How to Learn

I was a terrible student.


After the age of about 8, I was a terrible student. I’ve just read some of my very early report cards, going back to Mrs. Green’s Nursery School, (my mother saved everything, you see.) Apparently, I learned to read very early, perhaps the product of being the child of a schoolteacher and having two older sisters who enjoyed reading to me almost as much as I enjoyed being read to.

Also, apparently, I was “quick, and eager to learn – a Joy to have in the classroom.” When you compare these comments with some from my middle school and high school years, the contrast is stark. “Definitely Not working up to his potential.”

Somewhere around the third or fourth grade, the power differential between parent or teacher and me began to chafe. “Alan seems to have a problem with authority, which if he doesn’t learn

I am still working on this. I still cringe when a friend uses the phrase “Let me help you understand something.”

Once when my now 45-year-old son was in middle school, I attended a teacher conference. Ms. B said, “I just wish that he’d come up front and talk with me instead of hanging in the back with his friends laughing and telling jokes.” I said, “Melanie, he’s a thirteen-year-old boy. He is not going to do that.” She huffed, “Well, I can see where he gets it from.”

I earned a substantial part of my income as a trainer. It was my job to help others to learn leadership, strategy, innovation, continuous improvement methodologies, and organization development and so I spent quite a lot of time puzzling about what “helping someone learn” means.

I came to the conclusion that it is impossible to teach anybody anything. We can only provide opportunities to learn. Learning, at least for adults, is a choice. We choose to learn because we see some value in it, either we are just interested in knowing something or we think knowing it or having some particular skill will be helpful to our career or be beneficial to us in some way.

Probably, that choice exists in K-12 education as well. The best teachers get that and make learning fun, interesting, and valuable. I’ve also come to believe that many teachers are under-appreciated, largely under-paid, saints who sometimes buy their own materials and regularly put their very souls into creating learning opportunities for ungrateful little creeps like I was.

Even rote memorization has its purpose. Many times my problem solving was helped by memorizing times tables or the recognition that 169 is 132. Sometimes ice-breaking laughter ensued when a client said “Tomorrow,” and I continue on with “. . . and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day till the last syllable of recorded time . . . ,”  assuming they had to memorize the Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 5 speech. If not they just said “What?!”

But adults need a reason to learn; we need to see that value. That’s why I introduced training programs exercises with Purpose, Process, Product – why are we doing this, how will you do it, and what will you have at the end.

So wanting to learn is foundational. Sometimes the connections are obvious, sometimes they are not. Sometimes we think we don’t need to learn; we’re already good enough. That’s when feedback helps.

I learned to define  feedback, because once in a 360-degree feedback event, I asked the group “What is feedback?” and the microwave engineer in the group said, “It is the degree of amplitude at which an advanced wave system becomes oscillatory.”

A person with a greater presence of mind might have recovered more easily but I stammered for what seemed like 15 minutes, so now I just define feedback:

“Feedback is information about performance that leads to action to change or maintain performance.”

Feedback is a signal that we need to learn something. A colleague once said to me:

“Alan, if 1 person tells you you’re a horse’s rear end, you can call him the same and pretty much forget it, but if 3 people tell you that you better start looking for a saddle.”

Feedback can come from any number of sources – one-on-one conversation, a control chart that tells you your process is out of control, low performance on a safety measure like days away from work, watching a video of your presentation practice, standing on the scale the morning after a Haagen Dazs binge, a loving word from your spouse, “the GPS says you’re going 80 in a 55 zone, that can’t be right, can it?”

The thing about feedback is – you have to want it, actually seek it out. Another colleague often joked “whenever anyone asks me if they can give me some feedback, I always say ‘No,’ ‘cause it’s always bad news. No one asks permission for the good stuff.” It was a joke, but I wonder if it limited the feedback that Pete got.

These days we rely more and more on technology for feedback – the Fitbit on my wrist, those “Your Speed is” LED displays in on village roadways, email notifications about software renewals, last call vs average call handle time on call center screens. But the key is you have to want the information and to have to commit to taking action to change or maintain performance.

So first there is the choice to learn, then there is some evaluation of the current state of our knowledge or skill on the subject, (feedback.) Then there is some kind of choice about how much we want to learn or how good we want to get at something.

Have you had this experience of being out with friends, all smartphone owners: an innocuous comment arises about a celebrity or a TV show or a sports record and instantly everyone is reading the entire Wikipedia page and other articles?

Casual inquisitiveness meets graduate-level research – definitely not asked for.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Outliers, highlighted the research of K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist, who is now a professor at Florida State University. Dr. Ericsson’s research theorizes that expertise, true world-class performance in sports, the arts, and all fields is built by having 10,000 hours of deliberate and focused practice. It is not enough to practice what one is good at or enjoys but to deliberately practice one’s weaknesses.

I got my guitar for my 13th birthday and have played recreationally on and off for 60+ years. After not playing for a while, I would pick the guitar up and get as good as I was when I was 13 and put it down again. These days I am getting more proficient. I never expect to be George Harrison, but Ericsson’s research has taught me how to advance – focused practice and measured improvement.

So to learn I must – want to learn, evaluate what I know or the skill I currently have, study/practice in a deliberate, focused way, and measure my improvement. I should also be prepared to think about how I learn best.

People are different. It shouldn’t surprise us that people learn differently. There is no shortage of psychologists and learning theorists to explain these differences and I won’t pretend to know or describe them all, Here are a few that have struck a chord with me over the years.

Carl Gustav Jung posited that people have two primary mental functions, perceiving (taking in information) and judging, (making decisions.) Jung’s theorized that some people take in information either in a step-by-step process, based upon sensory inputs – sensing, or they are intuitive and jump around making connections between unrelated facts and unstructured data.

Jung also said that people made decisions either by logical ordered processes (thinking) or by comparing options to deeply held emotional values (feeling.) Sensing thinkers might prefer more structured learning environments than I prefer. I immerse myself in many aspects of a subject (with an extraordinarily wide definition of the subject), which is why I was careful training. For example, engineers and accountants often found me unclear.

Some people talk about being visual learners –“I have to see it.” Some closed their eyes when I lectured. (My ego tells me they were not just sleeping.) A friend says she prefers books-on-tape because she can eliminate visual distractions. Clearly, we all take in information differently through our senses. Proponents of Neuro-Linguistic Programming say this is the primary way our brains work. I think sense preference is a factor to consider, just not the only one.

A quote often attributed to Confucius says, “I hear, and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” This begins to show that actually learning may require engaging multiple senses, and some experience as well.


Alan Culler
Alan Culler
Alan Cay Culler is a writer of stories and songs, his fourth career (aspiring actor, speakers agent, change consultant, storyteller.) He retired after thirty-seven years as a leadership and change consultant. Alan was an executive coach, a leadership team facilitator, trainer, and project manager for innovation and improvement initiatives. Alan’s point of view: "Business is all about people, customers, staff, suppliers, and the community - pay disciplined attention to these people and rewards follow; ignore them and success will not last." Alan is “a seeker of wisdom from unusual places.” He is currently completing three books: Wisdom from Unusual Places, Is Consulting Wisdom an Oxymoron?, and Change Leader? Who me?. Alan earned a BA in Theatre from Centre College, an MBA from the London Business School, and a post-graduate certificate in Organization Development from Columbia University. Alan also builds cigar box guitars and wood sculptures, hikes, travels with his wife Billie, and gets as much grandchildren playtime as he can.

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  1. There is no doubt that the mind needs to keep in training. And, therefore, we must continue to train the mind by learning new things, with curiosity and passion.
    Lifelong learning allows, among other things, to respond effectively and effectively to the new needs, changes and challenges that inevitably arise in the course of personal and working life.
    Curiosity, of course, but also a constant need for updating made indispensable by the dynamism and versatility of the modern world of work, and more.
    Studying and dedicating energy to updating, with ever shorter intervals and ever more ambitious goals is certainly fascinating and stimulating but can prove to be very tiring, especially as adults and, for this purpose, it is necessary to ensure:
    motivation to learn
    a training modeled on the needs of the subject;
    ductile and flexible learning tools.
    In other words, it is essential to perceive the usefulness of what is learned in a concrete and immediately applicable way in order not to lose grit and motivation.

    • Thanks for the recommendation of the Epstein book, Charlotte. As a generalist who finally found the benefit of mile wide inch deep, I’m looking forward to reading it.And thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Great article on learning. I think that’s why alot of people do much better in college than high-school because it’s a choice to want to learn. In high-school I believe you learn more when it tends to be fun or of interest. I think feedback is healthy as long as you state some things that are going right as well as what you may need to learn. Just my thoughts. Great article.

    • Thanks for reading this long article, Eva Marie, and for your insightful comments.
      I think that I enjoyed a few things in high school, a few more in college -in my major -and more in grad school.

      On feedback – BF Skinner did some research that showed that it took ten pieces of positive feedback for us to remember any positives compared to one negative. If we knew there was so much power in corrective feedback -we might think more carefully about it.
      Thanks again

  3. Alan, your great post reminds me of an earlier post by you in which you stated that performance is linked to ability and desirability.
    So is the performance of students they need to have the desirability to learn. This you stated clearly in this post “I came to the conclusion that it is impossible to teach anybody anything. We can only provide opportunities to learn. Learning, at least for adults, is a choice.”
    When desirability is their it becomes far easier for students to enhance their anilities and accept feedback ““Feedback is information about performance that leads to action to change or maintain performance.”
    Feedback is a signal that we need to learn something.”

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