Drowning people can't learn to swim: the need for space to learn

Andrew Badham 2019-02-08 15:22:28


I once watched a man give a talk on learning new languages, a task famously hard for English first-language speakers. He surprised me with a simple question: “Why do some people never learn the language of a country, even when they have moved there years before?” It was a question that surprised me simply because I used to believe that moving to a country was the best way to learn the language. The answer he proposed to his rhetorical question was this: “Because a drowning man can’t learn to swim.”

It’s an analogy that makes a tremendous amount of sense. If you are struggling to keep your head above the water, you’re just not in the right headspace to learn something new. In your panic, you are going to do whatever comes most naturally, and that will be whatever you know how to do already. It’s a pattern that you see in any job, hobby, or task. A salesman goes on extensive training only to apply the same boring script he used before the intervention. A manager goes on a data-driven decision-making course only to go back to relying on “gut feel”. Why? When we are stressed, we fall back on old habits. It’s like a river’s flow; it follows the path that it has grooved over millennia. The only way to change the course of the river is to groove another path, and that only takes one thing, repetition.

That part is at least pretty intuitive. Most people are comfortable with the idea that you have to practice any new skill to get better at it; what often gets in their way is the time, space, or the freedom to experiment.

When I work with students on their writing skills, one of the questions I ask them is, “Do you write outside of work?” The answer is almost always no, which is hardly counterintuitive; writing isn’t exactly the most common downtime activity. It’s far easier to zone out after a long day in front of Netflix. Being creative takes energy, and we mammals are pre-programmed to conserve energy. So, in the interests of relaxing, we miss out on the opportunity to practice our tone, style and rhythm. When we get back to the office, and there is suddenly a report to be submitted, we end up writing it the same way we wrote the last one.

And when I say “creative” I’m not only referring to artsy fields like writing. Coming up with a superior project plan requires out of the box thinking. Any activity in which we produce rather than consume is a creative one, and all of them require a relaxed environment in which we can play with our new skills. We essentially need the freedom to stuff up. When the stakes are too high, we default to the safest option, and that is always the old way.

So, for individuals, we might need to try and set aside time in our precious after-hours for our own, projects, hobbies and other creative activities to grow our abilities in safe environments. For managers, you might consider setting aside time in your precious work-hours to allow your team the same freedom. You may suffer an initial loss of productivity, but in the end, the return on investment will be well worth the sacrifice.


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