Stevan Popovic

Explicit Learning

15 Sep 2019 | Learning, Career

Learning is a key feature of humanity. It allows us to improve over time and learn from past mistakes. Learning (along with physical growth) is the defining process that makes us different at 30 years old than 3 years old.

Earlier this year, Reid Hoffman wrote “Those Who Teach, Can Do”, an excellent essay on the theme of learning. In it, he discusses explicit learners (the following quotes are all pulled from Reid’s essay).

Who is an Explicit Learner?

“Truly breakout performers tend to place an unusually high emphasis on improving their capabilities and performance over time.”

Explicit learners are those who deliberately learn with the goal of improvement. In the context of a career, they seek to learn from their direct experiences as well as from others, they solicit feedback from peers and have a curiosity to read and ask around new subjects1.

“…They also have an extremely well-developed ability to share the knowledge they acquire with others.”

In my career at high-growth startups, I have found this to be true of the most impressive people I have worked with. They tend to reflect on their experience and internalise lessons. When you ask them a question, they are often able to break down the factors they would consider with great detail (whether their craft is marketing, software development or operational improvement).

Explicit learners understand the variables in given situations that they effect and often form principles that they carry forward with them2.

Pre-requisites for Explicit Learning

“When I think of learning, I think of it as the acquisition of skills or knowledge with a deliberate orientation toward improvement. It starts with experience or study but also demands reflection, subsequent action, and assessment. The goal is not just to know more things, or enjoy a variety of different pastimes. The goal is to systematically prepare yourself for future opportunities”

Reid mentions the two pre-requisites for learning in the work context, experience and reflection.

First, experience. You need to have lots of new and challenging experiences from which to learn. This is why people often consider startups to be a good learning environment, as the speed of new experiences is generally fast and the variety of experiences broad.

Second is reflection. In order to pull lessons from your experience, you need to look back at it and understand what actually happened. What can you take forward?

Methods for Explicit Learning

“I’m most apt to look for people who incorporate learning into their lives in a deliberate, persistent, and explicit way simply because I believe that individuals who’ve developed habits that make learning central to how they interact with the world are more likely to learn more than those who don’t embrace learning so intentionally.”

Reid doesn’t make any practical suggestions of how to become an explicit learner, so I wanted to suggest a few myself:

  • Read with a pen - If you are inclined to read and you are reading for learning (not entertainment), challenge yourself by reading with a pen. Make notes, ask questions of the author, make connections to your experiences and other ideas. How to Read by Mortimer and Adler is a good book that explains this practice further. Farnam Street also has a good reading guide.
  • Put yourself in a peer group - The value of a peer group is the culture you can create between friends. If you can cultivate a peer group who challenge themselves and reflect on those challenges, you will grow with them.
  • Keep a career journal - As you go through your work week, make a note of your biggest challenges in a career journal. As you work through them, force yourself to think about why they were challenging, how you tackled them and what learnings you can carry forward. Hold these learnings as principles you can take forward into your next experience.

Your Learning Patterns

Finally, it’s important to think about how you learn. A question I often ask in interviews is “what is your preferred style of learning?”. Do you like someone explaining something to you at a high-level? Do you want to just start and learn as you go? Do you like to research first? Watch a video on YouTube? The point is, everyone, learns in a different way. It’s useful to figure out what your style of learning is so that you can focus on that.

Every once in a while, you should ask yourself, am I learning in the best way for me? If not, adjust the methods you use to learn. This will improve your improvement over time. It’s the difference between production and production capacity. Yes, this point is meta. But if you can think about your learning cycle and how to improve it, this will be a force multiplier across all your learning efforts.

I hope the above thoughts provides a useful extension to Reid’s initial essay. I’m interested in how others think about explicit learning in their life. If you have some ideas, please do reach out.

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  1. David Perrell had a good post on this recently - Learning Like an Athlete. In it, he advocates creating a “learning plan”, sort of like a training schedule for the brain.

  2. Perhaps the best example of this is the book Principles by Ray Dalio. He literally shared a life's work of learnings on both career and personal life with his employees and then the world.