Published October 13, 2022

Kaizen Learning: How to Self-Learn Effectively in 2022

Developing deep knowledge in a utilisable field is one of the most practical hedges against uncertainty. We live in the information age, where the only constant is change.

Intro to Kaizen Learning

Developing deep knowledge in a utilisable field is one of the most practical hedges against uncertainty. We live in the information age, where the only constant is change. 

Just securing a degree or a “good job” isn’t enough anymore to guarantee continual upwards mobility in professional work – you need to foster a curiosity that can drive efficient learnings around current technology stacks, new development operation principles, more efficient ways of working, etc.

I’m sure you already know this. That’s why you are reading this article. You probably already know how to study, pass tests, do well in school or university, and so on. The issue is that most individuals in the professional services space can also do these things, so it isn’t a great hedge against stagnation.

The solution? Learn how to learn more efficiently, and point this new-found productivity towards areas of maximum return in terms of utilisable skills.

“Kaizen” is the process of continual improvement. Kaizen is a compound of two Japanese words (“kai” and “zen”) that when taken together translate as “positive change”. However, Kaizen has come to mean “continuous improvement” through its association with Lean methodology and principles. 

The overall goal of Kaizen is to make small changes over a period of time to create improvements within a company. But here’s the thing – it can also be applied to the process of learning.

The following is a rundown of learning subsections that can be improved by implementing Kaizen philosophies;

Project Learning

Courses feel nice. They give you:

  • An exact time commitment
  • A specific roadmap
  • A feeling of achievement from watching it

But when the course is finished, and some time has passed, you may find yourself needing to actually use the information. Information that seems to have now slipped your mind. So, the video re-watching begins, and you start questioning the whole process. 

Been there and done that. 

It’s a far better idea to start with the end in mind: to have a project, have an idea of what you want to do and google it until it works. Watch those courses, if needed, but only the parts that you need right now to move the ball forward and always apply it immediately.

I hear, I forget. I see, I remember. I do, and I understand.

The Unknown Unknown

You probably think you know more than you actually do. It’s okay, we all do – but it can reduce the velocity of knowledge consumption while self-learning.

Actively working to get a clearer understanding of a subject will allow you to prioritise what to learn, while also hedging against pesky generalisations that can creep into your learning.

Illusion of explanatory depth

Imagine you go back in time and land in the middle of Ancient Egypt. Let’s go a step further and imagine you also brought a translator with you, so that you could understand the Egyptians (and they, you). 

How would you explain a mobile phone to them?

Even if you use one every day, and can navigate it, it doesn’t mean that you understand how it works on a deep level. There are continually more granular layers in the maps of meaning surrounding an object or concept. 

  • How do phones communicate with each other?
  • How does the microchip in the phone modulate a radio wave?
  • How does electromagnetic transmission work?

This issue is referred to as “The Illusion of Explanatory Depth” (IOED), and can cause you to make important decisions based on limited information, as you consistently believe you have much more information to work with than you actually do. 

A book by Philip Fernback titled The Knowledge Illusion outlines a possible remedy to IOED – group intelligence. By triangulating assumptions with intelligent, empathetic, critical thinkers who have equal or superior knowledge of the subject matter, it is possible to uncover the specific point in which a segment of knowledge diverges from a chain of logic. This will allow you to pinpoint where you went wrong, and course-correct efficiently.

Mentors

Mentors are widely accepted as a way of accelerating your learning. They can teach you best practices, and help you recognise blind spots and biases in your own learning.

Furthermore, access to a mentor (or mentors) can humanise the process of skill acquisition and help safeguard against the isolation that comes with extended practice. Much like how having a gym partner can provide accountability and continual positive pressure to exercise, a mentor will help keep you motivated to learn and grow.

Finding a mentor

The number one issue mentees make when searching for a suitable mentor is to come on too strong. Nobody owes you their time and expertise, and the demand for these things far exceeds the supply. 

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

At first, your mentor shouldn’t even know that they are your mentor. Sending a Slack/Teams message to a more senior knowledge worker in your chosen discipline to ask them a well-thought-out question once a week is a far better option than asking them to be your mentor and commit to helping you all at once.

Utilising mentors

Focus on becoming a good student. Gain an understanding of where you are in your learning journey, and use this information to ask better questions. The Dunning-Kruger effect is an extremely important concept to understand, and can very quickly cause illusions of explanatory depth. Accept that there are a great number of things that you do not know and that you likely know less than you think.

There’s an old story about a teacher who sat his student down in front of a teacup. The teacher pours tea into the cup until it reaches the brim, continuing to pour the tea even as the cup begins to overflow and spill. The student, alarmed, asks the teacher what he is doing.

“I cannot fill what is not empty. To learn from me you must first forget”, the teacher replies.

Your job while learning from a mentor is to be a sponge – accepting what you are taught as fact until you develop a solid enough base of knowledge to critically examine the information you are receiving. 

This may feel counterintuitive, as cogent professions (such as engineering, software development, etc.) typically attract logical thinkers who are above average at discerning flaws in information. Ignore this impulse, as it will not serve you until you have enough of an understanding to make complete arguments against your teachings.

Discipline vs Motivation

Motivation and discipline are two separate concepts that are often used analogously. While a highly motivated individual and a highly disciplined individual will appear similar in demeanour, the main difference is that discipline is controllable – motivation is not.

Locus of control

Focusing only on things that are inside your locus of control (i.e actions you can control) is an essential part of incremental growth. Developing mastery in an area is more of a battle with boredom than anything else. It’s easy to be productive when you are motivated – it is much harder to remain so even as the motivation wanes.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has spoken publicly about his calendar strategy. Every day that he practises comedy he draws a red cross on a calendar next to his desk. His only requirement is that he doesn’t break the chain of X’s.

Resistance

The author Steven Pressfield refers to the aforementioned desire to procrastinate as “the resistance”, and recommends that you treat resistance as the enemy. You are going into battle every day with resistance, and overcoming it time after time is just the price you have to pay for mastery.

That isn’t to say that every day will feel like a grind. In fact, overly monotonous education for extended periods of time is probably a sign that you need to make some changes to your curriculum. 

Additionally, motivation isn’t at all a bad thing – it can actually be super useful for setting up the initial systems that you will use once it wears off. 

Viking longships are fitted with both sails and oars – sails for opportunistic winds, and oars for continual progress. Much like a breeze to a ship, use motivation when it arises – just remember that when the wind dies, the oars are available. When you are motivated to build something, try to work out what initial hurdle you can concentrate this burst of energy on, so that it allows you a more relaxed pace of work in the future.

Actionable Summary

The value of this article is reliant entirely on the magnitude of the behaviour change that it creates in you. 

If you have read until here, well done – many probably saved it to read later. However, you will only get value from this article if you actively establish the habit of following Kaizen principles. 

Ideally, you will find areas for integrating this knowledge into your own life immediately. If this is not the case, the following behaviour changes will ensure an appropriate level of value creation;

Project Learning

Trigger: Becoming aware of a personal knowledge gap.

Behaviour Change: Start with the end goal in mind when doing courses. When you come in contact with difficulties during a project that arise from a lack of knowledge, THEN start hunting for high-quality educational content. Immediately after absorbing enough information to continue, integrate the newfound knowledge by solving the issue. Repeat with the next issue. If you want to go deeper in an area that is fine, but ensure that you start a hobby project to allow for the integration of the new knowledge.

The Unknown Unknown

Trigger: Beginning the path of learning about a new topic.

Behaviour: Assume that there are large bodies of information that you don’t even KNOW that you don’t know. Ask SMEs pertinent questions that will allow you to demystify the subject matter. Try to get an accurate picture of the core content (i.e the “tree trunk”) that everything else (“branches”) stems from before getting lost in the details. Use https://miro.com/mind-map/ to make a mind-map of the subject, and ask someone with experience whether there are any gaps.

Mentors

Trigger: Using google/stackoverflow/quora/reddit to ask a question and not finding a satisfactory answer.

Behaviour: Immediately write the question down in Google Keep or some other note-taking application. Once a week, at an appropriate time, go through your questions and and mentally match them with an SME in your broader network that would be able to solve the question. Email them politely (with a short intro if you haven’t met in person), and explain your problem. This is a great resource on asking better questions. If you are in software development, this article is the holy grail of better code-specfic questions.

Don’t be pushy. If they don’t email you back, that’s fine – it’s their time and attention, and they can spend it how they wish. Focus on other mentor candidates that are in a position to devote a little more time to assisting you.

Discipline vs Motivation

Trigger: Feeling either high or low motivation.

High Motivation Behaviour: Make time for a combined learning/work session daily. It doesn’t matter if it it is quite literally 10 minutes a day a first – the habit is what counts. Use your burst of motivation to set up a clear structure of when you are going to devote time to learning about a topic that is holding you back in a current project during the coming days/weeks. Perhaps it is 30min watching a tutorial on dbt each afternoon after working on a data engineering/analytics hybrid project. The next day you can implement the information into the project, and so on.

Low Motivation Behaviour: Don’t break the chain. Put in the minimum amount of work to consider the day a win, then draw your X in the calendar (or use a habit tracking app). Individuals have a tendency to overestimate daily capacity, and drastically underestimate yearly capacity – learn to rest, not to quit. 

Trust the process, and understand that resistance is simply battling for your attention. Discipline can be cultivated, and the choice to fight resistance will become a little easier each day. But, you HAVE to show up every day.

Good luck, and happy learning.

Ky Brutnell
by Ky Brutnell