“Learning is my shield against irrelevance”

“No one is immune,” he said. “I fear growing rigid in my thoughts and outdated in my ideas.” I was sitting in a packed stadium, listening to the dean of Northeastern University speak at my eldest daughter’s graduation. I started taking notes.

He talked about several students’ projects and start-ups, applying what they learned to address challenges like diabetes in Honduras and supporting small farms in Kenya. “Learning is a lifelong journey,” he reminded the graduates. 

I might have dismissed the speech as just encouraging words for young people, except that I had read very similar words a few months earlier, written by the CEO of a 400,000-person company.

Learning at Work

For most of my career, I invested much more into making my boss happy than into developing my skills. Though I worked in a highly technical field, almost no one around me read books or did research about what we did. We were too busy. Learning was something you did on your own time, something wholly apart from work. The unspoken assumption was that you were supposed to already know what you needed to know.

The words of Bosch’s CEO, Volkmar Denner, were a radical departure from what I was used to hearing. First, he offered some sobering statistics.

“Lifelong learning is essential… But the truth is that people aged 30 to 44 spend just nine minutes a day on average on improving their qualifications. And for people aged 45 to 64, the figure is even lower — only four minutes.”

The dean had said, “The world doesn’t stop changing, and we must continue to discover and learn,” and the Bosch CEO embraced the need for people at all levels of the company (including himself) to continue exploring and learning as an integral part of the work we do.

“It’s more than just a challenge our children have to face…In the digital world, people who have achieved success in their careers cannot afford to rest on their laurels and refuse to learn anything new. The more successful the company, the more alert its executives have to be to change, and the more they have to preserve their curiosity.

[It is] important to see working and learning as a whole, and to combine the two. This can only work if further training is no longer seen as something that is merely “nice to have” — a seminar every so often, then back to routine. We want further training to be an integral part of company strategy. It is this that is giving rise to new forms for self-organized learning [such as] “Working Out Loud.”

What’s it for?

The Bosch CEO saw learning as good for the individual (“a way of advancing our personal careers”) as well as for the company. The dean saw it as imperative for the planet.

“Inequality, injustice, and intolerance cast long shadows….Use your gifts to eliminate the dark. You are torch bearers in an age that longs for light.”

What about you? Whether you need your own “shield against irrelevance,” are looking for ways to advance your career, or want to contribute to a better world, standing still is not an option. 

What are you learning? Why?

Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

Lessons from my mother

Growing up, my mother responded to certain situations with cliches that have stuck with me.

When I would complain about a friend, she'd chide me with, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” When I would argue with my brother, she’d remind me, “You get more with honey than with vinegar.”

Looking back, she taught me many things. She showed me that generosity was about much more than money. That being social meant, most of all, being genuinely curious about other people. That homemade food has the power to bring people together and make them happy.

But one of the most valuable lessons was one she never learned herself.

When she was 76, she was dying from diabetes and complications from a broken hip. There was a family reunion in Pennsylvania, and we traveled two hours by ambulance to the great surprise of everyone who never expected she could make the trip. There were many tears and many photos. 

When we showed the pictures to my mother, the first thing she said was, “I hate the way I look in photos.” I couldn't believe it. I thought to myself, You’re 76, dying, and you’re still worried about how you look in a photo? When does it stop?

Yet, as my mother would say, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” I could recognize in myself the same negative self-image and petty self-loathing. When does it stop? Maybe never.

I thought of how tiring it must have been for her to have carried that baggage around for seven decades. And I resolved then and there to try and take myself less seriously, to drop my own baggage and practice walking more lightly through life. 

For this and all of her lessons, I’m grateful. Every time I smile for a photo, or bake cookies, or talk to a stranger in the elevator, I think of her. 

Dancing at my sister's wedding, 30 years ago.

Dancing at my sister's wedding, 30 years ago.

The Dinner Table University

“Felice, what did you learn today?”

“Felice” (fell-EE-chay) is Felice Leonardo "Leo" Buscaglia, a professor at the University of Southern California whose father instilled in him a sense of curiosity and a habit for learning that lasted his entire life. Dr. Buscaglia went on to write books about love and give talks that were broadcast on public television in the 1980s. That’s where I first heard him tell the story of the dinner table university he experienced as a child, and it stuck with me since. 

Leo grew up in a large Italian immigrant family. They were poor, but they were surrounded by people and love, by food and opera. His father, who was taken from school at an early age to work in a factory, was determined that none of his children would be denied an education. 

“Papa believed that the greatest sin was to go to bed at night as ignorant as when we awakened. To ensure that none of his children ever fell into the trap of complacency, Papa insisted that we learn at least one new thing each day. And dinner time seemed the perfect forum for sharing what we had learned that day. Naturally, as children, we thought this was crazy.”

Not having an answer wasn’t an option. So before dinner, the children would scramble to come up with something they could offer. Out of desperation, they might frantically turn to the encyclopedia to find some fact they could use. "The population of Nepal is…"

“Silence. It always amazed me and reinforced my belief that Papa was a little crazy that nothing I ever said was too trivial for him. First, he'd think about what was said as if the salvation of the world depended upon it. "The population of Nepal. Hmmm. Well." He would then look down the table at Mama, who would be ritualistically fixing her favorite fruit in a bit of leftover wine. "Mama, did you know that?” Mama's responses always lightened the otherwise reverential atmosphere. "Nepal?" she'd say. "Not only don't I know the population of Nepal, I don't know where in God's world it is!" Of course, this only played into Papa's hands.
"Felice," he'd say. "Get the atlas so we can show Mama where Nepal is." And the whole family went on a search for Nepal.”

Each child’s contribution was carefully examined and considered no matter how trivial it was. It wasn’t so much the specific bit of knowledge that was important, but the sharing of that knowledge.

“Without being aware of it, our family was growing together, sharing experiences and participating in one another's education. And by looking at us, listening to us, respecting our input, affirming our value, giving us a sense of dignity, Papa was unquestionably our most influential teacher.
‘How long we live is limited,’ he said, "but how much we learn is not. What we learn is what we are." Papa's technique has served me well all my life.” 

Listening to Leo Buscaglia tell the story himself is a special treat. (You can find a longer version in Papa, My Father, and it’s condensed nicely here.) Clicking on the video below will take you directly to it at 45m06s. Watch the whole video if you can, and you’ll get a sense of someone whose passion for life, love, and learning inspired many thousands of people, including me.

Note: I liked this story so much I included it as an exercise in Week 9 of the WOL Circle Guides. It’s meant to help people experience their own Dinner Table University, to practice sharing their learning as a contribution.



The spiral method

Sometimes, you can learn a lot from an 8 year old. 

I’m working on a new version of the circle guides, trying to make it easier for more people to develop the habit and mindset of Working Out Loud.

And this time, I’m going to use an idea from my youngest daughter’s math class: the spiral method.

When I was a kid…

Growing up, I learned math and other subjects using what I now know to be “the mastery method.” In short, you learn about a topic until you master it or until the test - whichever comes first. Then the class moves on. 

This works well as long as you fully learn each topic in the allotted time. But if you somehow don't get it, and future topics depend on that knowledge, then you’re out of luck, and your ego takes a beating on top of it. “You didn’t master Unit #17 for some reason? Sorry, I guess you won’t be good at math (or you won’t think you will be).”

A different approach

When we were researching schools in New York City, one of them talked about teaching math using the “spiral method.” I hadn’t heard of it before, but now I can see it makes perfect sense. Here’s a simple description:

“Key concepts are presented repeatedly throughout the curriculum, but with deepening layers of complexity.”

In short, as you learn new things, you keep revisiting the fundamentals that are presented in different ways. Although the idea has been around for a long time (the quote above is from a “a classic argument for curriculum reform" published in 1960), the spiral method isn’t widely adopted. The University of Chicago published a nice summary, and here’s one reason they gave:

“Designing and building a spiral curriculum is more difficult than designing and building a conventional, massed curriculum, but, as the research shows, it’s worth the effort.”

When my daughter was in first grade, we thought she might be having trouble with math. But over the last two years in the new school, we see her doing advanced work while she repeatedly revisits familiar topics. For example, she may have learned fractions in 50 different ways. Now she’s learning basic algebra a full four grades or more before I ever learned it.

Applying it to Working Out Loud

In the early versions of the 12-week circle guides, I treated Working Out Loud more like a mastery course, introducing topics in a strictly linear fashion. In the upcoming version, I’ll try to introduce the spiral method in two ways: within a circle and across multiple circles.

Within a circle, I'll include variations of the key concepts over the entire course of the 12 weeks so circle members keep revisiting the fundamentals (like offering universal gifts) in new ways. Once a circle ends, you can also spiral by forming a new circle, perhaps with a new goal or different people. By including additional exercises at different levels of difficulty each week, you can choose different paths through the guides each time, practicing the fundamentals while trying some of the more challenging exercises for the first time.

A new version of the guides will be available soon, and it will probably take me a few versions to get this right. In the meantime, what has helped you develop a new habit or learn a new skill? How would you incorporate that into Working Out Loud circles?

The kid who wouldn’t talk on the phone

It was back in the day when AT&T owned the phone on your wall. When you didn’t have to dial an area code. When phone numbers began with words instead of numbers. Ours was TAlmadge 8-9635. I can still remember my mother holding out that phone every so often, urging me to say hello to some relative. “Go ahead, Johnny! They’re waiting!”

I was petrified.

Hurry up Johnny! They're waiting!

40 years later

Over the ensuing decades, I learned to talk on the phone and in meetings, but speaking in front of a public audience was still terrifying. Yet I knew I had to get better.

So in 2010, at age 46, I decided to apply to present at a conference, the Web 2.0 Expo. As soon as I decided, I was already nervous. I procrastinated for weeks, submitting the application ten minutes before the midnight deadline. Once I learned I was accepted, I was anxious for months before the conference. The day of my talk, sick to my stomach, I walked around the block over and over in an attempt to steady my nerves.

In the following years, I read books like Presentation Zen, Resonate, Confessions of a Public Speaker, and The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. I watched hundreds of TED talks. I would ask people after one of my presentations, “What’s one thing I could have done better?” And I spoke and I spoke and I spoke to different kinds of audiences in different kinds of places.

The small steps I took, practiced over time with feedback and peer support, helped me become a better storyteller.


Recently, someone told me I was a “natural speaker.” That was nice of them, but I know it’s not true. Like any other skill, I was pretty awful at first and I’m just gradually getting better.

Next year, I have a range of new skills I need to develop. For months, for example, people have been telling me that I need to make audio and video recordings. But I’m petrified. It feels like my mother is handing me the phone again: Go ahead, Johnny! They’re waiting!

Now, though, I know that the fear I feel is a natural part of learning something new. I could defuse the fear by avoiding the new thing, by not growing, or I could do something to get better.

This morning, I chose to take a step, and I bought a microphone to make my first recordings.

Hello? It’s me. 

Hello? It's me.

The Mandarin Miracle

When we heard our 6 year old daughter was going to learn Mandarin at her new school, BASIS Independent in Brooklyn, I didn’t think it would lead to much. Sure, it sounded impressive. But I took Spanish for years and can barely read the ads in the subway. Mandarin, with its characters and different tones, would be even more difficult.

How much could she possibly learn at school?

Me in Mandarin

Our first surprise 

In her first week, our daughter came home singing a catchy song in Mandarin. That’s pretty cool, I thought. It certainly sounded like Chinese, and she was having fun. She was able to teach me the different tones and a few words.

Waiting for the bus one morning a few weeks later, I heard her having a conversation in Mandarin with a boy who also goes to BASIS. The boy’s mother and I looked at each other as if to say Is this normal? The kids clearly took pleasure in being able to speak a language we couldn't understand a word of.

“He even sings that song in the shower,” the boy’s mother said.

Why I still can’t speak a foreign language

When I met the Mandarin teacher, Na Fan, I finally understood why the children were learning so quickly - and why I never did.

The method I used to try and learn Spanish and Japanese relied on textbooks. I would memorize words and study grammar, but I almost never spoke. Even though I passed the tests, any knowledge I gained quickly evaporated from lack of using it.

Na Fan described a very different approach. “Traditionally,” she said, “learning vocabulary is emphasized: numbers, colors, vegetables, and fruits. But after acquiring all this, kids can’t construct sentences to describe an event or express their feelings.” Na wanted her students to speak from the very beginning.

She had tried various teaching methods, and the one that proved to be the most effective with kids of all ages is QTalk, a system that uses visual cues to help you speak the language immediately. QTalk introduces sentence structure in the first lesson - subjects, verbs, and objects - so you can build sentences and communicate right away.



In class, Na shows images and pronounces the words, and the kids repeat them and construct simple sentences by putting the pictures and words together. From the first day, Na only speaks Mandarin in class, and the kids speak Mandarin too.

By the end of the first year, the kids that Na teaches are proficiently reading and speaking 250 characters. By the end of the second year, it’s up to 600.

The miracle

My 5 year old son just started kindergarten at BASIS a few weeks ago. One day I came home and found him sitting on the sofa, wearing headphones and staring intensely at a laptop screen. I was about to admonish him for playing a video game, until I heard him repeating words in Mandarin.

“It’s QTalk,” my wife said. “He’s been doing that for an hour.”

photo (17)

The Mandarin Miracle is the same as the French Miracle or the Spanish Miracle. A modern immersive teaching method plus a caring, passionate teacher can help people of any age learn to speak and enjoy a new language.

Talking with Na Fan, you can feel her energy and commitment, her sense of mission. “Anyone can learn to speak a foreign language using this method.” She’s found something that works, and now she wants to share it with as many students as possible.

I heard QTalk is working on Japanese lessons. I’m looking forward to trying a different, better approach.

“Beginner’s mind” in everyday life

I was at the top of our narrow sloping driveway, sitting on my bike, after my father had just removed my training wheels. I was five, and my older brother was there too. “Ready?” my father said, and let go. Gravity took over, and I squeezed the handlebars as I went faster, quickly veering too far right until I crashed into the building next door. I lay there stunned, with my ego and my knee badly bruised.

“You didn’t hit the brake!” my brother scolded, and I felt stupid on top of everything else. I vowed not to try again any time soon.

That was one way to begin. Afraid and without proper preparation, I was focused solely on the outcome. I took the failure personally and gave up instead of persisting. It was a mistake I was to repeat.

There are, of course, better ways to approach something new.

Beginner’s mind

A phrase that captures the more positive aspects of a fresh perspective is “beginner’s mind” (or Shoshin 初心), a concept in Zen Buddhism.

“It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.”

I had seen the phrase before, but it was only as I began learning to play the piano recently that I could appreciate the meaning

Playing with two hands

I approached learning the piano differently from learning to ride a bike. I was without fear of judgment and without expectation. In my second lesson this past week, my teacher showed me a version of “Ode to Joy” that required playing with two hands.

“Are you crazy?” I joked. “This is only the second lesson!”

In my head, the coordination required for playing with two hands was beyond me. But despite my trepidation at taking the next step, my teacher guided me and I got it after a few attempts. My playing was lacking grace and tempo, and was filled with mistakes, but I knew that practice would be my ally. I smiled with the fulfillment that comes with getting better at something.

Biking to work

The next morning, I practiced playing with two hands before work and could see more improvement. Alone in the apartment, I even applauded myself after a minor breakthrough.

I was experiencing the “openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions” of beginner’s mind.

It was while I was biking to work shortly after practice that I remembered the story of my first attempt to ride on two wheels. I also remembered the freedom I felt when I eventually did learn to ride. The feel of independence, the feel of the wind.

I pedaled slowly along the Hudson River. I paid attention to the breeze and the smell of the water, and to the shapes of the clouds. To the tourists strolling and consulting maps in different languages. I nodded good morning to the Statue of Liberty.

Beginner’s mind, I thought, doesn’t just apply to “studying a subject.” It can apply to each and every day.

Beginner's mind on the way to work

Learning to play piano at 51 years old

After decades of wanting to learn to play the piano, I finally took a step this past Tuesday and had my first lesson. I’m glad I waited.

My earlier attempts at learning

When it comes to learning new things, I’m eager to read books and do research. But other kinds of learning can bring out the worst in me.

More than 15 years ago, for example, I wanted to learn to play golf. I bought expensive clubs, went to the driving range to practice, played a lot, and even signed up for a few lessons.

I was terrible. For years.

The worst part, though, was that I couldn’t accept being terrible. I wanted to be good! Being terrible was humiliating and made me miserable. I reacted by trying harder, getting angry, breaking a few clubs, and making my embarrassment that much worse in the process.

With all the joy drained from the game, I lost interest, sold my equipment and decided I just wasn’t cut out for golf.

Older dog. New tricks.

In thinking about piano, I was conscious of the childish boy inside of me, the one so quick to be ashamed when he’s not good at something, ready to throw a tantrum and give up when he doesn’t make progress quickly enough.

But in the past few years, tired of routinely being frustrated and angry, I’ve tried a range of experiments in personal development, and some things have changed since my golfing days.

How to learn anything

Understanding what it takes to learn came from my research on changing habits at work and spreading the practice of working out loud. I saw that the most effective approach is taking small steps, practiced over time, with feedback and peer support. (“Guided mastery” is a good phrase.) And I saw how that approach can apply to anything.

So as a reward to myself for publishing the book, I decided to take a step. Instead of just reading about the piano and banging on the keys myself, I asked my daughter's piano teacher if I could start lessons too. She’s a wonderful teacher, caring and positive and enthusiastic, as well as an incredibly talented pianist and composer. But she usually teaches children.

“Are you serious?” she asked. “I’m ready,” I said.

A miracle on the 23rd floor

And there I was, with mild trepidation, sitting down at the piano, with my daughter right there watching me. My teacher showed me where to place my fingers. “This is middle C.” We took small steps, and she provided encouragement along the way while  helping me make occasional adjustments.

By the end of the lesson, I was playing a simple version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” I couldn’t believe this was me. The music. The calm. The deep sense of fulfillment after wanting for so long and finally - finally! - taking that first step.

The next day, alone in a quiet apartment, I turned on the piano, sat down, and practiced. Even when I made mistakes, I smiled, and I thought, This is going to be fun.

Ode to Joy