Adapt and Grow

Those with a fixed mindset are generally more likely to learn through single loop mechanisms due to the comfort and lack of self-reflection involved. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset are more naturally attuned to double loop learning. It is often hard to look at ourselves and accept that we may be the ones who have a fixed mindset or follow single loop learning mechanisms, but the first step to being able to learn better is to recognize the mistakes we are making in the present. This inevitably involves getting comfortable with failure, since that is unavoidable.

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Adapt and grow

Experience is always useful. But be careful—twenty years’ experience might merely be the same single year’s experience repeated twenty times over. This is why many experts can actually perform worse in some areas than newbies—they simply face problems in the same way as they have faced all previous problems. What’s more, experts may be acting from more fear of failure, need for control or ego than people with less knowledge, since their identities are more bound up in their expertise, and they may feel more threatened by error or the shame of saying “I don’t know.”

Intelligent and educated people can thus put themselves at a disadvantage, especially if they are not actively seeking ways to adapt and change their mental models (not just the content of those models). The world is constantly changing, and those who stay still are actually falling behind.

Being heavily invested in appearing right, in having mastery, and so on, we make more mistakes and are less likely to notice them and fix them. We may also shy away completely from challenges that could help us grow, or from novel experiences when they fall outside our expectations. We may get trapped in a cycle of simply solving the problem that’s directly in front of us, again and again, never having the time or energy to wonder if there’s a better way to do it.

We try to avoid pain, discomfort, embarrassment or uncertainty. So, we carry on doing what we know works, even though in the longer term, this may lead to objectively more disadvantages! Ours is a productivity obsessed culture that wants profit and advancement at all costs, constantly, and at breakneck speed. We seldom encourage ourselves or one another to stop and reflect, to appraise, to think more deeply or broadly, to take a more creative route through a problem, or to question authority and convention. But all the more reason to do so!

Time is a complicating factor when it comes to single versus double loop thinking. Many people believe that they don’t have time to dwell on hypothetical, blue-sky thinking when they’re facing urgent real-world problems . It’s hard to commit to something that may or may not work, and will only pay off sometime in the future. Isn’t it easier to just carry on as we always did, getting the same predictable but comforting result?

The fact that so many people choose the latter is proof of how difficult the former is. We spend our formative years in schools that teach us methods of thinking that never go beyond single loops (blame the designers of the curriculum for failing to adapt and reflect!). We may have bosses that want us to work in limited roles that consist of a handful of single loops done indefinitely, with no scope for engaging with or adjusting them.

The biggest culprit in cementing single loop thinking is actually success itself. If you are used to succeeding, switching to double loop thinking (where failure and mistakes are essential) may make you may feel defensive and resistant. Smart people may paradoxically be worse learners, because they so seldom make mistakes, and therefore seldom learn from them. When they do slip up, they may deny it, avoid it, or blame someone else. Their intellect makes them unable to step up and learn when it really counts.

Imagine an office run by such an expert. This is the typical boss from hell: they know everything, never admit to mistakes or apologize, and frequently blame underlings for their poor decisions. This is the person who asks for honest opinions during a meeting and then quietly penalizes those who offer them.

Worst of all, this boss assumes that everyone working for him is an idiot, and needs his constant micromanaging. Here we see another hidden effect of fixed, single loop thinking: it sets up self-fulfilling prophecies. The employees, discouraged from critical thinking and never given any chance to make decisions for themselves, end up doing less—why bother when their manager already knows all the answers? Even worse, some employees start to blame one another and seek underhanded tactics to compete for his favor.

The “expert” has created the very conditions he wished to avoid—he now has a team of people who cannot be trusted, and who only want to do the bare minimum to get ahead for their own benefit. A teacher or parent may do the same, or you may do it with yourself, every time you self-jeopardize because of poor self-esteem.

We all hate bad bosses and egotistical leaders, but in the above example, did you identify with the employees or the manager? The truth is, it’s hardest of all to look at ourselves and ask why a problem is happening, or why we’re failing to learn or understand something new.

Simple, defensive loops are a way to avoid effort and pain. But they’re also an excellent way of avoiding learning. A foolproof way of noticing whether you’re in a single loop pattern is to look for the tendency to blame others and not question the role of your own perspectives and mental models.

It’s better to be of mediocre skill and intelligence but a master at learning from mistakes than to be a genius who cannot stand to look at his imperfections at all. Blaming, spinning up complicated justifications or making excuses gets you precisely 0 percent closer to the things you care about.

Invite failure, get experimental, become curious

What paradigm are you working within?
Where did these conventions come from?
Are they working for you?
What habits are you stuck in?
What assumptions are you making?
What unspoken rules are you following?
What is your attitude toward failure?
What’s the bigger picture?

Let’s return to our history teacher. If he continues refining and adapting his approach as he goes, he may encounter resistance, but he also may start to campaign for real change in not just his school, but classrooms everywhere. He takes what he understands from the chapter on the Industrial Revolution and realizes that schools themselves have modelled their architecture, schedules and curricula on the design principles and ideology that came with that era.

He notices that the working world is desperately trying to move on from the old nine-to-five conventions, and starts to wonder what a truly modern education system looks like. His double loop learning, in other words, can carry him through his career, his entire life, expanding and enriching his experience and opening up constantly new horizons.

It’s the things you don’t see or give a second thought that most deserve your renewed attention. But when brought out into the light of conscious awareness, we give ourselves the chance to actively change things, to experiment and adjust.

It may be that the history teacher doesn’t take his ideas far, or his experiment in student-led lesson plans flops. It doesn’t matter, however. This would not be a failure, but simply a possible outcome from the process. The real failure – one we so often don’t see or measure as one—is the unexplored alternative, or the missed opportunity to improve.

We don’t think of entrepreneurship as learning, but that’s precisely what it is—learning about your customer, your market, your best product. The business that barges ahead while failing to learn the lessons the customers are teaching will fail. With a growth mindset, an entrepreneur can drop their ego, start from scratch and become comfortable assuming nothing.

Those operating from a growth mindset look at every bit of information that comes to them with the same curiosity—why is this happening? What happens if I do something different? What’s working? What isn’t?

There are no value judgments, just receptivity. No ego, no fear of failure, no blame, no embarrassment, only a sincere desire to apply oneself consistently to the process of improvement.

At some point, make the conscious decision to choose to value learning over being right. Actively court feedback from others and notice how the world doesn’t end if you challenge yourself or admit that something could be better. Rather, notice how dropping resistance to failure seems to bring a kind of relief, and a whole lot of open space to play. Take fear and ego out of the equation and you will always learn much, much faster.

● Start by asking questions.
● Become curious about your process and honest about how it could be improved.
● Conduct an experiment.
● Use what you learn to make changes, then appraise again.
● Turn experience into concrete action.

Here’s how that may look in real life:

● An artist begins by asking about their assumptions about good art, how one learns better technique, and so on.
● They notice that they are merely mimicking other artists, and honestly see that their technique is lacking in originality.
● They try something new—they paint without expectation, experimenting with a process where they make art they never intend to share with anyone, just to see what happens.
● The art turns out to be surprisingly original, but the technique is still lacking. The artist begins again and commits to painting more in their own style, now asking what new techniques they can learn instead of the conventional ones they began with.
● They take concrete action—they change teachers and start studying a method that is more in line with their own style and creative expression.

Whatever your field of interest, you will likely find examples of individuals in that arena who have succeeded precisely because they chose to learn rather than to be right. The irony is that in dropping expectations, pressures, assumptions and our allegiance to old rules and norms, we give ourselves the chance to truly achieve and innovate, and at a far higher level.