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November 2019
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21st century

On Learning to Learn: Four Positive Psychology Principles

Posted by: Alex Linley


I spoke last year at a Training Journal conference on Learning to Learn in the 21st Century. My focus was on what we know from positive psychology and strengths psychology about learning, and how this can help us with our learning in the 21st century. As many of us move into the next round of quarterly reviews in April, I thought this would be a timely moment to share some of those insights.


First, how we feel about learning and our learning environment is critical. Barbara Fredrickson’s work has shown us that we need positive to negative emotion ratios of 3:1 if we are to flourish as human beings. She has also shown that we are more creative, better at problem solving, and think more broadly when we experience positive emotions. As such, it’s not a big step to say that having a positive emotional environment is conducive to optimal learning.


Second, every one of us is better at giving advice to other people than we are at applying that advice to ourselves. This is a universal truth because of “psychological distance” – quite simply, we make better decisions when we are able to step back and take perspective. As such, an easy trick is to ‘be your own consultant’, by stepping outside your situation and imagining you are somebody else. What would you advise them? Then flip back and apply this advice to yourself.


Third, recognise that we learn far better from our strengths than we do from our weaknesses. For example, studies have shown that people who are already good at reading tend to learn and apply rapid reading techniques more quickly, and that people who are good at achieving their goals get even better at achieving their goals with training on how to do so. In Capp’s consulting work, we have shown that people recruited for their strengths learn how to do the job in a fraction of the time that is usually required – significantly reducing their time to competence and improving business performance.


Fourth, there is so much that we can learn from our heroes, provided we know who to look to, what to look for, and what to do with it. The secret is to focus on what people do to be successful and how they do it, then to apply this learning ourselves, adapting it as appropriate for our own situation and context. This requires us to understand deeply what our hero does and how they do it, without getting distracted by the peripheral factors that may be part of their brand, but that have no impact on their performance. In my own case, I studied Malcolm Gladwell’s style and techniques for understanding how to develop characters for the introductory case studies in The Strengths Book - I didn’t get distracted by thinking that his trademark Afro was the secret to his writing success.


Overall, I summarise these four positive psychology principles of learning as follows:


1. Create a positive emotional learning environment, where positive to negative emotion ratios are at least 3:1.


2. Be your own consultant.  If you were somebody else looking in on your own situation, what would you advise yourself?


3. Recognise that learning from, and building on strengths is more effective than learning from weaknesses. Sometimes weaknesses might need to be minimised if they undermine performance, but realising our greatest potential will never come through just trying to build on or learn from our weak areas.


4. Learn from your heroes by focusing on what they do and how they do it, then applying that learning to yourself. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have to be exactly like your hero to achieve what they have achieved – learn their lessons, but apply them appropriately to your own context and situation.


Many leading thinkers and consultants, most notably Peter Senge, have argued that our ability to learn, and apply that learning, will differentiate the most successful people, and the most successful organisations, from the rest. Apply these four positive psychology principles of learning to ensure that you stay ahead of the field, rather than being left behind in an increasingly globalised, competitive and demanding 21st century.


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