We don't 'do' Learning. It does us.


Reminder to self beginning.

This is pedantic, but it's important.

I was in a discussion this past week about technical coaching at the enterprise level, something I've got a bit of familiarity with. As part of that discussion, we covered the usual bases around technology, EQ, risk tolerance and so forth. As often happens, we came across language and storytelling, a couple of topics near and dear to my heart.

I was enjoying and getting into the rhythm of the conversation when I said something that I knew but had never really stated, "We talk about organizations being good or bad at learning, but that's not really the case. All organizations learn. One of the first things a team learns are the shared stories the organization has for being as screwed up as it is"

I'm working slowly on a third book about learning at scale. As the words came out of my mouth, I realized that I had been looking at this the wrong way.

Turns out there is a pattern to my books that I hadn't realized: people commonly look at these topics upside-down. I don't think we can help it.

Info-Ops 1 on the left, Info-Ops 2 on the right. Info-Op 3 in the middle. We constantly build bridges over the canyon
  • Info-Ops 1, Build the Right Thing. We think of analysis as something that needs to be taught, as if simply because the word "analysis" is unfamiliar to many that the thing itself must be. That's not true, though, analysis is something we already do
  • Info-Ops 2, Building Things Right. We think of computers interacting with people as something created by programmers. We make screens, we devise search engines, we do all sorts of things under the guise that we're the ones in charge providing things for folks on the other end of the screen. That's not true, though. Instead, we live in a world full of things already created for us. Anybody in this world, including the folks creating UX, receive vastly more stimulus from machines than they ever would create for others. Programming languages, IDEs, and dev environments affect the people swimming in them far more than those people change the world for others
  • Info-Ops 3, Learning at Scale. Just like the other two topics, learning is something we set aside and talk about as if it happens in isolation and only when we "push the button" to start learning. "Have you learned anything this past week?" is a question that is supposed to have a yes or no answer. That's not true, though. Unless we're doing every tiny thing exactly the same as before, like fixed-position robots on an old, locked-in assembly line, our environment changes. Today I parked the car here at work. Tomorrow I parked it there. As the stimulus changes, we change with it, our brains constantly looking for ways to shortcut any future decision-making. This learning is just never stated and most always in the background. For our parking case it might be: Always park on the fourth level, then go up from there. Future search patterns begin with level four.

For each of these three cases, how people interact with automated formal systems, how automated formal systems interact with people, and how both machines and people learn at scale, we live under the illusion that we can pull the ideas out and play with them by themselves, as if selecting a kitten from a box of kittens. But you open a box of kittens, you got kittens everywhere. And the box is already open. In fact, nobody ever got the kittens to go inside the box in the first place.

There's a reason that it's these three things. Language, logic, and the bridges we constantly build between them are really the only true types of abstractions there are. These are the tools we use to exist in the world and learn/evolve towards a better species. They're the quarks of philosophy.

The mistake I kept making, and one I suppose many others have made, is thinking that we could somehow isolate them from the others and learn about them in the same way we would learn about anything else we know or experience. This is a "Can we put out a fire by using enough gasoline?" situation that I was thinking about when reading Martin Heidegger. The crazy thing, and the thing I keep coming back to in my own life, is how even after understanding how this works I fall naturally back into thinking it works like everything else.

Gee, you never know what you'll find out here

In many areas we are our own worst enemies. We make a couple of steps forward then fall back one or two. Sometimes we fall back farther than we go forward. We create things we love and use without knowing exactly how we create them. Want to learn how to succeed in business? Here's a million books, by a million authors, each with a slightly-different take on it. Many of them that disagree with one another are well-sourced, well-reasoned, and created by experts. There are not a million differing books on how to add integers, so it's obvious that we do not have a firm grasp on succeeding in business. That doesn't stop us from figuring one out and claiming we've solved it, though.

I find that with the most interesting things in my life: coding up a new method or application, losing weight, finding love, discussing political issues, exploring some of these philosophical ideas and so forth? These are all things where I make mistakes, I learn, I develop better habits, I show others where not to make the same mistakes. Then I go back to making the same mistakes all over again. I suspect that all of these things have associated biological constructs that are hard-wired into the human brain. We easily convince ourselves that we've mastered them. We have not. They are better viewed as natural ongoing activities than isolated atomic items. As one wag put it: life is much more like surfing than playing chess.

Learning is not like seeing lions in a safari. We don't go find a guide and venture out into the wild in search of an elusive encounter with folks actually learning. This is like a fish going out looking for water. Of course that doesn't stop us from thinking otherwise. The simple fact is that we're always learning. Rate and direction are open for discussion, but learning itself is a meta concept and it doesn't make much sense to talk about it as if it were not. In fact doing so is most likely counterproductive.

Reminder to self completed.