The Learning Ladder

by Krishna on January 20, 2007

A useful metaphor for easier learning is the concept of the “learning ladder”. Imagine a ladder where you are standing at the bottom and the top rung is your end goal. You can reach the top without much effort by climbing one rung at a time. Now imagine someone saws a few rungs in between.

Learning is easy when it is steady and consistent. By focusing on the next step in the learning process, it is easy to assimilate incremental knowledge and reinforce the existing foundation of information gained. Progress may seem slow, but one gets to experiment with the ideas at that level and know what works and doesn’t work before moving to the next level.

When we see examples of great leaders (business, politics or religion), we normally focus on their present capabilities and qualities. But it is as much important to understand their journeys to their current positions including and especially how both their successes and failures have shaped their thinking and behavior. Reading biographies and autobiographies is a great way to learn these personal experiences.

The ladder metaphor also emphasizes the importance of the next step in relation to other steps. It is easier to reach the next level instead of trying to reach 2 or 3 levels up. Not that you shouldn’t try, but understand that it is much more difficult and error-prone. Also, if you have chosen the right path, you know that you will reach the right destination eventually. So spend more time on your current learning instead of worrying about the end result.

When I was doing my under-graduate and graduate studies, I saw many students worrying about whether they would get a job after their studies. Although they would spend a lot of time planning for job searching, they neglected what they had to do at that present time, namely, learning their courses properly and scoring well. Focusing on the end goals and neglecting the means and process resulted in the former also being lost.

In the workplace, I have seen many people worrying about career growth while neglecting to improve their skills (personality, technology and team capability). Sometimes, such neglect does not manifest itself until the person wants to move to a senior technical role or management ranks. At that point, it is generally too late, because it is very difficult to hide ignorance by mouthing cliches or regurgitating some web article. Or, the person himself or herself finds that he or she is incapable of handling the task or responsibility and ends up failing.

One sad observation is that many times, I have seen comparisons between two people – both intelligent, but only one open to learning. A few years later, the learning person has made incredible strides over the other person in both management and technology while the other person has remained at the same spot or even regressed. Even worse, sometimes the learning person started out with less knowledge and less intelligence than the stagnant one.

It is also useful to make consistent progress by proper time management. For example, if you can only read 10 pages of a book daily, that is fine. You will complete a book like Welch’s “Winning” in 40 days – that is 2 book renewals from a typical library. As you continue to do this, you will speed up and make faster progress. As the old saw goes, “Many drops make a bucket”.

By all means, dream big and try to accomplish the maximum according to your potential. But do what you can to maintain the momentum. Otherwise the net result will be lower than you expect.

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