Beat Average with Accidental Learning

Imagine a couple gazing lovingly at their newborn daughter. “Oh, John,” says the woman, “I hope she’ll grow up to be average.”

Not likely, is it? Nobody wants their child to be average. There might be some adults who would like to be average, but that’s not you, or you wouldn’t be reading this post. Learning is the way you beat average and keep getting better. Learning is the way you become the best possible you.

Learning happens in school and in training rooms. But that’s not the only kind of learning. Accidental learning is where the surprises and the great improvements lurk. Here’s how to get the most from accidental learning.

Expose Yourself to Experience

Dr. Richard Wiseman is a professor in the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He conducted a decade of research in what makes people “lucky.” It’s not magic or mere chance. It’s what they do. One thing they do is maximize their opportunities.

“Lucky” people get out more. They talk to more people and try more things. That strategy will work for learning, too. Expose yourself to experience and you will learn, without sitting in a classroom or poring over a textbook. But don’t stop there.

Learn by Having Conversations

Everyone you meet knows more than you about something. Learn from them. Have conversations. But don’t talk much. You can’t learn while you’re talking. So, shut up.

When you do talk, ask questions. Open-ended questions like “How did you do that?” keep the conversation moving and the learning coming.

Ask for the story. When someone is describing something they did or learned or discovered, ask them for the story. “How did you come to do that?” People love to tell stories, so they’re likely to respond.  Stories are the way human beings have packaged information and learning since we first learned to talk.

Challenge assumptions. Assumptions are what we don’t say. We think everyone already knows the assumption or believes it. If you question assumptions, you can learn a lot.

Try Things

So far, we’ve discussed things that you learn in your head, knowledge. But as my friend Rod Santomassimo says, “Knowing isn’t doing.” Many important things in life are like swimming or cooking or gardening or riding a bike. You don’t learn the important stuff by reading about them. You learn by trying, then changing what you do so you do better.

Formal trials are called experiments. Decide what you want to test. Test it. Note what you’ve learned.

Reflection Ties It All Together

You’ll learn the most from experience if you reflect on your experience and the things you want to try. Take notes in the moment. When you do something or when something happens that you want to remember, make some simple notes about it. You can put those notes on a digital voice recorder, on note cards, or in a small notebook.

Later, reflect on the experience using the notes to jog your memory. Make reflection a regular part of your day. Journaling is a great way to do this.

Bottom Line

If you want to perform above average and keep improving, master accidental learning. Expose yourself to experience. Have conversations. Try things. Take notes. Use reflection to tie it all together. Beat average.

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