future generations follow those paths.[30]


Other People as Obstacles to Change

I hope the following story illustrates how other people can be obstacles to change.  When I was in the army I was given orders to go to Fort Dix New Jersey.  As I waited in the Philadelphia airport for the bus to take me to my new post, I realized that I will know no one there.  And I immediately thought how great that was.  I could be anyone I want to be.  There will be no one that has any pre-conceived notion of who Ira is.  If I wanted to be seen as quiet, I could be quiet.  If I wanted to be seen as boisterous, I could be boisterous.  Back home, if I wanted to change, my friends would say, “come on Ira; be yourself.”  But now, going to someplace where no one knows me, I could be whoever or whatever I want and no one would suggest I be something different.  It was totally freeing.

It was at that point that I realized that the expectations of my friends and family, unconsciously, unintentionally, and certainly with no malice on their part kept me from changing.  They just wanted me to be who they had come to know.  If I was different, they would ask, “Ira, why so different.  That’s not like you.”

You may have friends that told you stories about how they wanted to do something different but their friends or family told them, “oh you can’t do that! You’re not capable of that!  You won’t be good at that.”  So they didn’t even try.

I think the reason is obvious about why others resist changes in you.  Anytime you break a routine or change a habit you cause someone else to have to change their routine or habit.  And people resist that. People have expectations of how you should behave because it helps them know how they should behave.

Machiavelli said it well when he said:

There is no more delicate matter to take in-hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to be a leader in the introduction of changes.  For he who innovates will have for enemies all those who are well off under the old order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.”[31]

The key point here is when he says, “only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.”  Notice he says, “MIGHT BE BETTER OFF.”  That’s the key.  Any time you change there is a risk the change will not be all you expect.


Biological Obstacles to Change

Now that I’ve talked about the important environmental obstacles to change, I want to talk about the important biological obstacles to change.

Yes, unfortunately, our own biology resists change.  Our bodies have multiple thermostat like control systems that try to maintain a steady state.  And our brain develops “ruts” in a very similarly manner to the way repetitive use will cause roads to develop “ruts”.  These biological “ruts” and control systems make change difficult.

Making things even worse for you is that these biological control systems become more set over time.  So that while it’s not impossible to change as we get older, it’s certainly harder.[32]

The image I like to use is glass.  When melted, glass can be molded into any shape.  But once it’s hardened it cannot be changed as much.  You might be able paint the outside different colors or chip away or add stuff, but the basic shape is locked in.  Of course, you can melt it down completely and start over.  It can be “born again.”  But that is a drastic change that requires a lot of energy.  And even then, the impurities in the glass have not gone away.  All you have done is change the shape.  The basic elements are the same.


My point here is to reinforce the notion that change is very hard.  Yet, even though something is hard does not mean you can’t do it.  You just have to understand the obstacles and overcome them.

Think about it like you are going on a trip.  As you prepare for the trip you have to think of what your obstacles will be.  If you know there won’t be any gas stations along the way, you have to pack extra gas.  Or if you know it is going to be cold, you have to pack a heavy coat.  The more you know the obstacles you will face on your trip the more prepared you can be to complete your trip successfully.

Managing your personal change is like that too.  If you know what the obstacles are, you can prepare to go around them, over them, or break them down.  The better prepared you are; the more likely you will overcome the obstacles.


Overview of Biological Foundations

Over the last few hundred years there have been huge scientific breakthroughs in our understanding of how our body works.  The tools we’ve built, like the microscope, Electroencephalogram (EEG)[33], and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)[34], have given us great insight into not only how, but sometimes even why, we do what we do.


Genetics and Genetic Predisposition

In order to truly understand the biological reasons that change is so hard you have to understanding the role genes play in determining our behavior.  So I’m going to spend some time talking about this subject.  I have to say that this topic is somewhat controversial.  The debate is not whether genes play a role at all; pretty much everyone agrees genes play a role in determining our behavior.  The disagreement is over how much they play a role.

Some people, me included, think genes play an extremely large role.  Others think the environment is much more important.  I will leave that discussion for other people.  What I want to do here is provide some of the things everyone agrees with so you can start to develop the tools to help you change.

Beginning with the work of Gregor Mendel, on through the work of Watson and Crick, and through to today with the Human Genome Project, we have a whole body of scientific observations about how genes work and how they influence behavior.

While, we know you get your eye color, hair color, and height from your genes, we also know that most behavioral traits are not genetically “hardwired” in us.  Rather, today, everyone pretty much agrees that our behavior is a result of a complex dance of our genes and our environment.

I found the following quote on the Internet that I thought was well said:

The things that people do hardly ever arise directly from the promptings of their DNA. But if we humans do not possess pre-soldered circuits that determine our daily actions, we nonetheless have neurological “wiring” whose characteristics strongly influence those actions. And genes clearly play a central role in both how that system comes into being and how it works.[35]

Our genetic predispositions are the major contributor to who we are.  Please recognize that I use the term “predisposition” intentionally.  Just because we have a predisposition does not mean it will be reality.  There are many factors, both biological and environmental, that ultimately determine who we are.

Michael Phelps is a great example[36].  Michael Phelps was born with a genetic predisposition toward swimming.  His body is short.  His legs and arms are long.  His hands are big.  That is all genetics.  However, his environment also played a huge role in his success.  He was lucky enough to be born to a family that could afford to give him swim lessons and hire coaches.  And it is through this dedicated coaching and tremendous family focus that he was able to achieve success.  Yes, nature gave Michael Phelps the genes to make him a great swimmer.  But he was lucky enough to be born in an environment that was able to nurture his predispositions.[37]  I just found a great discussion of this in Scientific America.[37a]

Studies of identical twins raised apart show that genetics plays a huge role in deciding who you are.  Yet, those same studies show it’s not 100%.  Those studies show that your environment also has a role in deciding who you are.

As a result most believe that both genetics and environment are important.  We know that we’re born with innate abilities and traits, but we also know that our environment shapes those abilities and traits.

The most actionable questions here are:

  • Does the ability to change remain fairly fixed over time?

  • Or do we gradually lose our ability to change as we get older?

I’m not a scientist.  So, what I’m going to say should be taken with the proverbial “grain of salt.”  But I think that our fundamental behavioral traits are hardwired in us by our genes.  Our environment can influence them, but in general and on average, we are who we are.  Go to a hospital neonatal ward and you will see babies that are active and babies that are passive.  Given no significant environmental shock, like abuse, drugs, malnutrition, illness, or accident, those babies will generally be that way the rest of their life.

Look up the term, “Genetic Predisposition” and you will see exactly my point.  The term implies that while our genes might exert great influences on who we are, who you are is not necessarily locked in.

I believe that if you are short tempered, you will be short tempered your whole life.  I believe that if you have an addictive personality, you will have an addictive personality your whole life.  But I also believe that there are tools you can use to change who you are.  If you are short tempered, you can try counting to 10 or try to not put yourself into situations that cause you to lose your temper.  If you have an addictive personality you can manage it by finding positive things to be addicted to, like living a healthy lifestyle or supporting your family and avoiding negative addictions like not going to Las Vegas.

There are no exercises to make you taller or to change the color of your hair.  But on the other hand, you can dye your hair or put in colored contacts.  And while you’re born with a certain predisposition to a certain weight, if you stop eating you’ll lose weight and eat a lot and you’ll gain weight.[38]


Brain Neurology

I first became interested in how the brain works when I was studying communication as an undergraduate.  That was back in the 1970s.  Since then we have developed a lot of powerful tools like functional Magnetic Resonance Imagining (fMRI) that help us look closely into the brain to see who it works.

I’ll go into much more detail about brain functioning later when I talk about communication, but there is an important point I need to make here about the biological resistance to change.

The brain is made up of a special type of nerve cell called a “neuron.”  There are billions of these neurons.  They connect to each other the way roads connect to each other.  The basic structure of these neurons is determined by our genes.  But the actual pathways that are established can grow or shrink based on use.  The same way that roads that are used a lot get more pronounced and roads that don’t get used eventually disappear.



Your personal habits and skills, like nail-biting, how you write, or using a tool (like the QWERETY keyboard I mentioned earlier), become fixed because you’ve built up, reinforced, and strengthened these neuro pathways.  Your brain has actually changed as a result of repeated use.  It is the nature of the brain that the more you use the same neuro circuits the more those circuits are enhanced.  And it is also true that if you stop using those pathways, they will eventually disappear.  Just like a road will eventually disappear.

These changes can actually be seen in an fMRI.  When researchers scan the brain of flute players they see the areas that control the fingers, tongue, and lips as being dominate.[39]  This holds true for everyone.  The more you practice a habit, the more you create “ruts” in the brain.

The problem is that as you build up these neuropathways we lock in “rigidity.”  This is why it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.  The collective affect of experience makes change hard.  It’s a very sad situation.  On one hand we strive to build expertise through experience, but it’s that very effort that makes change hard.[40]

Yet, while it’s very hard to change for the biological reasons I mentioned, it is not impossible.  Later in this section I will go over specific tools you can use to change these “ruts” in your brain.


Brain Chemistry

In addition to our genes and our neuropathways, our bodies have all kinds of other control systems that resist change.

One of the more interesting control systems that resist change is the brain chemistry itself.  Researchers, Psychologists, Philosophers have known for years that we tend to focus on things we agree with and discount things we disagree with.  In school I learned this as “Cognitive Dissonance.”[41]  But it can also be called “Confirmation Bias,” “Selective Perception,” and “Motivated Reasoning.”  Sigmund Freud actually described this resistance to change by describing how people will change their thinking to avoid bad feelings like anxiety and guilt.[42]

What’s new is the work of Drew Westen at Emory University that actually found a biochemical reason for this resistance to change[43].  He used fMRI to study the brains of people making decisions.[44]  He found that we actually get a chemical “rush” from ignoring information that’s contrary to our point of view.

What Westen found when he looked at fMRI results of people making decisions about things they hold strong views on, was that we don’t see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally used when we reason logically.  On the contrary, we see the network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits thought to be involved in regulating our feelings.

The results showed that we reach totally biased conclusions by ignoring reasonable information (here we define reasonable information as information that could not rationally be discounted.)

With our minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix.  Essentially, we get a huge biochemical reward to come to the conclusion we want.

We Get a huge biochemical reward to come to the conclusion we want.

It appears that confirming our already strongly held belief is like drug.  The more we do it the better we feel.  The more we confirm our existing beliefs the more we eliminate negative emotional states and activate positive ones.

That is why you can argue with someone all day and they will not change their mind.  Even though to you the truth and logic of what you believe is clear and absolute.

What I take away from this research as the key actionable point is that our beliefs are often calcified and hardened by the very brain chemistry that we rely on to help us change.   It’s hard to change because we accept very little from new information that would convince us to change.  Everyone from executives to parents has a biological system inside their brain that rewards the status quo and prevents change.


Other Biological systems that prevent change

I’ve talked about how your genes and your brain chemistry make change difficult.  Well, if that is not enough, you have other biological systems that prevent change.

One of my favorite examples of this is called the “Set Point Theory.”  The “Set point” is a kind of internal thermostat for body fat.  Some people have a high “Set Point.”  Others have a low “Set Point.”  The Set Point is said to be established genetically (that goes back to our earlier discussion on the role of genes.  But for this discussion, how the Set Point gets established is not as important as the fact that it exists.)  Set Point theory alleges that your body naturally tries to maintain a certain weight where, for some reason, your body feels most comfortable.[45]

The way researchers came up with this theory is that they noticed that after some initial weight loss many people reach a roadblock and can’t lose any more weight.  This even included runners and endurance athletes.  Researchers noticed that all of sudden no matter what you do, your weight does not change.

How your body does this is still a bit unknown.  There is probably some complex feed-back system that looks at the amount of calories you’re taking in and the amount of calories your body “feels” it needs[46].  And, in a similar way to the method your body uses to stay warm or cool, you either store excess calories for later use or shed excess calories you body feels it doesn’t need.

In either case it is a great example of how your body resists change.


Physiological Obstacles to Change

Another huge reason change is so difficult is that in order to change you first have to admit that what you did before was wrong and needs to change.  A person not only has to want to change, but they also have to admit that what they did before needs changing.

The problem is that while most people want to change, they find change difficult because change implies that what they did before was bad.  This is a hard pill for many to shallow.

Finally another reason change is so difficult is that it is not always clear that the change will actually result in a better life.  Remember the Machiavelli quote I talked about before:

“There is no more delicate matter to take in-hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to be a leader in the introduction of changes.  For he who innovates will have for enemies all those who are well off under the old order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.”[47]

Not only does this apply to others but it applies to us all personally.  We all want to change but we are not so sure that the change will actually be a good thing.


Learning takes Honesty

One of the biggest barriers to learning is a lack of honesty.

Normally the lack of honesty starts with yourself, but it also encompasses your environment.  Teachers need to be honest with their students and students need to be honest with their teachers.

When I was in college, I remember a story a professor told.  I think he said it was from Faust[48].  The professor pointed out that over time a silver serving tray develops a lot of little scratches and those scratches are all in random directions.  But if you hold a candle up to the tray all the scratches form concentric circles around the candle.  The point of this story is that we tend to see ourselves as the center of the universe, even though we’re not.  We tend to see events that have nothing to do with us, as being about us.  We all do the same thing in our lives, in that we see actual random or unrelated events as happening because of us.  The Faust story suggests that we tend to overvalue our own importance in the world.

When viewed from our own perspective, the world seems to revolve around us.  What are mostly just random events, we see as caused by us.  When you go to the store and the sales person is nasty to you, you think they are nasty because they don’t like you personally.  You may think they are nice to everyone else; they are just nasty to you.  But more likely it has nothing to do with you.  They may be having a bad day because their boss yelled at them, or their spouse just left them, or because their kid just got kicked off the soccer team.  In reality they did not think of you before they interacted with you and will not think of you after they interact with you.

In spite of what you think, the world does not revolve around you.  You are just one more traveler amongst many other travelers.  Chances are that the same thing that we think is happening because of us is happening to everyone else, and they are all thinking it’s happening because of them.

We all have a hard time separating ourselves from this perspective.  I’ve come to call this the, “It’s all about me” philosophy.  I don’t consider this good or bad.  I take it as it is and simply accept it as the way the world works.[49]  When you accept a job, you accept it to benefit yourself.  You ask; “what’s in it for me?”  When you go on a date, you ask, “What’s in it for me?” I live my life accepting the fact that everyone is acting in their own best interests most of the time.[50]

The key here is to gain an honest self-understanding of our abilities.  This is the hardest step because, for most of us, it’s very difficult to get an honest view of our capabilities.

We need to look in the mirror.  In his critically acclaimed book, “Good to Great” Jim Collins suggests that a key trait of a “level 5” leader is their ability to critically look at themselves.[51]

I include a discussion of self assessment in Chapter 2, the discussion of setting goals, since a key element of knowing where you need to go is where you are coming from.  But, please recognize, that no book, in and of itself, can help you learn about yourself.

To learn about yourself you need one key word, “Honesty!”  You need to honestly look in the mirror.  You need to honestly hear what people have to say to you.

We tend to see ourselves and each other through perceptual lenses colored by our own understandings of reality.  Clearly some activities are easier to get an honest view then other activities.  Sports are easier because there are objective measures of performance.  Things like batting averages, number of tackles, distance one can drive a golf ball, how high one can jump, how fast one can run, or eye hand coordination are available for all to see.  In sports one can objectively measure, speed, strength, or size.  Also in sports there are any number of coaches, sports writers, and/or fans that are constantly providing feedback on your abilities, skills, and talents (whether we want the feedback or not).

Unfortunately, assessing our learning abilities is not like assessing our sports ability.  For learning, there are so many different forces affecting behavior, that it’s nearly impossible to get accurate measures of one’s abilities.

Never-the-less, however difficult as it may be, it’s essential that we strive to have, at all times, an honest self-appraisal.

The way I try to be honest with myself is to start with the premise that anything I know could be wrong.  That way I’m interested in anything that can help me.  I’m always looking for ways to know if what I’m doing is the best thing for me at this moment.  It’s very hard sometimes to get good feedback from others because people want to be nice and we’re taught that if you don’t have something good to say about someone it’s better not to say anything at all.  But, that doesn’t help me grow.  I try to put myself in situations where I can learn.  Sometimes that means getting feedback I don’t like.  Or sometimes I get feedback that is not actionable.  But in general the feedback is there to help me learn.


Tools to help you Change

Ok, you’ve decided to change something about you.  Great!  Congratulations.

But, just saying you want to change is not enough.  As I’ve said, change is difficult, especially for adults that have built a lifetime of habits.

My father had a saying, “A poor workman always argues with his tools.”  I have totally internalized this message in my life.  The actionable take away from this saying is that as you study the tools I’m going to present, please remember; it is the person that uses the tool, not the tool itself that creates success.  Ansell Adams used very primitive camera equipment compared to today’s equipment, yet he took great photos.

So now I will present the tools to help you change.


Tools to help you Learn

Tool #1 – Develop a Learning Plan

The first tool to help you change is called a “Learning Plan.”  A learning plan is like route guidance you might get from MapQuest© or Garmin Navigation Systems©.  To use these navigation systems you first put in your current location (or it finds it automatically) and then you put in your destination and the system plans your route.

A learning plan is exactly the same thing.  You put in where you are now (this goes back to the section on honesty, the more honest the better the plan).  You put in where you want to go (here not only honesty, but a clear understanding of the natural laws of a thing will help you pick a destination).  And you get a learning plan to go from here to there.  Going back to our discussion about learning equaling change, your learning plan would provide route guidance on how to change.

And if your MapQuest map said you had to go over the mountains and it was winter and you could get snow, then that would be an obstacle.  And knowing that obstacle, you could plan on bringing snow chains.  However, if your route did not include snow than you’ve have no need for chains.  Do you see how a route map helps you predict obstacles?  And how knowing the obstacles helps you prepared to overcome them.

In an old textbook I used to use to teach the Strategic Management of Technology, the editor, Burgelman, asked philosophically, “can the management of technology and innovation be taught, and if so, how?[52]”  This question got me thinking about learning in general.  Can something be taught and if so how?

The answer to the first part of the question is easy.  The answer is YES, the management of technology and innovation can be taught.  In fact, I believe that the management of anything can be taught.  The hard part of Burgelman’s question is the second part – how can one effectively teach the management of technology.  How can one effectively teach anything?


5 Step Learning Process

In thinking about how best to learn, I’ve come up with a five step learning process.[53]

Step One: Have a Clear Goal

I’m going to go into detail about setting goals in the next Chapter so I’ll not get too wordy here.  But I do want to go over why a learning goal is necessary and what a learning goal would look like.

Let’s say that your job sucks and you want to change jobs.  Well, ok, that can be the goal; the goal is to change jobs.   So what do you have to do to change jobs?  You have to look for and apply for a new job.  You have to prepare and send your resume.  And you will have to interview.  If you know how to do all those things, then you don’t have to learn anything.  However, if you don’t know how to do those things, or you think you can improve how you do those things then you are starting to narrow down your learning goals.  Perhaps you only need to improve the way you write resumes or the way you interview.  In that case you learning goal is very specific.

I think it should be obvious, and not to belabor the point, but you recognize that you first have to admit to yourself that your resume skills or your interviewing skills need improvement.  The first step in setting your leaning goals is to acknowledge that there are things you don’t know.  You first have to admit that you need to change.  Then you have to look for the specific things that need to change.  There is no need to put in a learning plan to stop smoking if you don’t think you need to stop smoking.

Any goal implies that you are not where you want to be.  A learning goal is just one step in getting where you want to be.  A learning goal sets out the things you need to know, that you don’t already know, that will get you to where you want to be.


Step Two: Learn the Natural Laws and Rules

The next step in the learning process is to understand the laws and rules that affect a thing.  By understanding the dynamics of how a thing works, you can develop strategies for effective management of that thing.  In everything you do, the more you know about the natural laws and rules that affect it, the better chance you have to succeed at it.  This is true for sports, childrearing, computer programming, medicine, and/or communication.

Some of these laws and rules are fixed and cannot be changed.  Others are arbitrary and can easily be changed.  Let’s take a few examples of this.  First let’s take a track and field example; the high jump.  There are a number of natural rules about muscles and speed and the more a high jumper knows about the kinetics and physics of jumping the better they jump.  You cannot change basic physiology or physics.  The faster you go the higher you can jump.  That is why you can jump higher when you get a running start than from a standing start.  I don’t care who you are.  The physics and physiology of jumping state in an unbreakable rule that you can jump higher by getting a running start.  However, there are also rules that can change.  For example the Fosbury Flop.  Before Dick Fosbury everyone jumped with their stomach to the bar.  Fosbury changed that rule and jumped with his back to the bar.


Before Fosburry

Front Facing Bar

After Fosbury

Back Facing Bar


Another example; In order to be a pilot it’s critical to learn aerodynamics.  The more a pilot knows about how a plane flies the better they can pilot.  Or how about a doctor; A doctor needs to learn chemistry and biology.

Or here is another example, let’s say you want to stop smoking.  It would be helpful to understand the biology of the addiction to smoking.  Is the addiction physical?  Is the addiction psychological?  Knowing which it is will help you achieve your goal.

If you want to change jobs, the more you know about how people are selected for jobs the better chance you have to learn the things you need to learn.

Colleges are most often organized around the natural laws they think are the most important.[54] They have departments dedicated to the natural laws of things; Physics, Business, Geology, etc.

Here is another example.  In writing this book I need to put references, but there is a thing called “Copyright” that I need to pay attention to.  So I need to learn everything I can about Copyright law.  Now, I recognize that I’m not an expert in Copyright law, and I’ll have to hire an expert.  However, I still want to learn everything I can about it so I can make informed decisions.


Step Three: Learn about Yourself

This is an important step.  In the movie Stargate the scientist is explaining how the Stargate works.  He says that to get someplace you need not only to know where you are going, but you need to know where you are starting from.

There are any number of ways to learn about yourself.

Of course looking in a mirror is always a good start.


But we don’t always see ourselves as we are, we see ourselves as we want to be.  I’ll give you two good examples.  First, have you ever heard a recording of you own voice and thought to yourself that doesn’t sound like me.  But if you ask those around you they will say it definitely sounds like you.  That is because we hear ourselves differently than others hear us.

In business, there is any number of assessments.  Myers-Briggs is a good one.

One important source of honesty are those that love you the most.  It is up to those closest to you to be the most honest with you.  If you ask your husband if this dress makes you look fat, you should really be looking for an honest answer.  I read somewhere that executives that succeed usually have family members around them that can be honest with them.


Step Four: Develop a Learning Plan and Put it into Action

The fourth step is on one hand the easiest step, and on the other hand, the hardest.

Once you know what you need to learn, putting together an action plan to learn it’s fairly straightforward.  However, actually improving ones behavior can be almost impossible.

Let’s say you want to be a Professional baseball pitcher.  Let’s also say that you have all the skills you need, except one, you don’t have a fastball.  You know it.  Your coaches know it.  Everyone knows you don’t have a fastball.  But no matter what you do, or how hard you try, you just cannot develop a Major League fastball.  At some point you will have to recognize that, if you need a fastball to make it in the Majors, and if you cannot develop one, you simply will not make it in the Majors.

Think if it this way.  It is easy to go to MapQuest and plan a route.  It is much more difficult to actually travel that route.


Step Five: Evaluate the Plan

After you have done your planning and put your plan into action, you’re still not done.  You need to evaluate how you are doing.  If you want to lose weight, you would weigh yourself.  If you want to stop smoking you would count how many cigarettes you have had.  If you want to get a new job, you would evaluate how you are doing getting a new job.


2 Examples of a Learning Plan

Now let me provide a couple of examples of a learning plan.  I want to demonstrate how you can actually use this 5-step process instinctively in any number of situations.

Again here is a overview of a “Learning Plan”

Example #1  – Driving

You see the light up ahead turn to yellow.

  1. Step 1 – Set a Goal – you decide to stop rather than speed up and go through before it turns red.
  2. Step 2 – Understand the natural laws – you understand the physics of stopping a car and how much pressure to apply to the breaks to stop.
  3. Step 3 –  Honesty– you know you, personally like to come to a gradual stop.  Others might like to come to more of an abrupt stop .
  4. Step 4 – Action – you start applying pressure to the brakes.
  5. Step 5 – Learning – you evaluate your decision and the reality that the car is stopping.  If you misjudged your speed you might press on the brake harder or lighter.

Now that you understand how to learn, let’s take it for a drive and see how it performs.[55]  Let’s apply the learning steps I listed above to a real situation.

Example #2 – Installing a phone line

  1. Step 1 – Set the goal – I needed a move a fax machine from one location to another.  But where I wanted to move it to had no phone connection.[56]  So the goal is; I need a phone line in the new location.
  2. Step 2 – Learn the natural laws – I happen to know exactly what it takes to hook up a phone line.  Remember I worked in the Telecommunication Industry for 33+ years so I know the physics of phone lines, dial tone, and how to physically connect a phone.
  3. Step 3- Learn about yourself – I happen to know I can do this.  No, I really know I can do this.  So there is nothing I need to learn new about myself.  But if you didn’t know all this stuff you would have to put a learning plan in place to learn it all.
  4. Step 4 – Develop a plan and act on it – First I plan to see if there was a telephone jack already in the new location.  If not I would map out a way to get a phone jack there.  So the first thing I needed to do is check out the situation.  Did I have a cable there and if not how much cable would I need to wire it to the nearest connection.  There was a cable there, which was good.  Perhaps it’s already hot[57].  It was not hot.  So I had to find out where the wire went so I could connect it to the network.  If I had better tools I could have done it in a few minutes.  With the tools I had it took almost an hour. While I was connecting the phone jack I took the opportunity to clean up all the other cables.
  5. Step 5 – Evaluate – Using the right tools would it have made the job go faster?  I also learned there is another line coming in to the house that I did not know about, which is not actionable information for this project but could be actionable information on another project (I will explain about actionable information and storing information for later use in the Chapter on Getting Good Information.)


Tool #2 – Persistence and Perspiration as a Fundamental Tool for Change

Here are some more quotes that fit into this section.

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. This will press on and always will solve the problems of the human race.”  – Calvin Coolidge

At the age of 22, he went into business and failed, at the age of 23, he had an idea about politics, he ran for the legislature and he lost.  At age 24, he went back into business and failed again.  At age 25, he was elected to the legislature.  At age 26, the love of his life died.  At age 27, he had a nervous breakdown.  At age 29, he ran for elected office and lost.  At age 31, he ran for elected office and lost.  At age 34, he ran for Congress and lost.  At age 37, he was elected to Congress.  But at age 39, he was defeated for Congress.  At age 46, he ran for the Senate and lost.  At age 47, he ran for the Vice President, and lost.  At age 49, he ran for the Senate and lost again.  At age 51, he was elected President of the United States.  The story of Abraham Lincoln.    [58]

Our Greatest Glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The difference between the possible and the impossible lies in a person’s determination.” ~Tommy Lasorda 

“You carry on no matter what the obstacles. You simply refuse to give up – and, when the going gets tough, you get tougher. And, you win.” ~ Vince Lombardi 

 “Every day you make progress.  Every step may be fruitful.  Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path.  You know you will never get to the end of the journey.  But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.”  -Sir Winston Churchill

Don’t wait until everything is just right.  It will never be perfect.  There will always be challenges, obstacles and less than perfect conditions.  So what.  Get started now.  With each step you take, you will grow stronger and stronger, more and more skilled, more and more self-confident and more and more successful.  – Mark Victor Hansen

We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence then is not an act but a habit. – Aristotle

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” -Winston Churchill

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…You must do the thing you cannot do.”  – Eleanor Roosevelt

Persistence and hard work are powerful tools for change because you can never know where the limit of your capabilities are until you push yourself to the limit of your capabilities.

I don’t know if it’s actually true but I read on the Internet somewhere that persistent people:

  • Obtain more education
  • Get better grades
  • Make more money
  • More likely to make it through the first year of a military academy
  • Progress through more rounds of a spelling Bee

This list of what persistent people obtain, makes sense to me.  Successful people don’t give up.  Successful people work very hard at whatever they are trying to do.


Tool #3 – Read/Watch/Listen to everything

If you remember, the second step in the learning process is to understand the natural laws of the thing you want to learn.  So to that end you need to constantly look for information about that thing.  You need to read everything you can.  You need to watch TV and listen to the radio with an eye toward the things you want to learn.  You need to talk to people.  You need to pay attention to the world around you.

The assumption is that there may be a trick to accomplishing your goal.  You want to find those tricks.  Whenever I work with someone on a project and they are using Microsoft Word, or Excel, or PowerPoint or any software, I watch what they do.  It’s not uncommon for me to say, “OH! I didn’t know you could do that.”

Or, when I’m flipping through the TV if I see something that I’m trying to learn I will watch.  Or if I’m listening to the radio, I listen for something I can use, like the story I told earlier about the radio program.

I subscribe to numerous journals about the things I’m interested in.  I talk to people about things I’m interested in.  I keep an eye out for anything that can help.

Tool #4 – Give everyone respect

Here is a tool that I find very helpful.  But, I know many have a hard time with it.  You should give everyone respect.  By giving people respect you are accepting they may have something to offer.  Even if you disagree with them on political, religious, and/or cultural issues, you should give them respect.

I often read on the blogs that someone discounts someone’s opinion simply because of who they are.  This is a huge mistake.  You can learn from everyone.

Tool #5 – Teach by Example

The Bible has been a very good source of great advice for me over the years.  The one verse I’ve found most influential is:

And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart.  Thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.[59]


The key piece of advice here is that, while we acknowledge that teaching is essential, how we teach is as, or even more, significant.  This verse tells us we need to teach as part of our daily lives.  But is also tells us we need to teach by example.  We need to teach, not just by telling people what to do, but by the way we live.  We need to teach when we sit at home, when we go on a journey, when we rise up, and when we lie down.  We need to be teaching all the time and the only way to do that is by living what we want to teach.  If we are successful then others will see that and learn from it.

Winston Churchill said, “Personally I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.

I tend to agree with Churchill here.  I had a boss once that was always trying to “coach” me.  After every meeting, after every report I submitted, and after every important email, he would tell me what I could have done better.  While I tried to pay attention to what he said, it was difficult because what he was trying to teach me was to be like him.  And clearly I’m not him.  He truly believed in his heart and mind that there is “one best way” and that was his way.  He really wanted to help me rise above my weaknesses.[60]  But the problem was that he was trying to simply tell me what to do, and it frustrated him to no end that I didn’t get it.  What he didn’t understand was that I would have learned more if I would’ve seen an examples of what he was trying to teach.  This might be similar to the saying that, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”  People are much more willing to learn if they see the teacher living what they teach and see that it works for them.

Teaching by example also allows us to teach all the time.  We don’t have to be in a “Classroom” to teach.  And teaching by example allows us to teach people we don’t even know.  People just see what we’re doing and can change their behavior if they choose.

Clearly the idea of teaching by example is not a new or original thought.  I find this notion in all kinds of places.  In the movie Invictus[61] Nelson Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, asks the Rugby Captain, François Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, about his theory of leadership. Damon replies that he tries to lead by example.  Albert Einstein says, “Example isn’t another way to teach, it’s the only way to teach.”  A simple search of the Internet of “teach by example” yields a lot of interesting things.  I particularly liked the verse that says teachers should live what they teach by Dorothy Nolte.[62]


The point here is when you learn something that works you need to live it.  There was a great movie called “Pay it Forward” with Kevin Spacey.  The moral of the movie was that if you do something nice for someone, rather than pay you back, they should do something nice for someone else.  Teaching by example is like that.  When you learn something, if you live it, you are paying the lesson forward to other people.


[1] The proverbial, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” and “if it’s to be, it’s up to me.”

[2] Mark Van Doren (June 13, 1894 – December 10, 1972) was an American Pulitzer Prize winning poet, writer, critic, and a professor of English at Columbia University

[3] This goes to my earlier point that I may not have the best answers for you.  So I may not be the best teacher for you.  Which is OK!  My goal is to get you to want to learn.  And if you think there might be a better teacher, I will not feel hurt in any way.

[4] I did a search on this to find the source and could not.  But it did yield over 12 Million hits.  So it’s probably important.

[5] I think this line was also in the first Zorro movie with Anthony Hopkins and Katherine Zata-Jones

[6] Lao-tzuThe Way of Lao-tzu Chinese philosopher (604 BC – 531 BC)

[7] Merriam Webster 10th Edition.  Also interestingly I noticed that the word “learn” was listed as a verb, but the word “learning” was listed as a noun.  I don’t know why that is.  Perhaps you can help explain it.

[8] It’s interesting that the word “learn” is a verb and the word “learning” is a noun.  I don’t get it.

[9] Every now and then I go though my file cabinet and throw out things I will never use.  I use two criteria for saving a piece of information; first will I ever need it, and second if I need it can I find it to use it.  If I cannot answer positively to both those questions I trash it.

[10] I guess they send it out because some point it might change.  If they followed my thinking they would only send out the statement when changes.  But be that as it may.  That is a whole other discussion.

[11] Clearly, once I get a new statement I should throw out the old ones.  But it’s hard for me to throw them away because they come of the government on official looking stationary.

[12] Computers use various methods of storage; disk drives, memory chips, and memory cards.

[13] I will explain what a “bit of information” is in the Chapter on Information.

[14] There are many on the market.  I used Reg Cure for a while.  Just do a search on Registry cleaners and you’ll see what I mean.  Some people even buy a new computer at that point.

[15] Calvin Coolidge – I could not find the specific reference other than he said it.

[16] I’m going to talk about a thing called “Confirmation Bias” later in the book.  The talks about how many people will ignore knowledge if it might cause them to change their behavior.

[17] The term “fad” diet implies a diet that is not very good for you.

[18] I need to send a letter to Webster asking them to modify their definition in their dictionary to mine.

[19] but that is a whole other discussion

[20] I know that it’s easier said than done.  But I just trying to make a point.  So please bear with me for a minute, hopefully the point will be clear.

[21] Perhaps they have a handicap that prevents them from physically cleaning their room.

[22] Marbling is the fat.  Ribeye, as opposed to a lean filet, has more fat.

[23] Clearly a shameless plug for her book.

[24] Change or Die, Alan Deutschman

[25] In the old days it was called a dictionary.

[26] Newton’s First Law of Motion, translated from the Principia‘s Latin

[27] Dominate Design “is a product design that is adopted by the majority of producers, typically creating a stable architecture on which the industry can focus its efforts” Schilling p. 57

[28] The Strategic Management of technological Innovation, Melissa A. Shilling

[29] There are a lot of other reasons but that is for a different time.

[30] Was it Robert Frost that talk about taking the “road less traveled.”

[31] The Prince

[32] Something about teaching an old dog new tricks.

[33] Measures and records the electrical activity of your brain by using sensors (electrodes)

[34] Uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to look inside the brain and can measure areas of activity.

[36] Michael Phelps is a world class swimmer.  He won 8 gold medals in the 2008 Olympics.

[37] Michael Gladwell has a great book on this called “The Outliers.”


[38] It’s said that for the movie Castaway, Tom Hanks gained and lost a tremendous amount of weight.

[39] I got this reference from the Alan Deutschman “Change or die” article.  But there are any number of references for this.  It is a pretty well recognized fact that specific brain pathways are enhanced by use.

[40] The key technical word here is “plasticity.”  In this context “plasticity” means change.  Research has shown that the brain can change.  But research has also shown that as we get older it gets harder to change the structure.  See the work of Michael Merzenich for more information on this topic.

[41] Cognitive Dissonance is the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time so we tend to discount one.

[42] Researchers that study decisions have long noted that people tend to move toward decisions that maximize the expected benefits to them.  I call it the “it’s all about me” theory.

[43] I go into great detail about these biochemical in Chapter 3 in the Section about how nervous system works.

[44] Drew Weston et al., “The Neural Basis of Motivated Reasoning: an fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Political Judgment during the U.S. Presidential Election of 2004,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18, no. 11 (2006): 1947-1958.


[46] Interesting that I say your body “feels” it needs.  How it feels this is a mystery to me.  But somehow it knows.

[47] The Prince

[48] I have not been able to find the source of this quote Faust.  So if someone knows the source please let me know.  It’s a great story anyway, even if it’s not true.

[49] One of my neighbors, Anthony Marsella, has written on Altruism and we have had a number of talks about it.  The question is, does the act of altruism violate the “it’s all about me” philosophy?  It’s possible that it does not since it’s possible that those that act altruistically do so to make themselves feel better or to please God, or to help themselves in some way.  I would love to talk about this further but it’s not the point of this book.

[50] Adam Smith talked about people acting in their own “enlightened self interests.” It’s not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

[51] Good to Great, Chapter 2 Pages 17 – 40

[52] Strategic Management of Technology and Innovation, 4rd Edition by Robert Burgelman, Clayton Christensen, Steven C. Wheelwrigth, McGraw-Hill, 2004, SBN# 0-07-253695-0

[53] Notice this is not a 5 Step teaching process.  Again, I see a huge difference between teaching and learning.

[54] See appendix A for a list of the different departments between USC and Liberty University.  It was interesting that Liberty had a school of religion.  And I wondered if that school followed the same scientific method as all the others like the school of Aeronautics.  Or if they raised the standards for both?

[55] This quote is in the Movie “American President” where Michael J. Fox says they should take their high approval rating out for a spin and see how it performs.

[56] We needed something more convenient.

[57] Hot is telephone talk being that it has dial tone or a data signal.


[59] Deuteronomy 6:7

[60] There are a lot of references for this.  My favorite is in Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman’s series of books on Strengths Management.  See the section on Temptations in “First Break all the Rules” for a great analysis of this.


[62] Teachers should live what they teach.  Dorothy Nolte shows that children frequently learn simply by watching their teachers or role models.  See the entire quote in the notes at the end of this book.

(Dorothy Nolte, “Children Learn What They Live,” Scouting Magazine (April, 1964), page 31, as quoted in The Teaching Ministry of the Church, page 114)