What Does Kindness Have to Do with Learning?


Does what we say to ourselves influence how much, how fast and how well we can learn new things?

Absolutely, says Erika Andersen, the author of the forthcoming book Be Bad First.

She outlines 4 key mental tools in her Harvard Business Review article, Learning to Learn. They are aspiration, self-awareness, curiosity and vulnerability.

Aspiration. Andersen says “great learners can raise their aspiration level.” How? By focusing on the benefits of what you’ll learn, rather than on the challenges in the learning process. A good question to ask is “What would my future look like if I learned this?”

Self-awareness. This is about seeking feedback and taking action on it. Good questions to ask yourself about feedback are “Is this accurate?” “What facts do I have to support it?” and “How do I compare with my peers?”

Curiosity. Andersen writes that “curiosity is what makes us try something until we can do it it, or think about something until we understand it.”

If you’re not interested in a new subject, Anderson advocates changing your self-talk to ask why others find the subject so interesting.

As a person interested in words, ideas and influence, my curiosity is helping me find where those interests intersect with analytics and big data.

In starting to read Tom Davenport‘s Big Data @ Work, I became more curious about how organizations of the future will better focus on the collaboration and communications activities of their people.

This led me to a footnote that took me to another book called Social Physics. This is defined as “analyzing patterns of human experience and idea exchange within the digital bread crumbs we all leave behind us as we move through the world.”

Now I’m truly fascinated and thinking about the connections with another book I read last year, The Reputation Economy. This is about how individuals can shape their digital footprint at a time when your reputation can dictate the kind of life you’ll live and what opportunities may be available to you.

Vulnerability. This is about the scary prospect of “being bad at something for weeks or months; feeling awkward and slow; having to ask ‘dumb’ questions; and needing step-by-step guidance again and again.”

The cure? Changing what you say to yourself. Andersen suggests that instead of saying “I’m terrible at this,” replace it with, “I’m making beginner mistakes, but I’ll get better.”

As I’m pursuing my own learning project and getting up to speed in a new role, I reminded myself of trying out for a sports team in high school.

When I showed up for the first practice before tryouts, I almost didn’t come back the next day. I felt uncoordinated, self-conscious and silly. But I made myself come back the next day. And the next.

And happily, I made the team. But what if I’d given up that first day? What if I’d allowed myself to believe that I was terrible and had no hope of getting better?

There are very few things we can’t learn if we tell ourselves we can. And if we encourage ourselves with positive thoughts. And remind ourselves that others don’t notice our mistakes as much as we might think.

I have to tell myself that frequently as I walk into yet another figurative wall by mistake. Oops. That hurt. Did anyone notice my mistake?

But the important thing is the dust yourself off. To keep moving forward. And to avoid making the same mistake twice.

What’s a good way to do that? By being kind to yourself. Encourage yourself. Have faith that with grit and perseverance, you can do what you set out to do.

One day this month I came home and a friend from a community group had left a thank-you card and a book on my doorstep. The book is “The Power of Kindness.” It’s about “the unexpected benefits of leading a compassionate life.”

And while the main focus of the book is on being kind to others, there is power in being just as kind to ourselves.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set aspirational goals and have high standards for ourselves. But it does mean encouraging ourselves and asking how we could do better next time.

In addition to my learning journey in data and analytics, I’ve written in this blog about learning stand-up paddle boarding and learning yoga. My goal this summer is to combine the two.

Today I went paddle boarding and tomorrow I’ll take a yoga class. The benefit to both is a kind of zen that helps me be kinder to myself and to others.

It pulls me out of the moment-to-moment frenzy of everyday life and puts me in a meditative state. A reflective state. A refreshed state.

All the better to keep learning.

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Caroline Leach

Hi, I'm Caroline Leach. I help people and organizations tell their stories. I'm a Marketing VP at AT&T, a former Communications VP at DIRECTV and an alum of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. This blog, How to Build Your Career through Social Media, shows you how to build your personal brand, advance your career and embrace your future. It helps you promote your employer and your network too. Opinions expressed in this blog are my own. Your comments are welcomed and encouraged. I'd love to hear from you!

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