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December 2017
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learning

On Learning From Our Heroes

Posted by: Alex Linley

 

I was inspired to write this blog on the basis of a number of the comments that I received on my last blog, “On Learning to Learn: Four Positive Psychology Principles”. There was a lot of interest in how we can learn from our heroes, and so I share more insight and practical tips on that topic here.

 

My own hero for learning about this topic is Michael Cohn, who wrote the chapter for my earlier book Positive Psychology in Practice from which all of my learning about learning from our heroes then developed. Cohn’s simple premise was that we knew a lot about positive downward social comparisons – how we feel better by comparing ourselves to people who are worse off than we are, but a lot less about positive upward social comparisons – how we can learn from the people we admire.

 

For us to learn from our heroes successfully, two basic conditions need to be met.

 

First, we need to believe that we are capable of change and growth ourselves, what Carol Dweck refers to as a malleable self-image (as distinct from a fixed self-image).

 

Second, we need to pay attention to the specific qualities of the individual that we want to emulate, rather than trying to be like that person as a whole.

 

If we believe that we are capable of change and development, and we learn to pay attention to the right things about our heroes, then we significantly increase our chances of being able to learn from them – or indeed from anyone who has positive characteristics that we admire and want to emulate.

 

The real insight here is about knowing what the “right things” are to which we should pay attention. In essence, these “right things” are:

 

  1. The things that actually make a difference to the person’s success that we are trying to emulate
  2. The things that it is within our control to do something about
  3. The things that are authentic for us to focus on developing for ourselves
  4. And ideally, the things that enable us to play from and build on our strengths as we work towards success.

 

In my last post, I mentioned how I have learned from Malcolm Gladwell in this regard, so let me illustrate each of these four points with this example.

 

First, without doubt one of the things that has made a difference to Malcolm Gladwell’s success is his ability to write well. But, not just that, it is specifically his ability to create meaningful and memorable characters with whom we, as the reader, can engage. Hence, it was particularly this on which I focused in trying to learn from him in developing my own character writing for the introductory case studies in The Strengths Book.

 

Second, being able to develop my capability as a character writer was something that was within my control, and that I could do something about (through deeply understanding Gladwell’s style by studying precisely how he did it, and trying to emulate that myself). Note that this wasn’t about growing my Afro (like Malcolm) or becoming a staff writer at the New York Times. Instead, my focus was on something that was very much within my ability to develop and do something about in the near term.

 

Third, developing my character writing felt like an authentic and natural development for me. I had written a lot of academic output, but never anything that was character-based. So, this was a new departure, but one building on an existing skill set, which felt like a natural extension of what I had done before.

 

Fourth, this activity certainly played to my strengths. I was looking to develop my Scribe strength, focusing on how improving my character writing would help me with what I wanted to achieve going forward. Given that I was focusing on building from a strength, it was a natural and engaging development activity to undertake.

 

Did it work? I’ll leave you to read the introductory case studies in The Strengths Book and be the judge of that yourself! Nonetheless, I am certainly pleased with what I was able to learn by applying the lessons of positive upward social comparisons.

 

I hope you are too – and thanks again, Michael (Cohn), for everything we have learned from you, about learning from our heroes.

 

Reference

Cohn, M. A. (2004). Rescuing our heroes: Positive perspectives on upward comparisons in relationships, education and work. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (pp. 218-237). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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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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