We usually associate learning with the young, the naïve, or newbies. As sophisticated adults or professionals, we tend to regard ourselves more as having learned rather than as learning. The truth, of course, is that maintaining sophistication or professionalism requires continuous, lifelong learning, including learning about learning itself.
Intentional learning entails deciding to learn about something specific. We read about diseases of houseplants to try to determine what's wrong with the schefflera; we practice telling a new joke to improve our delivery; or we take tennis lessons to elevate the strategic part of our game.
In this culture, intentional learning is highly valued. We hold in high esteem achievements such as degrees and certifications, and we grant or lend resources to help those pursuing those degrees and certifications. But while we do value intentional learning, that valuing is most specific, as evidenced by the specificity of the goals of these activities. Degree-granting institutions must themselves be accredited. And the marketing literature of most training programs includes sections titled "What Attendees Learn" or "Learning Objectives" or even "Measurable Outcomes."
Even so, it's likely that most learning is unintentional. We accidentally discover keyboard shortcuts in Outlook; a colleague relates tidbits of market intelligence that explain the CEO's latest announcement; we witness a miscommunication between two colleagues and resolve never to use that particular phrasing again ourselves.
Because unintentional learning is so productive, a natural question arises: What if we intentionally create opportunities for unintentional learning? Intentional learning without specific goals offers several advantages.
- Prerequisites are less restrictive
- Since the goals are non-specific, prerequisites for unintentional learning in a given field of knowledge relate more to the will and ability to learn than they do to specific capabilities in that field of knowledge. This enables the learner to explore more broadly than learners who use a more conventional goal-oriented approach.
- The learning is less biased
- The more specific our learning goals are, the less likely we are to acquire knowledge unrelated to those goals. And that unrelated knowledge can be more useful and beneficial than what we set out to learn in the first place. Just as goals provide direction and focus, they also bias the undertaking — that's how they provide focus. And just as there is a place for goal-oriented learning, there is a place for less-goal-oriented learning.
- Spectacularly beneficial discontinuities are more likely
- When we open When we open our minds to intentionally
unintentional learning, sudden, disruptive,
"aha's" become more likelyour minds to intentionally unintentional learning, sudden, disruptive, "aha's" become more likely. And these unexpected insights can be the sources of the spectacularly beneficial discontinuities that lead to life-altering choices in the personal domain, or disruptive innovations in the business domain.
As this day closes, perhaps you'll reflect on what you learned today. Maybe you'll notice some things that you didn't intend to learn when this day began. And tomorrow, maybe there will be even more. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
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- In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.
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