Learning is About Enhancing Brain Pathways

living_circuts_Whatever the ability is, it is located in the brain.  So, when we pick up a dime from the table – that is a neural activity.  When we really focus our listening as we experience a beloved concert – we are activating and working our brain.  So for anyone of us to stretch or grow our ability in any way – the brain is a big part of that growth.

Growth means to deepen your knowledge, increase the effectiveness of your performances and/or shape your dispositions.  Personal growth is about you intentionally working at increasing your own growth at your own “edges”.  And, any growth you make becomes portable and it shows up where you are.  Because it is part of you, it is rooted.

In this post I’ll be sharing information form The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown by Daniel Coyle (2009).  This book explains a how ‘talent’ is grown by looking at how our brains work.  Coyle reports”

Useful Brain Science Insight Number 1:

All actions are really the result of electrical impulses sent along chains of nerve fibers.  Basically, our brains are bundles of wires – 100 billion wires called neurons, connected to each other by synapses. Whenever you do something, your brain sends a signal through those chains of nerve fibers to your muscles.  Each time you practice anything – sing a tune, swing a club, read this sentence – a different highly specific circuit lights up in your mind, sort of like a string of Christmas lights.

Useful Brain Science Insight Number 2:

The more we develop a skill circuit, the less we’re aware that we’re using it.   We are built to make skills automatic, to stash them in our unconscious mind.  This process, which is called automaticity, exists for powerful evolutionary reasons. It also creates a powerfully convincing illusion: a skill, once gained, feels utterly natural, as if it’s something we’ve always possessed.

These two insights – skills as brain circuits and automaticity – create a paradoxical combination: we’re forever building vast, intricate circuits, and we’re simultaneously forgetting that we built them.  (Pages 36, 37 and 38)

So, if you want to get better at throwing a baseball, thinking more abstractly, dancing the jig, creating homemade birthday cards or developing your ability to communicate: with individuals, with groups, with subordinates, and/or with those you report to then – find your edge and start trying to throw that ball or dance that jig!  Growing, developing and becoming are not passive or lucky ‘brain events’.

For a person to grow and develop that person needs to go to his or her ‘edge’ of the skill, disposition, knowledge and/or understanding and they will need to work through the disequilibrium that comes from moving beyond the ‘what is’ to ‘what might be’.  So, learning, growing and developing surely is a courageous journey.  Whether it is a song you are learning on your clarinet or a new way of actively listening deeply to the members of your family.

Coyle explains that “struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter.  Or, put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them – as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go – end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.”  (page 18)

A person has to be willing to “address” his or her “growth edges” if he or she wants to change and grow.  Coyle has reported the science behind this.  And he shares how it is that our brains respond to practice, when we are ‘operating at the edges’: To do that he tells the story of myelin.

You are likely asking: What is myelin? Here is how Coyle explains where myelin fits into learning.

“(1) Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons – a circuit of fibers.  (2) Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.  (3) The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.” (page 32) he sums things up this way: “Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals.  The story of skill and talent is the story of myelin.” (page 33)

Myelin is “universal: everyone can grow it, most swiftly during childhood but also throughout life. It’s indiscriminate: its growth enables all manner of skills, mental and physical.  It’s imperceptible: we can’t see it or feel it, and we can sense its increase only by its magical-seeming effects.  Most of all, however, myelin is important because it provides us with a vivid new model for understanding skill.  Skill is a cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows in response to certain signals.” (page 6)

So, learning is about enhancing brain pathways to be open and ready for use.  Learning is about putting in time in ways that stretch us. And as we stretch we need to try to process our way to higher progress. These are the rules.  These rules are not to be ignored.  Working through the challenges at our growth edges is how we progress.

“All skills, all language, all music, all movements, are made of living circuits, and all circuits grow according to certain rules.” ~ Dr. George Bartozokis

For Learning to Occur Neither the Organization or Its People can be Stationary

people_and_Organization_boarderIf you want your organization or your group within an organization to grow, change and develop – it is a good idea to help build a culture of learning.  Adaptation requires learning.

The people in the organization need to be willing to learn, grow and develop and, the organization must support their learning.

“Learning” is not a ‘straight line’ activity for individuals or the organization. To move ‘off’ the status quo and into new patterns of behavior and culture is adaptive.  We grow our strengths and develop a new normal.

Actually, this kind of adaptation and forward movement is not only for organizations.  Our families and social groups will also benefit from developing cultures of learning and adaptation.

Yes! To be willing to adapt and learn requires an experimental mindset.  We have to be willing to try things to see if they work and be willing to let go of things that don’t work and further develop things that show progress.  We, in our work and in our families, will benefit from embracing an experimental mindset.

Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky define experimental mind-set as “an attitude that treats any approach to an adaptive issue not as a solution, but as the beginning of an iterative process of testing a hypothesis, observing what happens, learning, making midcourse corrections, and then, if necessary, trying something else.”

“It is not surprising that in organizations with significant adaptive capacity, there is an openness and commitment to learning

Adaptive challenges cannot be solved by taking a course, hiring a consulting firm, or copying other companies’ best practices. Instead, people throughout the organization must open themselves to experimentation, giving up some old truths that have become irrelevant with changes in business, social or political landscape.

What does a continuous-learning mind-set look like in action within an organization?  Here are some signs:

People who make mistakes or experiment with new ways of doing things are not marginalized.

When something bad happens (a client is lost, a bid is rejected), the news is acknowledged and the event is debriefed for its lessons, not treated as a cause for punishment.

Communications and interaction are nurtured across all formal and informal boundaries.

People view the latest strategic plan as today’s best guess rather than a sacred text.”

Today’s challenges require more than a technical response.  We must be willing to adapt, learn and discover our future.  Further, we must be ready to go on this journey with others.

 Tomorrow is an opportunity

Tomorrow belongs to those that can create an adaptive culture

Tomorrow’s promise is complex and welcomes learners striving to thrive

People and organizations that learn will realize tomorrow’s opportunities

Pages 105-107 of The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky 2009  and the definition of experimental mind-set from page 304

Focus – Experiment – Invest Time – Adapt: Your Change Journey

Points to ponder:
True or False:  More than 98 percent of current human DNA is the same as that of a chimpanzee.
(True): More than 98 percent of our current DNA is the same as that of a chimpanzee: it took less than a 2 percent change of our evolutionary predecessors’ genetic blueprint to give humans extraordinary range and ability.   Successful adaptive changes build on the past rather than jettison it.
True or False: Most biological adaptations that greatly enhance a species’ capacity to thrive take a long time to evolve into the norm.
(True):  Biological adaptations occur radically over time and incrementally in time.  So, it is a general biological fact that adaptation takes time.

Think about yourself, how you contribute to your family or your behavior and outcomes at your  work place.  And think about, “Successful adaptive changes build on the past rather than jettison it.”  Wanting something to change and actual changing it are two different things.

Maybe you want to: get better at portion control as you sit down to a meal, spend more time reading to your children, and/or be more productive and efficient with your time at work.

Think about what is right with the current situation and build on it as you more toward your desired state.

Remember that there are some and maybe, actually, many meals that you don’t ‘overload’ your plate.  Remember that reading to your children was a habit when they were two and four – so why not rebirth that habit now that they are eight and six? And, remember the times when you have been both prolific and well-organized at work.  Build on these realities.  Grow them.   Be intentional about setting targets and strive to meet them.

Be willing to experiment.  Try new behaviors that are connected to ‘who you are’.  Don’t make a long term commitment or a resolution right off the bat.  Look at change as adaptation.  Be willing to adapt over time and in ways that work for you.

Here are three “possible” first steps.  They are experiments.   Set a goal of intentionally watching your portion control at dinner time for the next five days.  Make a little chart with the five days on it and make a check for each day of the five that you practiced portion control at dinner.  Set a goal of reading to you eight and six year old for 15 minutes twice this next week.   Start a little record of the date you read to them and for how long. Set a goal of intentionally focusing on having normal days a t work while being very intentional about being on task and industrious from 10:00 to 11:00 am for three out of the next five days.  Keep records of how those special three hours went by quickly recording your impressions at the end of the hour.

Because these are experiments you don’t need to make a solid long term commitment to these specific behaviors.  Review your results.  Think about how you might want to adapt any one or all of these changes to your behavior.  Make new experiments building on what you have learned from these trial tests.

Maybe the next experiments (with reasonable recording keeping like first ones) might be to Set a goal of including lunch with dinner for testing portion control for the next three weeks.  [And, you may want to do more.  So you begin to weigh herself at the same time each day and recording your weight.]  A possible next step for the time you are sending reading to your children is to add a little more time to each session and after reading ask each of your children to share what they liked about the story and what they think will happen next?  Over time, are they are sharing more of their reactions and thoughts about the material? At work, think about if the time of day you are focusing on is working.  Maybe your next step might be to shoot for an hour in the afternoon, instead.  Maybe you might shoot for both a morning and afternoon focus time.

Evolve and adapt as you learn more about what ‘works for you’.

The bottom line is to see yourself as having many things going well:  Your 98%.  And  when you want to change to set and goal and created experiments that you will try as your learn about yourself and your change journey.

yellowNotes: The ‘Points to Ponder’ are from pages 16 and 17 of The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009.

Seeds and Deeds

A gardener spends time with seeds and the dynamics of seeds 

Gardeners learn things about seeds

Not all planted seeds will germinate

Not all that germinate will survive

Not all of the food that may be produced will be eaten by humans

– ground hogs, deer, rabbits, raccoons, . . . may get to it first


Gardeners still plant seeds


There are other seeds to plant

Seeds of change


Change gardeners work with others by:

Deeply listening to each other

Striving to understand those who think differently

Uncovering and supporting the common good

Being willing to move toward the common good

Endeavoring to have words and deeds harmonize


Deeds and seeds


Our deeds are not guarantees of outcomes 

Just like the planting of seeds

Not all deeds lead to the preferred outcome

Not all are understood

Not all are appreciated by others


Change gardeners still plant seeds of change

                                                                   ~ Jerry Jennings, February 2014

Deeds like seeds, take their own time to fructify.  ~ Gandhi


Learn About Others by Gently Probing

Relationships grow when people learn about and appreciate each other. I believe that many of us can benefit from being very intentional about reaching out and getting to know each other in our work places, communities and even families.

Edgar H. Schein in his new book: Humble Inquiry: the Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling (2013) writes, “Why is it so important to learn to ask better questions that help to build positive relationships? Because in an increasingly complex, interdependent, and culturally diverse world, we cannot hope to understand and work with people from different occupational, professional, and national cultures if we do not know how to ask questions and build relationships that are based on mutual respect and the recognition that others know things that we may need to know in order to get a job done.”

Schein states that not all questions are equivalent.  He has come to believe that we need to learn a particular form of questioning that he first called “Humble Inquiry” in Edgar H. Schein’s earlier book, Helping (2009) and Humble Inquiry   he defines as follows:

Humble Inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

Listening to understand and appreciate.  That makes sense to me.  I don’t think it is an easy thing to get good at and I also think it is worth getting good at!  I believe that we and generations to come will benefit from co-creation of ideas, plans, solutions, and futures.

Schein’s book, Humble Inquiry may help people to gain awareness and dispositions related to gentle and thoughtful probing as we getting to know those around us.

Here are links to other posts I have written related to getting better as listeners and developing communities and thoughtful conversation:

Listening>turn taking

Food for thought related to the potential power of listening

A Community of Thought

Engaging in Conversations where Transformation has the Potential of Occurring

Five Smooth Stones

Thank you, Karen, for inviting me to read this book.  Back in 1974 or 1975 I didn’t read for pleasure.  We were married in December of 1973.  You were surprised and saddened that I didn’t read for pleasure.  You had a plan.  You asked me – if you suggested a book of fiction to me, would I agree to read it because you asked?

You introduced me to the world of “want to” (as opposed to “have to”) reading through this book, Five Smooth Stones by Ann Fairbairn, and I am forever grateful to you.

As I would read we would talk about what was happening and how the plot was unfolding each night at dinner.  Those discussions were rich and real.  Thank you, Karen.

On the occasion of our fortieth wedding anniversary I decided to reread Five Smooth Stones.  I was once again enthralled and captivated by this piece of art.  I found myself attracted to the rhythm and pulse of the story, characters and issues.  This is a love story, an epic tale of family, a historic and dramatic glimpse of the struggle for basic civil rights in our country and a challenging stimulant related to the realities of social privilege – all making for a truly great read.

This is a story of beauty amid reality, injustice and brutal violence.  This is a story of people who are so real I found myself believing that they were.

Fairbairn is a writer! She crafted characters of clarity and difference: Each real and provocative. She generated story lines that begged to be followed.  Mostly she was an artistic ‘weaver’ of divergent and convergent ‘wrap and waft’ of material.  Whether it was individuals, history or events – she brought this huge story into what I consider a treasured piece of art.

Ann Fairbairn published this work in 1966. I recommend this novel to anyone who wants to get immersed into a compelling, intense, serious, loving and abundant story.

I am a slow reader and the hardback copy of Five Smooth Stones by Ann Fairbairn I was reading from was 853 pages long.  I loved its length.  Actually I wished it were longer.  Shucks . . .  who among us wants a good story to end?

Thanks again, Karen!

Five Smooth Stones

Forging the Future by Effectively and Honestly Working Across Differences

I hope to probe some thinking and possible discussions stimulated by excerpts from Giants: the parallel lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer, 2008.

The following text is from the book jacket.  It helps to set the stage for the quote you will be asked to consider and respond to.

Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were preeminent self-made men of their time.  In this masterful dual biography, award-winning Harvard University scholar John Stauffer describes the transformations in the lives of these two giants during a major shift in cultural history, when men rejected the status quo and embraced new ideals of personal liberty.  As Douglass and Lincoln reinvented themselves and ultimately became friends, they transformed America.

Lincoln was born dirt poor, had less than one year of formal schooling, and became the nation’s greatest president.  Douglass spent the first twenty years of his life as a slave, had no formal schooling – in fact, his masters forbade him to read or write – and became one of the nation’s greatest writers and activists, as well as a spellbinding orator and messenger of audacious hope, the pioneer who blazed the path traveled by future African-American leaders.

 At a time when most whites would not let a black man cross their threshold, Lincoln invited Douglass into the White House.  Lincoln recognized that he needed Douglas to help him destroy the Confederacy and preserve the Union; Douglass realized that Lincoln’s shrewd sense of public opinion would serve his own goal of freeing the nation’s blacks. ~ Quoted from the Book Jacket of Giants: the parallel lives of Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

John Eaton (a chaplain who organized freedmen) considered Lincoln’s friendship with Douglass a testament to the president’s bipartisan diplomacy.  One of the president’s great skills, he said, was “in handling the men who were inclined to find fault with his policy,” Eaton had no way of knowing that Lincoln had developed his skill on the Illinois frontier with adversaries ranging from Jack Armstrong to Stephen Douglas.  “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.” He had declared twenty-two years earlier.  The doctrine had served him well, for he had done exactly that with countless blacks.

Douglass could befriend Lincoln because the president had finally converted to his abolition cause.  He too had remained faithful to his principle of friendship, which depended upon a shared cause.  The two men needed each other.  Lincoln needed Douglass to help him save the Union, and he served Douglass’s own goal of freeing the slaves.  At their August 1864 meeting both men recognized that these twin goals were mutually reinforcing.

But their friendship also hinged on their capacity to forgive.  As self-made men who continually transformed themselves, Douglass and Lincoln understood that former enemies may become future friends and vice versa.  They refused to see themselves as fixed or static.  In order to achieve transformation, they needed to forgive their former enemies of wrongdoing and credit them with the potential for change.  Their faith in the power of forgiveness led to the possibility of rapprochement and gave them the strength continue evolving.  (pages 291-292)

Something to think about:

There are countless situations in a career as a leader that stimulate growth.  Think through the lens of the probe below about any of the times you have developed as a person or a leader.

Think about (and share by posting, if you wish) yourself as a leader/person who has:

forged friendships with those you disagree with,

demonstrated the capacity to forgive,

sees yourself as a self-made woman or man,

sees yourself as continually transforming or evolving yourself,

refused to see yourselves as fixed or static, and/or

found that in order for you to achieve transformation – you have needed to forgive your former antagonists of wrongdoing and credit them with the potential for change.