"Smart People Keep on Learning" by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President & CEO

Smart People Keep on Learning

January 1st, 2013 - How best to thrive in today’s increasingly complex world?

My answer is this: By changing our thought patterns, learning and adapting, and adjusting our attitudes.

In the past, people believed (incorrectly) that when formal education ended there was not much more to learn. This point of view might have been generally accepted before society became so mobile, fluid, and interdependent. Now, in the digital age with teams of folks working together globally in an interconnected world, we will more than ever before be changing our mental outlook and view of the world around us.

Two common misconceptions about learning were outlined in a 20-year-old Harvard Business Review article by Chris Argyris, and they are even more pertinent today than they were then.

The first misconception is that most of us define adult learning too narrowly as merely “problem solving.” So we focus on the immediate, not the long term or underlying cause for change. Don’t misunderstand, problem solving is important. But what is causing the problem, the root cause, is even more important if we are to succeed in changing our environment for the better. Folks and teams who are learners, evolve into asking the “why” question. Namely, why do we have this problem?

The second misconception is that with the right motivation people will learn. Teachers, parents, bosses, and all sorts of authority figures have used various motivators—carrots and sticks—with various success. Positive feedback is so much better than negative criticism, but neither is as effective as self-motivation.

Consider paying someone or a team for accomplishing some metric such as a good grade in school or a superior bond rating. As soon as the reward becomes routine, the motivation evaporates. Or worse still, the learning which is supposed to be the goal is quickly forgotten once the grade is given. Or the underlying financial metrics are just accomplished to obtain the bond rating, but the primary altruistic mission of the institution becomes subservient to the metric.

Feedback is so important and integral to learning. Think of it as a single loop or, even better, a double loop. Single loop learning is self-correcting and focused on a specific outcome. Namely, if the correct answer is obtained the learning ceases. A very simple example is a thermostat. When the room temperature reaches the desired temperature set on the thermometer, the air conditioner or heater stops. When the student passes the vocabulary test, he/she should not forget the words but incorporate the new words in their active vocabulary. If a metric is accomplished for a good bond rating, this metric should be reflective of the underlying mission on the institution.

Double loop feedback asked the “why” question. Namely, why are we learning new words? Why do we want a good bond rating? Why did we set the thermostat at a particular temperature? Why do we want to learn new words—to make our communication more effective or have a better score on the College Boards? Why to we want a strong balance sheet? Answer: To be able to sustain ourselves during a downturn. Why do we set the temperature of a room? Answer: To be comfortable.

Being self-motivated, having a long-term perspective, and wanting to succeed for the right reasons removes most of the extrinsic and hard-to-define measures. Interestingly, these other metrics come along naturally when an individual or team has the right attitude or culture. These higher intrinsic motivations are much better for all concerned.

Teams and team learning are increasingly important and successful in our complicated global world. Influencing and collaboration will out-perform any single expert, even if this single expert is more competent then any member of the team. Long-term focus trumps short-term success most every time. Complex issues lend themselves to team solutions. Larger teams crossing many boundaries are more effective at learning and problem solving. Trust is easier to build with a functional team than a group of individuals.

One of the other paradoxes of human behavior and learning—shared by Harvard Professor Chris Argyris—is that there are the stated public goals people say they are following; and then there are the real goals that actually govern their actions and behaviors.

The public persona and the real behavior are most commonly different. This is similar to organization charts which have clear and clean lines of distinction. Then there is the real interaction with many blurred boundaries, overlaps and even some inadvertent omissions.

There is a “theory-in-use,” which is what is actually happening. With careful observation and reflection by those who are being observed this “theory-in-use” can be defined. With even more effort the “stated goals” can then be compared to what is actually happening.

To return to our examples, a student could state he or she desires to increase their vocabulary but actually is cramming for the College Board test. An institution could declare they are serving the public but actually are gaming the system for their own benefit by cutting corners on quality or disguising the facts to make the corporation appear more successful than it actually is.

There are four reasons we embrace this behavior even though we know it is wrong.

  1. We want to remain in control as an individual or company.
  2. We want to maximize our chances of “winning” and minimize “losing.”
  3. We desire to suppress negative feelings which make us uncomfortable and insecure.
  4. We want to feel “rational,” even as we are realigning our objectives and goals to agree with the facts.
Everyone wants to avoid embarrassment or threats, or feeling vulnerable or incompetent. Learning addresses concerns will lead to better outcomes, more success, and less pain in the long run. Admitting we don’t know everything, even though we might be considered “smart people,” helps everyone and is the right thing to do.

The bottom line is to stay humble, keep learning, embrace feedback, and ask “why” we have a certain goal. These attitudes will make you, even though you are already a “smart” person, even smarter and more successful.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.