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The Best Way to Master a New Skill? Try This Creative Approach.

You may have graduated college, but your days of being a student are far from over. Throughout your career (whether you earned a degree last year or last century) you will face many situations that call for learning — it’s just that, now, there’s no syllabus or exams.

Learning opportunities look different in the professional world.

They appear when you take on your first role as a manager and have to learn to conduct fair and helpful performance reviews. They arrive when you need to practice public speaking to effectively deliver the presentation you spent so much time putting together. They might come in the form of a very concrete skill you need to acquire, like a new research technique or technology. These are all tests that you can choose to face either passively or creatively.

At the Stanford d.school, we teach our students how to accomplish the latter by developing the creative abilities they need to design solutions to real-world problems— all of which have more than one “right” solution. Similar to the learning challenges you may face as a new employee, it’s not always clear where they need to start or what resources they should draw on in order to reach their goals. That’s why we encourage our students to learn by doing and to embrace the process of experimentation.

A Creative Approach to Learning

To approach learning through a creative — rather than a passive — mindset, we ask to our students to follow a three-step process: Start by trying something small, observe the results, and then modify as you discover more about the nature of the problem and its potential solutions.

This approach can be applied to any creative work or learning opportunity. For example, let’s say you want to get better at delivering a presentation.

  1. Start small: Ask to deliver one slide in someone else’s presentation and get feedback on that relatively low-risk effort.
  2. Observe the results: Be on the lookout for unexpected feedback that helps you zero in on what you actually need to learn. Instead of preparing more and memorizing, perhaps you need to slow down your delivery or tell more stories to make the data come to life.
  3. Modify: Repeat the process and see if you come any closer to your desired results, until you are confident your skills are where you need them to be.

While it may seem simple enough, we find that one of the toughest aspects of this approach takes place between steps two and three. That’s where people get stuck. Becoming skilled at tackling anything means going on a journey of highs and lows. Both extremes provide important feedback that lets you know where you are in the learning process. Most of us know how to interpret the high of a big new idea, the swell of pride when someone gives us positive feedback, or the initial signs that we’re doing something well. These usually signal, “I’m going in the right direction!”

But fewer of us have the tools to make sense of the harder moments, when we’re struggling to understand a concept, wondering if our work is meeting the standards, or whether we’ll ever master a difficult task. We forget that discomfort is an essential part of discovery, and when it feels like we’re lost, we may actually be learning the most.

In those moments, how do you get “unstuck” and navigate your way forward?

The Productive Struggle

One way to understand the low moments of learning (and creativity) is called “productive struggle.” This term comes from research and practice in mathematics (and other types of) education. It turns out that students who effortlessly solve a problem get fewer right answers when they face similar problems in the future, as compared to students who struggle with the initial problem. The lesson is that learning is deeper and people retain more of the knowledge when it takes some time and effort to figure out how to do something.

Just think of the proverb, “Smooth seas rarely make skilled sailors.”

In my new book Creative Acts for Curious People, I share a few of the assignments we use at the d.school that help students work through the “productive struggle” and make the most of both the highs and lows.

One of my favorites is called the Learning Journey Map. This assignment helps you literally chart your own experience over time and identify the moments when you soared effortlessly and when you ran into challenges. It helps you take something that’s usually internal and invisible — your own learning — and bring it outside yourself, where you can examine it more objectively, discover your strengths, and identify and work through your challenge areas.

The next time you’re struggling with a learning opportunity, give it a try:

The Learning Journey Map

Part 1: Write it down

  • Choose a recent learning experience that you want to reflect on in detail.
  • In a notebook, make a list of all the things you remember from the experience, big and small. It might help to think about what happened on the very first day or at the first moment (or even right beforehand). What was it like walking in the door or getting started on a certain project or assignment?
  • Then, ask yourself what happened next. And after that? Don’t worry about whether the things that come up are typically associated with what or how you learn; just jog your memory about everything that happened.

Part 2: Create Your Map

  • On a large piece of paper, draw a vertical line on the left-hand side of the page. That line represents a scale, from very negative at the bottom to very positive at the top
  • Draw a horizontal line at the bellybutton of the first line to bisect it, and extend that line all the way to the right- hand edge of the paper. The horizontal line represents the length of time of the learning experience you’re going to map. It could be a day, a few months, or even years.
  • Add some evenly spaced milestones along the horizontal line that help you divide up all that space, like hours, weeks, or months. Decide how granular to get based on the length of experience you’re mapping.

  • Draw a new, curvy line across your map that shows the ups and downs of your learning journey, from negative events at the bottom to more positive ones at the top. Ask yourself: When were you learning a lot? When did you stall out? Use the events you recorded in your notebook to guide you. Sometimes it helps to start with either your highest high or your lowest low — to anchor your map in a scale that is relevant to your experience.
  • On the same map add a second line, using a different color. Use this one to map your emotional journey. When did you feel elated or excited? When were you frustrated or nervous?
  • As you label the highs and lows, try to recall and capture in detail what occurred at those moments. These are critical inflection points: They show moments of change that either happened to you or you made happen.

Part 3: Analyze

  • Now, step back and observe. What is this map telling you about your experience overall? What caused the highest highs or the lowest lows? What conditions or actions (yours or other people’s) led to the turnarounds at the inflection points?
  • Look at where your lines diverge or converge. What was happening during the overlaps or the gaps? Try to make sense of this. Ask yourself how your learning experience is related to your emotional experience and how you could take advantage of these insights the next time you tackle something creatively ambitious.
  • If you can, share your map with someone else, especially someone who has been through the same experience and who has also made a map. You’ll gain insights from seeing where your journeys were similar or different.

When I first developed this tool, I used it with my students to help them reflect on their experience over the previous 10 weeks of our class together. I began to see an interesting pattern: For many, there was a point on the map where the line representing learning was very high on the scale, and the line representing the emotional experience was very low.

Perhaps you saw a few of these on your own map. At these moments, my students were learning a lot, but it felt bad, challenging, or stressful.

Now, let’s go back to our public speaking example and apply this same outlook. If you mapped your experience of learning how to get better at delivering presentations, you’d probably see some ups and downs: really fruitful practice sessions, low moments when you stalled out and didn’t make progress, and extremely direct criticism that helped you identify a weakness but also stung a bit when you heard it. If you notice moments like these — where you learned a ton but it felt difficult — those are moments when your struggle is productive.

Think about the conditions under which those moments emerged and try to build more of them into your next attempt to learn new skills. This exercise will build your stamina and guide you through the productive struggle when learning and frustration are equally high and help you make use of those moments — a good low can teach you a lot. As a burgeoning leader, this exercise will also allow you to experience greater empathy for the productive struggle that your teammates might be dealing with.

Most of all, it will keep you learning throughout your career, and that’s the key to moving from where you are now to where you want to be.

is the executive director of the Stanford d.school. She leads a community of designers, faculty, and other innovative thinkers who help people unlock their creative abilities and apply them to the world. Her new book isCreative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create, and Lead in Unconventional Ways.

Source: Harvard Business Review November 2021

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