Monday, August 24, 2015


Old TED talk, but it is a continuation of my last post in a way...That we should not and must not confuse between grit and rote learning. Putting in the hours, learning something till they get it right is not rote learning - it is perhaps grit. Perhaps we romanticise the fact that 'I cannot learn by rote' or is it our own euphemism for, 'I cannot work hard'. Questions, questions...

But yes, grit is what makes people successful...sounds simple enough, but as she asks, how do we build it in kids? Or ourselves?

Tailpiece: For me, this has shown up in two separate places. For a year I used to turn up at a class - the only thing in my favor was the fact that I was regular. I was not the strongest or the most skillful nor the fastest. But I was regular. And I asked my coach, well, what have I learnt? And what he said will remain in my mind till the end - he said, "Well, you have turned up every single day wanting to learn. That one thing will keep you ahead of those who did not".

And in another instance, we were at rehearsals for a play. Our group - three of us, turned up, day after day, come rain, wind or run, to rehearse. It helped that all of us believed that we were talentless, but we wanted to do well. And so we did. Rehearsed, played, tried, experimented, rounded the rough edges and worked on it till beyond perfection. And in the end, we were rewarded and how. What we lacked in acting 'talent' we made up with sheer practice. And not once, did we flub a dialogue. And on the other side where supposedly talented people who just did not put in the hard work - and it showed in their work.

Yes, grit works.

I don't know what else will work, ever. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

What is rote learning?

In general, we hold rote learning with utter disdain. Add it to the context of the Indian education system and everybody tells you that rote learning is bad. But is it so bad?

Take the example of sports coaching. You hit a million shots or punches or balls - whatever that is - ultimately you are getting those drills to move from conscious competence to unconscious competence. And that is exactly what rote learning does.

So, if rote learning is bad, so should sports coaching as well? The IIT coaching classes that are a rage today do exactly the same thing. Make the person go through so many drills so that the end of the few years, they are 'experts' just by virtue of having done the same thing so many times that it is internalised.

So, is the disdain for rote learning a disdain for effort? Or is it a slightly more nuanced position.

I suppose the answer that you will get if you put the above hypothesis is that, well, our learning is a lot of rote but with very little build up on top of that. Or that they just learn text book things but without much real learning. And while all of these are real issues - rote learning as a means to get the unconscious competence is a great way. And that means, that the student is just better prepared. However, if  you cannot build on the scaffolding of rote learning - whether it is in music or sports or dance or studies - then that becomes a drawback.

Rote learning as a means to regurgitate textbook knowledge is useless. Rote learning as a means to get faster to the next level of unconscious competence is good...

Let us not confuse the two and imagine that children will learn anything without putting in the hours.

Nobody ever became an expert on anything that they did not work on a day to day basis - putting in the hours.

Or the other way - if you do nothing each day, you become nothing. Whatever you put the hours in, that is what you become an expert on!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Micro Awareness

Some more thoughts on the conscious competence stage of learning. So, let us say you are learning something new - and the instructor has told you to focus on a few things, the feet, the shoulder, the swing, the eyes, the knees...

It is difficult. If the feet are right, the grip is wrong. If the grip and feet are right, you missed seeing the ball. If you did all of that, the knees did not bend. If you bent the knees, the shoulder and everything else was in the wrong place...

It is like juggling balls - struggling to keep them all in the air while they are falling.

The interesting thing is that as you struggle through the process, with the awareness, you know it. When the ball is mishit, you know that something was wrong and later on you know specifically what was wrong. That is what I mean by micro- awareness. Even as you hit the shot, you know that the knees did not bend enough. Many a time you know what is wrong, at other times the coach helps either with an instruction or a smile or something...but that micro awareness phase is quite an amazing one.

You lose focus - the balls fall. You stay focused and you can see yourself getting better, step by little step. Slowly. With awareness. But you can see it happen. Sometimes by slowing down a little, sometimes by listening - to the coach or to your own micro-awareness...

And as the Buddha would say, this micro awareness helps us stay focussed on the here and now...

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Learning as a disability

Sometimes, learning erects these high walls in front of us. I was reading the book 'Mastery' and it struck me that, yes, it does indeed happen.

The book calls it as a learning disability. Yes, it happens to every one of us. It happens to organizations, blindsided as it were by their high walls. It has happened to forts and fortifications, literally because of their high walls. And it happens to people as well.

People like us, who are professionally qualified often look at the 'untaught' 'expert' with scorn. Yet it is often these 'untaught' experts that go on to make disruptive ideas, start ups - because they do not come with the 'teaching' that it cannot be done.

Experts refuse to acknowledge a new process or method - blocked as they are from viewing it, thanks to the high walls they raised in the process of being an expert.

We often do it as well - when a child asks us very simple questions, we often wonder how we did not see it ourselves.

And in many organizations, this is known as building kingdoms where other than building forts on desks and manning the turrets with email cannons, everything akin to a war is fought to protect kingdoms and turfs...

How does one ensure that there is a childlike curiosity whenever we look at something new? How to ensure that we look at everything as an opportunity rather than a threat? How to look at a market with fresh eyes every time without having to blindsided by nimble opponents? Questions, questions...

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Indian Army - Leadership video

This leadership chat by Raghu Raman is mind-blowing at many levels. Hats off to the Indian Army.

What he talks about leadership is amazing though - something that can be equalled in air-conditioned conference rooms. This is raw stuff - the real stuff if  you will.

Tempted to write a few quotes, but well, view the whole thing if you are in any way connected to leadership development. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Unlearning in the mind...

Caution: Evolving thought and amateur post

So, if unlearning is so interesting, why is it difficult? And whereas (atleast in my experience), unlearning physical aspects seems to be easier than unlearning mental bad habits...

And how does one tackle that?

First up, the age old debate of does body follow mind or does the mind follow the body? In a lot of physical things - the mind follows the body. Get the body to do stuff and the mind follows. Not immediately, not with a whoop of joy, but eventually the mind falls in line. Whether it is acting or tennis or even in body language - as the terrific TED talk by Amy Cuddy shows and we have all felt it.

However, in places where it is only in the mind - like certain behavior aspects or some age old thought pattern one is trying to change, this is a fairly mental game. Sure, yes, your body is around and you can use it a bit, but in these cases, its all in the mind.

So why is the former relatively easier and the latter relatively difficult?

I have my theory and I think it is practice. Practice of physical gymnastics is easier than mental. And unless you get into the rigor of coaching it won't change in either. But the fact is that physical gymnastics have one 'right' way of doing it (with many variations) - whereas in mental, it is really 'to each his own' and arriving at the sweet spot of 'what I can do' and 'what is the best way to do it' to 'what can work here' has too many variables. Plus of course, most mental gymnastics involve another person. And that makes it all the more complex...