Monday, March 25, 2013

Learning Requires Doing

The SXSW conferences just ended in Austin Texas.  For those few of you still left who don’t know about SXSW, it is a series of interlinked conferences that focus on advances in three core business sectors:  technology, music, and movies.  As a resident of Austin, I try to take advantage of things going on in the city surrounding these conferences.  I attended a few satellite meetings for high-tech companies.  I heard a few music shows.  I also play the saxophone, and I played a couple of gigs at clubs in Austin during the week.

The juxtaposition of the music and technology meetings led me to think about an interesting disconnection between these two sectors. 

On the one hand, many of the high-tech companies are trying to make large volumes of information accessible to masses of people.  The idea is that individuals and companies can become more productive as information becomes easier to access. 

On the other hand, the many great musicians who descended on Austin last week were a testimony to the power that comes with intense and sustained practice.  The virtuosity on display all over town reflected years of practice by each musician.

The disconnection is that we tend to think of information as something that just needs to be accessed.  If only we could put the right information in the right place, people could use it effectively.  But, nobody thinks that they could learn to play an instrument at a professional level without actually engaging with it actively.

Ultimately, though, you cannot simply make information accessible in the cloud and expect it to be used.  Acquiring knowledge requires as much activity as learning to play a musical instrument. 

It is crucial to develop practice techniques for learning that parallel those of musicians.  Here are four things you can start doing now to make your learning more active.

1)  Produce something.  A musician practices by playing.  The same thing is true of learning conceptual knowledge.  After you finish hearing a lecture, reading a book, or watching a documentary, explain it back to yourself to make sure that you really have learned it.  If you can’t repeat it back, then go over the material and try again.

2)  Get the details right.  In this busy world, we are often content to read executive summaries and to get the 30,000-foot view of a situation.  Musicians know that they have not really learned a piece until they know the details.  Not just some of the notes, but all of them with the correct timing, and the right changes in tempo and volume throughout.  The same is true of the knowledge that is really important.  You cannot develop creative solutions to new problems unless you truly understand those problems in detail and have accurate knowledge that you can bring to bear to solve that problem.

3)  Learn your theory.  The ability to improvise in music requires more than just knowing a few notes.  Great improvisers have a command of music theory.  They know the relationships among scales and the variety of scales that can be played over different chord structures.  Similarly, if you want to be able to solve creative problems, you need to know the theory in your area of expertise.  Focus on asking and answering the question “why?”  The better your ability to understand why things happen, the more effectively you can diagnose the cause of unexpected events.

4)  Nail your scales.  Any good musician has spent countless hours playing scale patterns.  These basic skills form the building blocks of more complex musical abilities.  Those wicked guitar lines that could be heard from every bar in Austin during SXSW had their roots in hours of practice playing scales.  There is a parallel in every area of expertise.  What are the key skills you need to have to have in your line of work?  Do you feel like you have truly mastered those skills?  If not, you will end up spending a lot of time focusing on the low-level details of executing your work when you really want to be thinking about more complex topics.  So, find the scales in your area of work and make sure you know them backwards and forwards.