What job will you have in two years? In 12? While you can’t predict the future, you can ponder what research says about staying in one job long term (you probably won’t) and preparing for the jobs of the future (you absolutely must). In his book Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive, Bradley R. Staats points out that we’re in a learning economy, so we can’t just be knowledge workers: we have to be learning workers, too. In other words, we have to “learn how to learn.”
One way to become a dynamic learner? Stop focusing on big, splashy outcomes and start focusing on the processes that lead to them—no matter how minute.
Learning requires process focus, not outcome focus
I have three sons who, at least for the moment, all love baseball (as does their father). I have the good fortune to help coach each of their baseball teams, although soon their skills and knowledge will surpass mine. Recently my eldest son came to the plate with the bases loaded against a hard-throwing but wild pitcher. Most of the team was either striking out or walking. He ripped a pitch, but unfortunately it went straight to the shortstop, who fielded it on one hop and, given how hard it was hit, easily turned a double play from second base to first base.
My son’s response was not one of grudging acceptance that he had done everything right but gotten unlucky. Rather, it was “Dad, even a weakly hit ground ball would have avoided the double play.” Of course, no coach would send a player up for an at bat and tell him to mishit the ball in an attempt to get lucky. But after seeing what happened, that is exactly what my son was wishing for. All my sons, when evaluating their performance in a game, react this way. They tend to view how well they hit the ball as a function of whether they got on base (the outcome), not of how hard and where they hit it (more accurate measures of the process).
Unfortunately, their tendency is not uncommon. Most of the time, even though we know that learning requires evaluating the process we used to get to an outcome, we focus on the outcome instead. We have to learn how a process focus leads to learning.
What is a “process focus”?
Under a process focus, each part of a system is given careful study in order to build deeper understanding. With practice, the parts improve, but so do the connections between them. In this approach, the focus isn’t on the outcome—although that, too, improves, at least eventually. Process-focused learners recognize that they aren’t fixed in their ability to learn. With effort and study, they can achieve significant change.
Process-focused learners can be found in many places. For example, a process focus is often a winning strategy in sports. After becoming the general manager and performance director for Great Britain’s Team Sky (professional cycling) in 2010, Dave Brailsford determined to make everything one percent better. He examined all aspects of the process—from obvious choices, such as how riders trained and ate, to less obvious ones, such as effective hand washing to avoid infection, the best pillow to take to hotels for sleeping and the most effective massage gel. Brailsford’s focus paid off when his team won not only back-to-back Tours de France—the most prestigious race in cycling—but also 70 percent of the available gold medals at the 2012 Olympics. (Brailsford was the coach for the British Olympic cycling team as well.) As Nick Saban, the head football coach at Alabama, who has multiple national championships to his name, says, “When you have a system, you kind of get in a routine of what’s important . . . and then you spend a lot more time on thinking of things that would make it better.”
Why does a process focus lead to learning?
At its core, learning involves understanding what (and how) inputs affect important outputs—building a model of the way things work. Usually you need to accomplish some task—replace a knee with a prosthetic device, build a car, win a bicycle race—but to accomplish it, you need to understand the many pieces that contribute to the task and how they interact with one another. A process focus provides value on both fronts.
When you take time to learn the process, you recognize that it often involves more inputs than you first imagined. Focusing on the output rather than the process shrouds the details, and your model of the process will be incomplete.
Even when your view of the inputs is accurate, you still have to discover how they interact to produce an outcome. Not only does a process focus help identify relationships, but it can reveal causal ones.
Finally, a process focus helps build discipline in your learning objectives, even when you encounter numerous other demands on your time. John Steinbeck kept a diary while he wrote The Grapes of Wrath; reflecting on the writing process, he said, “In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently, there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying ‘I’ll do it if I feel like it.’” A focus on the process—particularly when combined with a specific learning goal—will help you build productive habits for learning.
Switching to a process focus: how to start
Whether you’re attempting to learn how to negotiate a deal, structure a financial transaction or hit a baseball, starting small around one piece that can be mastered in a reasonable amount of time makes it possible to focus productively on the process.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive, . Copyright 2018 Bradley R. Staats. All rights reserved.