Have you found your learning mantra? - Michelle Gibbings

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My laundry list of books to read seems endless. When I go into a bookstore, I rarely leave without a few purchases, and my Kindle is full of books I am waiting to read.

Yes, I am one of ‘those people’ – a book hoarder. As you can appreciate (also given my work), I love learning.

But there’s a catch because we live in a world of abundance. An abundance of ideas, data and information. The challenge is there is so much available that we can be overwhelmed. What do I need to remember? What can I exclude? Where do I need to direct my attention?

As the noted economist and Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon said, we live in a world with a “wealth of information”, which is creating “a poverty of attention”.

He’s right. We often don’t know where to focus our attention, and when our information gathering is scattered, it can lead to a paucity of insights.

We know that learning is critical. However, not all learning approaches are equally effective. That’s where the concept of a ‘learning mantra’ comes into play. Understanding and embracing your learning mantra can significantly transform how you acquire knowledge, skills and expertise.

Define your learning mantra
If you’ve ever participated in a yoga or meditation session, you will likely have repeated a mantra.

A mantra is a word, phrase, or sound from ancient traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The word comes from Sanskrit, with ‘man’ meaning ‘mind’ and ‘tra’ meaning ‘tool’ or ‘instrument’. So a mantra is a tool or instrument of the mind.

When used with intention and sincerity, mantras can impact how you focus, help cultivate positive emotions, connect you with your deeper self and create a sense of inner peace.

They are also helpful with learning. Think of it like the inner voice or messages you repeat to yourself about how and what you learn. You then support that mantra with learning systems and processes.

This way, your learning mantra becomes the beliefs, principles, and strategies that resonate with your individual learning style and preferences. It’s the mindset and techniques you adopt to absorb, process, and apply information effectively.

Uncover your learning mantra
Discovering your learning mantra involves reflecting on past learning experiences to identify what’s worked and the techniques that have yielded the best results.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • How do I prefer to learn? Do I learn best through visual aids, hands-on experiences, or verbal explanations?
  • What environment allows me to concentrate and absorb information most effectively?
  • Am I more inclined towards independent study or collaborative learning?
  • What motivates and engages me during the learning process?
  • What are my preferred methods for organising and processing information?
  • What messages do I tell myself about how and what I learn?
  • Do I regularly challenge myself to take on learning activities that stretch my mind?

As part of this process, you want to examine your learning diet. Consider:

  1. Do you spend much of your time consuming meaningless TV or perhaps trashy novels (i.e. the equivalent of a ‘junk food’ learning diet)? Or do you seek a broad range of learning with a mixture of entertaining, informative and challenging sources (i.e. the equivalent of a ‘whole food’ learning diet)?
  2. Is your appetite for learning limited, so you do the bare minimum, or are you always hungry and eager to know more?

Be Curious
Crucial to this process is taking a curious approach to learning.

World-renowned architect Frank Gehry, when asked what advice he’d give architects of today said“This is obvious, but I’d say remain curious. Curiosity is great. And be yourself. When I teach a class, the first thing I do with students is ask them to write their signature on a piece of paper. And we spread them out and I say, “They all look different and that’s you, and that’s you, and that’s you, so stay with that forever.”

Following Gehry’s thinking, when setting up your learning approach, look beyond the obvious and familiar sources – the ones you always go to. Seek out sources and information outside your industry or profession because that is often where the real gems are, and it is on the fringes that change is happening.

Dig deeply into information that you are curious about. Wonder why it is so. Ask lots of questions. Don’t take things at face value; instead, seek to validate what you read and hear.

Develop your routine
Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, embraces a learning system he learned from his dad. Daily, he writes in his diary the tasks he has done, the people he has met and the ideas generated to act on. He notes how the source of the ideas generated are from people and the work that was done, creating a continuous learning system.

Similarly, Organisational Psychologist Adam Grant has a to-do list, which covers the people he wants to meet and what he wants to learn.

It helps to set up a routine where you read daily. When it becomes a daily habit, you are far more able to consume and digest information. As part of this, establish a knowledge diet that is expansive and full of books, journals, talks, podcasts, and whatever else you fancy to build your insights.

Know the Context
When it comes to learning, context matters. Sometimes ideas won’t resonate because we aren’t ready to hear the message.

As the author Doris Lessing commented“There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag – and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty-and vise versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.”

While I agree with the sentiment, it is also essential to challenge yourself, which means listening and reading material from people that you don’t agree with. See if you can understand their perspective. If you only seek information from people you agree with, your ideas will never be challenged and tested.

As author and philosopher Charles Handy wrote in his book, The Elephant and the Flea: “Walk in other worlds, look, listen, inquire, then go back and turn it into a new way of looking at your world, fix the new concept into your consciousness by using it. If it fails to make a difference, discard it quickly, go look elsewhere“.

Create space
The wonderful thing about life is that you can learn something new every day. How awesome is that? But you need to create space and opportunity for that to happen.

Carve out space and find quiet time. The novelist Jeanette Winterson in this article for The Guardian, explains why nighttime and darkness are so powerful for tapping into our emotions and creativity.

She writes: “I have noticed that when all the lights are on, people tend to talk about what they are doing — their outer lives. Sitting round in candlelight or firelight, people start to talk about how they are feeling – their inner lives. They speak subjectively, they argue less, there are longer pauses. To sit alone without any electric light is curiously creative. I have my best ideas at dawn or at nightfall, but not if I switch on the lights — then I start thinking about projects, deadlines, demands, and the shadows and shapes of the house become objects, not suggestions, things that need to done, not a background to thought.”

Consider what you need to alter or shift in your environment to make your environment more conducive to learning. Seek out the corners, spaces and lightness (or darkness) that work for you. Whether it’s a quiet corner at home, a bustling coffee shop, or a well-organised digital workspace.

As well, explore various learning techniques, such as mnemonics, mind mapping, or self-quizzing, to find what works best for you. Embrace trial and error to refine your methods. You may want to engage with a coach, mentor or peer who can challenge your learning mantra and approach. And remember, there is so much to be gained from collaborative discussions, debates and idea exchanges to enhance your understanding and perspective.

Hold close to the words of the famous US jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, “A mind once stretched will never go back to its original dimension“.

So, what will your learning mantra be?

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.

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