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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

Learning Isn't Just In Your Head (THE LIST: Decoding Greatness)

Learning is a process. The same process applies to any activity: playing the violin, defending a client in court, or leading others. Once we understand the process, we increase the return on the time and energy we put into learning. We become able to improve our capabilities more quickly.

There are many good ideas about improve our learning, but most of these ideas focus on our own feelings of discomfort and resistance to change. Overcoming these internal challenges is vital, but so is our ability to gather ideas from the external world. This is the subject of Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success by Ron Friendman.

Decoding Greatness starts from a simple point: what makes us good isn't just practice, it’s seeing new ideas and how they produce better results. We must introduce new ideas into our mental system. To do this, we need exposure. We must introduce new possibilities into our leadership practice because practice without new behaviors turns our ineffective behaviors into more firmly practiced preferences.

The route this occurs in a physical skill such as playing the violin is through instruction and mentoring by an experienced teacher. This is Ericsson's concept of deliberate practice: narrowly focused, outcome-directed repetition of a more effective behavior until it is perfected. Repeated over time, this deliberate practice creates mastery.

Unfortunately, the nature of leadership does not often provide such deliberate practice. We lack clear feedback about the consequences of our actions, and nobody tells us what we should do to be better. Instead, we rely on the functional approach to tell us that new ideas come from the three places to learn. For example, we watch other leaders for their successes, or we read books about leadership. Our exposure to new ideas is self-directed, based on our own assessment of our performance in a specific area.

This is where Decoding Greatness offers us some useful tools. The ideas reflect the learning process. Metrics tell us where the group isn’t meeting the desired outcome and therefore point out areas to improve. Test audiences and reverse innovation allow us to design solutions that are relevant to the specific situation. Effective practice allows us to seek out new behaviors, targeted to improve specific aspects of our performance. This isn't the strongest part of the book, as many of these ideas are common practices and known solutions. However, Friedman does a good job of examining them through the lens of his thesis.

Moreover, the same concepts apply to us as individuals who use learning to expand our leadership practices. The functional approach allows us to connect these practices to our own leadership learning. We may not have specific metrics that quantify our leadership performance, but we can assess others' emotions to find places to improve. We may not have test audiences to experiment with leadership behaviors, but we can try out new ideas in the classroom or in less-significant leadership venues. Visualization can make us better leaders when we use it to explore possible behaviors and potential obstacles. The principles are all the same: leadership is always situational, practice makes us better when it helps us overcome the emotional hurdles of change, and so on.

Friedman makes an interesting point about internal feelings. His discussion of the ability/vision gap on page 83 reminds us that we see that our performance isn’t good enough, and we often have feelings of self-doubt, failure, and possibly despair. Have to push through these feelings with the entire learning process, both internal and external. The opposite is also often true; we reach a degree of proficiency then we stop seeing our failures. We feel comfortable with our performance. This also causes paralysis, though at a state of moderate competence. To avoid this, we must continuously assess ourselves against a higher standard. This rise and fall of emotions reflects our progression through each of the learning markers.

In other words, Learning is driven by feelings of inadequacy, but we must maintain a balance between too much and too little of this emotion. I talk more about this subject here, with a few questions to help you reflect on the balance of inadequacy.

Decoding Greatness isn't the first book on learning that I'd recommend, but it has a useful place after the more self-focused works such as Peak and Atomic Habits. If you struggle with finding new ideas to resolve the deficiencies you see in your performance, the tools in the second half of Decoding Greatness will be useful. The first half is relevant for anyone curious about the complexities of leadership. All in all, Decoding Greatness is a valuable addition to the learning genre, and a useful investment for anyone who aspires to leadership greatness.

Welcome to THE LIST!

Friedman, Ron. Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success. Simon & Schuster, 2021.

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