Some ideas and issues are so big, they can be hard to fully grasp in a single sitting, let alone developing an informed opinion on the matter.
Today, we’re more likely than ever to abandon any topic for which this rings true. More than a day’s worth of learning? Nah, that’s too much time and effort. My Twitter feed is waiting!
Yet those topics that ask more of us… the ones that require us to dig in and be challenged. The ones that require us to rewire our brains slowly, bit-by-bit as we continue to build our knowledge over time.
In this excellent article about how learning literally re-wires our brains, Alice Pearce Stevens shares why it’s important to learn things over time rather than trying to cram everything into one learning session:
…an “aha!” moment — when something suddenly becomes clear — doesn’t come out of nowhere. Instead, it is the result of a steady accumulation of information. That’s because adding new information opens up memories associated with the task. Once those memory neurons are active, they can form new connections, explains Bergstrom. They also can form stronger connections within an existing network. Over time, your level of understanding increases until you suddenly “get” it.
In other words, as we shy away from in-depth learning that occurs over days, weeks, months, and even years, we sell ourselves short of our potential to develop fully formed ideas and opinions.
As we spend more time on social media and less time trying to grasp complicated topics and ideas, our brain neurons fire off stray messages that never create fully-formed networks. In the process, we become more and more distracted, retaining less of the information we consume.
Because of our lack of foundational layers of memory tied to any one topic, we have more trouble recalling information. We might consume more volume of information, but we retain less of it than we would if we concentrated on fewer subjects in more depth (in real and proportional terms).
To combat this, we have to actively fight to 1) recognize the importance of in-depth learning for becoming better leaders; 2) learn to identify trigger points for pursuing shallow information rather than continuing our intentional learning; and 3) follow an intentional process to learn more about the topics that matter most to us.
I’ve written in depth on building expertise as an entrepreneur, which you can find here, but today I want to share my process for going from interest to understanding to opinion on a topic.
- Gather Information – perhaps an obvious step, but not always easy to execute. The problem today is filtering through all of the noise the gather the right information. When you’re in information gathering mode, look for primary sources when possible (follow the links in the Fast Company article and read the papers in the bibliography of that book on the topic). You want to find the information from the practitioners and researchers, not the commentators. Further, you have to know when to stop gathering. The more you learn, the better your intuitive sense of how much is enough information will become.
- Set a pace – Let’s say you find three books, 10 academic research articles, and 50 blog posts on the topics. That’s a big pile of stress when you look at it as one whole. Instead, I set a pace for the research so that I can reasonably follow through on my goal. A weekday’s work might be one book chapter, 1/2 research paper, or 3 blog posts. As I read/watch/listen, I take notes and make highlights, documenting what I see as the important parts in the moment. This comes in handy later.
- Record what you learn – after I finish reading, I go back through and transfer all of my notes and highlights to a note in an Evernote notebook, “Research Notes.” I title it with the name and author/creator. I tag it with year, medium, outlet, author, and primary topic. But most importantly, I do this myself because it is in the process of copying my own notes that I start to see the patterns. This is where trends and themes begin to present themselves. Like a novice copywriter copying legendary ad copy by hand, a person focused on in-depth learning values the processing of the information as much as the initial intake.
- Deconstruct into component parts – As themes emerge, I create a second set of notes, this time in a notebook on the topic, for example: “Servant Leadership.” Each of these notes focuses on a particular theme and pulls notes from all of the various sources where appropriate. These themes become the basis for both forming an opinion on the topic and sharing your own learning (my final two steps).
- Evaluate against personal experience, values, and anecdotes – Once I’ve identified the themes, I take time to ruminate on them. How do these themes relate to my personal experience? How does this information challenge or reflect my values as a human? What are examples of these principles I’ve witnessed firsthand, read about, or heard of? What do I think about this topic or issue or idea?
- Share – I believe sharing our expertise and our opinions is absolutely crucial in a world that increasingly pushes us towards polarization rather than open dialogue. Blogging or podcasting or video-ing about your thoughts on your research has benefits for others because you can spark their learning process. But more importantly, in the sharing, you will solidify your own thinking. Sure, you’ll be on record, but that’s what courageous leaders do: they go on the record, fully recognizing that there may come a day when they have to say, “I’ve changed my mind on that matter based on what I’ve learned since then.”
Learning — the kind that takes time and effort — is perhaps the most potent tool in a leader’s repertoire. You could spend two hours every day skimming Twitter moments, or you could spend that same time building expertise and informed opinions that no one can take away from you.
Some people are passive bystanders, commenting on events as they happen, never digging in to understand the ideas and topics driving the events. Others care enough to dig in. To put in the time. To really develop an understanding. A very small group makes the effort to share that learning with their community.
Those are the people leading us into the future. Are you one of them?