Even experts need to learn. So says Atul Gawande, MD, author of Personal Best and the TED talk, “Want to get great as something? Get a coach.” Here, Gawande describes his experience seeking a coach to continually improve his surgical techniques. He delivers two clear messages: professionals are not done learning when they finish school, and we can benefit from others’ help. Still, Gawande captures the tension that any expert in medicine, science, technology, engineering, law, or academia acknowledges. An expert’s success hinges on certainty in knowing, not necessarily with curiosity in learning. Those who depend upon experts such as Gawande flinch when they consider he might be practicing instead of achieving or delivering the best.
If you are an expert, you have spent most of your life learning, Consider that anyone who has completed a college degree has probably spent approximately 35,000 hours in school, let alone the additional time required studying. Even so, has anyone ever shown you an ideal process of learning or illustrated how you approach it? The answer is typically no.
Improving the Process
Everyone can benefit from coaching. When you are on your own, without a coach to guide, there is a process that will prompt you to hone in on your process and improve it: the ideal process of learning. The process involves a four-step model of experiencing (feeling), reflecting, thinking, and acting. Most people find they have preferences for some parts of the process and avoid or underutilize others. Are you focusing on feelings or facts, reflecting or acting? Compare your own process to the ideal, holistic process of learning from experience.
Experts who are able to step back to examine how learning occurs and master the process find that they can coach themselves to be more effective in any situation. Take Tanya, an electrical engineer, who favored thinking and acting. She had honed her skills in her expertise to a tee, yet she discovered that her approach to learning left her skipping the feeling and reflecting part of the learning cycle that would spark new ideas, innovation, and collaboration. While she could follow checklists on current practices, she was not focusing on what was missing on the checklist. The steps that could take her outcomes to new heights, or how she was relating to others on her team. When in familiar situations, Tanya reminded herself of the ideal process and included feeling and reflecting in her approach.
If you are an expert feeling the tension of “knowing” and “learning,” consider upping your game by coaching yourself. Pay attention to the process of learning and witness your approach to using it. If you are a coach working with experts, share the process of learning and empower them long after your engagement ends.