The Velocity of Learning

You don’t often think of learning as having a speed, a velocity, but it does. The classic notion of practice involves putting in the hours, doing the time, right? But there is a striking difference in the quality of practice that leads to accelerated learning. And it isn’t about watching the clock, it’s more about purposeful practice. Purposeful practice is found right on the edges of your ability, at the intersection of challenge and ability when you are successful perhaps 50-75% of the time. Not so much easy success that gains overconfidence and loss of challenge, and not so much difficulty that it creates a sense of stress and anxiety.

But the only why to find that sweet spot is to try, to get in action. Particularly when trying to acquire new skills or new behaviors the aim shouldn’t necessarily be to stop a trait or practice, but instead think about starting new behaviors and habits. Dan Coyle told a marvelous story about visiting the Shyness Clinic in Palo Alto, CA where they focus on building new habits toward developing what they call “social fitness.” The folks that come to the shyness clinic often have arrived at a point where their social anxieties and shyness have become a real hindrance and barrier to connection. The clinicians and psychologists there believe that much like developing physical fitness, or leadership or creative capacities, so too can people develop social fitness.

A simple exercise might involve asking participants to approach two people per day in a public place and simply ask them the time of day. And then graduate to asking a store manager where the restroom is, for example. For a final exam a participant was asked to go to a supermarket and intentionally drop a whole watermelon on the floor and work with the market employees to deal with the mess and apologize for the accident. Such a scene would be an appalling thought to someone suffering from acute shyness. But over time, with incremental social practice and repetitive purposeful practice and interactions, the participants could build the social and emotional capacities to envision such an incident, and effectively deal with it in a public social setting.

And remember the practice needs to be in context, under real conditions, with a little stress, a little challenge such that you are on the edges of your ability. For example, instead of asking the soccer team players to shoot twenty penalty kicks at the end of practice, instead stop the scrimmage in the middle of practice and have a player shoot just two, under pressure, in the middle of the game.