Monthly Archives: February 2014

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