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Sometimes I think the only dimension of performance that a manager should measure is how much each employee is learning. Most people are intrinsically motivated to do good work. The trick is in knowing how. So the more you know, the more likely you'll perform well. And people who are proactive learners probably have the most potential even if they aren't yet superstars.

How relevant to the job does the learning need to be? I would be generous about that. The nature of knowledge is that everything you learn stimulates and strengthens your mind. And what we experience as creativity is often little more than our brain's natural impulse to combine and compare knowledge from diverse fields. So the more you know, the more powerful your creative potential.

But beyond all of those benefits is my observation that employees who are still learning are almost always happier on the job. I haven't seen any studies on this point, but I'll bet you'd see low turnover among people who feel they are learning. Learning makes people feel connected and engaged. It feels like improvement and growth, and it's good for the ego.

As a manager, you'd still need to fire the total screw-ups and toxic employees. But among the good-enough performers, an appetite for learning probably separates the best from the average.

I've blogged before that I pick projects based on what I will learn. This year was especially educational for me. A few examples...

-          I wrote and acted in a promotional video for my book. I learned what works on camera and what doesn't. I learned how the audience reacts to different approaches. And I learned a lot about the actual technique of short video production. If you asked me to make another promotional video tomorrow, I'd be far better equipped.

-          I created a Slideshare presentation with Rexi Media and learned a great deal about the science of making things memorable and interesting. Every bit of that has crossover usefulness.

-          I went back on the speaking circuit, but this time with a useful message (success) as opposed to my old just-for-laughs speech. Delivering a motivational message is an entirely different skill. (See a video of it here.) My old speech was essentially stand-up comedy with comics.

-          I went on a book publicity tour and learned what types of publicity work best in 2014. For example, these days a book signing has little impact on book sales whereas doing a Reddit AMA is a big deal.

-          I'm starting a Dilbert.com redesign project and learning about the best ideas in website design for 2014.

-          My partners and I launched CalendarTree.com this year. I was hands-on for every phase, including concept, design, user interface, testing, redesign, setting up the corporation, funding, online marketing, A-B testing, and tons more. And I picked up a lot of technology knowledge by osmosis. (And because I know you are wondering, yes, the experience is a source of Dilbert fodder.)

-          I finished writing my latest book (How to Fail...). The "success" genre was new to me as a writer. And I had to learn a lot to tie it all together with research and references. I worked with a medical doctor who specializes in science research to get the science parts right.

-          I tried out a new comic strip on this blog (Robots Read News) and learned a lot by experiment. For example, I learned that readers didn't care that the art in each panel was identical.

-          I'm teaching myself to play drums. (Technically, a stranger on Youtube is teaching me). I have no end goal. I just enjoy hitting things with sticks, and I have discovered that it lights up a part of my brain that I don't normally stimulate. Five minutes of drumming feels like two cups of coffee.

-          I experimented with becoming a well-dressed person, just to see what that was all about. Historically, my normal look would have been described as sort of an athlete-turned-homeless vibe. But thanks to a clever Macy's salesperson I upped my game. Result: Yes, people treat me differently (and better) when I'm stylishly dressed.

-          This week I've been researching hardware to split a component video signal and convert one output into a wireless HDMI extender to another room. It doesn't matter why. All that matters is that I learned a lot in the process.

-          Blogging is an ongoing learning process. I learn (usually the hard way) which writing approaches work and which ones get me in trouble. And after almost every blog post readers send me links to related and fascinating topics. The entire process is hugely educational.

The list goes on, but you get the idea. For me, learning is living. It's how I feel connected to the world, and I think it's my best strategy for being a productive citizen. Best of all, as a cartoonist, each of these experiences fuels the creative fires.

I'm curious to see what you learned this year. Please list a few things if you have a minute.

 
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+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 5, 2014
Wow, you summed up my job: I've come to enjoy it less because there is little learning happening, and few opportunities for it. Anything I learn right now is self directed, and far more interesting than anything I do for a living.

Unfortunately, what I'm learning doesn't pay nearly as well :p
 
 
Mar 5, 2014
This year I leaned

1. That writing a hypothesis is hard.

2. How to write and Edit Motorola 68hc908 assembly language for a fuel injection system I built for a 42 year old volkswagen.

3. How to work on 2 stroke engines.

4. That 160/110 blood pressure is really high for a persons my age. Im not overweight... And I work out every other day.
 
 
Mar 5, 2014
In the past year, I have learned how to succeed in sales. As an engineer, it has not been an easy transition - it took a while to learn to uncover and appeal to emotional reasons to buy, rather than resort to my default approach of beating the prospect over the head with logic.

I also learned (or confirmed what I had expected) that a switch to sales would be extremely liberating. From a tactical standpoint, nobody cares when or if I am in the office, as long as my numbers are good. From a strategic standpoint, I spend less time worrying about job security - because if my current employer makes the unlikely decision to part with my revenue stream, I am fairly confident I can find another taker. Beats the hell out of year-end reviews and groveling to the pointy haired boss.

I also learned that I am an idiot for not making this switch 20 years ago.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 5, 2014
My response will be boring, so don't read it - I just feel an urge to respond.

This year so far I have learnt (why "learnt is in red, I thought it was correct past participle, oh, whatever) a lot about XX-th century history of Latin America. No connections to my profession, not likely to come up in a social encounter, and anyway - I am seriously contemplating suicide, so it does not matter. Yet learning feels so good. .
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 5, 2014
My learning has been a bit slow this past year. Mostly, I'm trying to do the things I already do, better. I started down the path to get my Pilot's license and took ground school. Otherwise, I've really been just trying to keep my head above water.
 
 
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 5, 2014
Scott,

I learnt a few things so far this year. Here are top three:

1. The noisy WikiLeaks could not do what silent inter-government intelligence has done against global corruption networks in less than an year.

2. The US is finally working on the evidence that inflationary surplus is not real cash-flow and cannot be neutralized by war. The excess cannot be weeded out by central banks.

3. And lastly, I learnt that there is nothing funny about politics if you are serious about it.

.
 
 
Mar 5, 2014
Scott, I think you're going to enjoy the drumming. I am guessing this will fit your personality well. I picked up the drums in 2002. Great.
 
 
Mar 4, 2014
Oh, Scott. You're setting yourself up for this one. What have I learned? About you? A LOT!

As I've said before, it's like the old recipe for bear stew: "First, shoot a bear."

Your ideas seem to relate only to people like you. So in the Adams world, the recipe is, "First, become independently wealthy."

Let us take this idea to a thought experiment. Let us listen in on an imaginary conversation between a sales manager and his sales employee:

Manager: "Scott, you're at 4% of quota. Your performance is unsatisfactory."

Scott: "You are incorrect. I have reallly learned a lot this year."

Manager: "Excuse me?"

Scott: "Everyone knows that a sales quota is a goal, and that goals are, forgive me, BS."

Manager: "What?"

Scott: "Systems lead to success, not goals. Goals are limiting."

Manager: "So what system do you think you have mastered? By your logic, shouldn't that have led to getting more sales?"

Scott: "Absolutely not. You obviously don't understand the concept. My system is to try a bunch of different things at which I'll fail, but will learn important lessons and give me knowledge that will help me in the future."

Manager: "Really. So tell me what you've learned this past year."

Scott: "Well, I have started to learn to play the drums."

Manager: "And that helps your sales performance how?"

Scott: "The benefits are not tied to a specific area. They all make me a more valuable employee because my knowledge set has increased."

Manager: "Really. Well, what else have you learned?"

Scott: "Let's see. . . I wrote and acted in a video. Then, I created a slideshow in partnership with a media company. And I tried to dress better, but that didn't really work. And I wrote a book. I worked with some other people to launch a website. Oh, and here's a big one: This week I've been researching hardware to split a component video signal and convert one output into a wireless HDMI extender to another room. It doesn't matter why. All that matters is that I learned a lot in the process."

Manager: "You're fired."


You see, Scott, your 'system' approach works great as long as you are 1) rich, and 2) work for yourself. For the rest of us, it might not be such a hot idea.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 4, 2014
I totally agree that learning is a big part of career. But when managers focus on learning, they think of a classroom environment where people talk, talk, and talk. Real work experience and learning is not appreciated. I should know - I work in a place where learning is higher priority than working.

On the other hand, if you have learned, you would work well. I think work quality and quantity are easier to measure than learning. Not perfect, but better.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 4, 2014
I learned -

- I'm not really that smart
- How to listen better
- Supporting my family is about spending time, not spending money
- How to work less and love more
- How to spend less money and live the same lifestyle
- That Good Enough is sometimes just that

But mostly, I've jump started my brain with reading and learning and I have many less sleepless nights worrying about !$%*!$%* that I can't control.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 4, 2014
I rarely comment online. Blogs are usually filled with inane comments that digresses into flaming and crude comments. However, this one was different. Scott, you really struck a resonant chord in me.

This year I learned that getting "old" is for real. A good mental attitude will overcome lots of things, but your body still lets you know that your not in your 40s anymore. I just took a new position where I have to "drink from a firehose" to come up to speed. I am _so_ looking forward to it. My observation is there are many people who thrive on learning while others shun it. I am happy to be in a profession where learning is embraced.

My friends harass me about "useless knowledge." For me there is no such thing. You can never know too much about anything / everything. It only enriches your life.

@CodeJammer - I have been playing guitar for about 35 years. I learned that you never "master" it, only climb closer to mastry with every attempt. On being a first-time Dad: I learned that you are a first-time Dad with every child who comes. They are all different. Please allow this advice: Find things you love about your child in every stage of their life. Let you know that you love them and enjoy those things. Focus on that, not the negative things. I did that and my children have grown into wonderful adults.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 4, 2014
- DIY/Home Repair. At least, my skills may now be approaching those of a tool-using ape.
- How to prepare for a baby (I think).
- How to price insurance products (lots and lots of math).
- About AGEs and their role in possibly causing diabetes and alzheimers. Was very satisfied when my old learning about biology led to a hunch that intermittent fasting might help, and there is at least some research, that yes, it does.
- The value of not being an a-hole at work (please to see this then appear in the book).
- That faking a liking for a disliked job can lead to at least a little real happiness (also, tangentially in the book).
- How not to grow vegetables. My Adams-like failure has, however, provided me with numerous lessons, and I am determined 2014 will go a lot better.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 4, 2014
Professionally:
Switched jobs and learned A LOT. First I was the youngest in the team, now I'm the oldest. First I was a small worker bee in a big corp, now I'm discussing system architecture with the boss. A few weeks ago I was meeting my first "real" customer. (Yes, we got the contract.)
On a lower level, I did my first serious project with .NET WCF four weeks ago and now I'm doing the next one using ASP.NET web api. I barely knew the former and hadn't even heard about the latter.

In other news: I learned this year that european foreign policy is still as embarassing as ever, as exemplified in our ridiculous attempt to meddle in the ukrainian crisis. Well - "attempt" is probably an euphemism.
 
 
Mar 4, 2014
Similar to the article i wrote for the company newsletter last month:

LEARNING TO BE DIFFERENT

By now I shouldn’t have to remind you that I have five boys, and I’ll let you know that all of them so far have had a foray into Scouting. They like most of the activities, but what they love is that wonderful parent-son event, Pinewood Derby, where you work together to make a gravity-propelled racecar from a 2x2x6-inch block of pine, nails, plastic wheels and creative language.

The sparkle in their eyes when the kits are handed out, rather than a touching sight, is to me only a gauge of from how high their hopes will come crashing down later to be squashed flat. You see, I’ve never been able to build a truly fast car (although I did work very hard once and garnered best “scout-built” car in the Tiger Cub division.) Middle of the pack is all we’ve ever been able to accomplish. Not that I don’t try: My engineering knowledge of weight distribution had me drawing vector diagrams to make sure we took full advantage of every last bit of push. My hot rodding days reminded me of the importance of the wheels’ rotating mass effect, and past metal working experience helped me mirror-polish the axles so that the wheels spun like the proverbial perpetual motion machine (kind of.)

It’s never been enough though, so I try and up my game every year by studying the problem harder, looking for a new way to apply my skills to an advantage. Each year I learn more about what makes a fast car, but the car never significantly improves. Why is that? Actually the answer is pretty simple: The problem isn’t my understanding of the challenge, it’s my skill. Instead of working on the problem, I should be working on myself. In other words, the car is the same each year because I am the same car builder each year.

What we call learning as adults is usually very different from learning as a child. When we’re in grade school we certainly know more from one year to the next, but the most dramatic difference is the change in what we are able to accomplish, or our capacities. Our ability to handle life’s challenges change so much at that stage that it’s reasonable to say we are not the same person year to year. Contrast that with learning as adults. We may continue to learn new things, but how often do we come into a new year with more capacities than we had the last, with the ability to meet old challenges better or to address new ones effectively? You may have heard business gurus exhort us to be learning organizations. They don’t mean we need to read more books or take classes (although that may be part of it.) They mean we need to grow in our abilities – to be a different company today than we were yesterday, and plan to be different again tomorrow.

With performance reviews coming up soon, this is a good time to reflect. Are you a different person than you were at this time last year? If not, what new skills could you develop that would take the company to a different level of performance? How about for the people that report to you? Are they different? Our competition isn’t likely sitting still, so why should we. Oh, and how do I plan to be different next year, you ask? That’s an easy one: None of my boys are currently in Scouts.
 
 
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 4, 2014
I learned:
- that working less and reducing stress solved several health problems
- that sugar gives me muscle cramps
- to use swipe
- to fly better on the paraglider
- i started as a piano teacher as a side job, i am learning an awful lot on how to do that
- i am learning right now how to smile on purpose, genuinely
- i am learning very slowly how to be an a s s h o l e less often
 
 
Mar 4, 2014
In the past year, I have learned ...
- that Arduino Sketch has a lot more prototyping power than I had assumed.
- that fairly simple math is enough to convincingly render snow fall on the small screen.
- that my short-term memory sucks.
- that my estimates for home DIY projects now need to be multiplied by 10.
- that power sawing MDF board in a bedroom is a really itchy bad idea.
- that after 2 years, our new owner's management team still does not understand the nature/needs of our business.
- that the real reason my boss's boss asks for innovation ideas is so he can stomp them out and punish the source. He views technology improvements as schedule killers.
- that I'm more entertained than bitter...
 
 
Mar 4, 2014
I've learnt never to underestimate people's ignorance & stupidity, not to read comments under public posts on Facebook & that because it's over the Internet some people think it's okay to say things that would get them a good slap in real life.
 
 
Mar 4, 2014
* Started doing Silverlight development
* Took project management classes
* More Light Plumbing (I bought a professional plumber's auger)
* How to repair a septic system aerator
* How to hang drywall
* How to form a concrete basin for a shower
* How to cut & lay tile
* How to repair roofing, and replace roof vents
* Some lawnmower repair
* How to use a wood chipper
* How to drive a construction tractor (I bought one)
* How to groom pets (bought pro pet trimmers, watched vids, practiced a lot)
* How to juggle 4 balls (I still mostly suck, decent at 3 balls already)
* Practiced contact juggling
* How to replace digitizers and screens for iPhones
* How to install closed circuit cameras and PC-based DVR
* How to mine cryptocurrencies
* Built a polymer extruder to make filament for 3D printers
-> * light welding
-> * light metalwork
-> * Learned about electronic parts I've never used before
* Updated various web sites using better development methodologies
* Practiced drawing, pixel art, design & layout, and 3D modelling
* Practiced breathing
(sounds funny, But I read a book... helps me fall asleep)
* Spent time in court to recover a stolen vehicle
 
 
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 4, 2014
I can not -wait- to see how Wally games this system.
 
 
+13 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 4, 2014
I've learned the most common indicator of potential success is an individual's ability to approach and speak to others without being intimidated.
 
 
 
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