Learning from Others

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I’ve written several times about the importance of working well with others. But this is the first time I’m focusing on how much you can, and should, expect to learn from the various people you meet.

Since increasing your knowledge base is a critical element in expanding your level of productivity and success, I’m happy to bring you these guidelines and suggestions on learning the most from other people, whenever and wherever you can:

People Who Know More Than You

These are potentially the most fruitful sources of information in many areas of your work and your life. However, they may not all be as helpful as you would like.

Your first tasks when encountering someone who knows more than you (whether generally, or specifically about something of value and/or interest to you), is to declare your interest, and then make yourself receptive.

With luck, they will open up a firehose of useful information, sometimes about a variety of topics, perhaps far more volume than you can easily absorb at first. A good strategy here is first to learn whatever you can, and then later come back for the rest.

These tend to be people with whom you will enjoy spending time. You may want to try converting them to long-term resources, coaches, or even mentors.  

People Who Know Less Than You

It’s easy to dismiss people who know less than you as unlikely sources of helpful information. But that’s a mistake. People who know less than you can still provide you with some learning, often by such means as:

  • Highlighting issues, questions, and problems that may be more important than you previously realized,
  • Providing opportunities for you to review with them what you already know, and thereby gain new insights or syntheses that previously escaped you,
  • Sharing valuable information they have that you don’t, perhaps on a peripheral or even unrelated topic.

There’s a saying I like, which is: “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.” It reminds me that, while the source is always an important clue to information’s value, it’s possible to learn something useful from almost anyone or anything.

People With Highly Specialized Knowledge

Although Leonardo da Vinci was a master of nearly all his contemporary arts, skills, and disciplines, today there is so much more information in the world that most people tend toward extreme specialization. As a result, the person you consult for one matter probably knows way more than you hope to learn about that subject, while possibly knowing way less than you about others.

A big danger is that you may fall victim to the authority bias.

In situations like this, it’s helpful for you to stay focused. You probably won’t learn much of value if you let the plumber instruct you about electrical problems, or the sports figure about child-rearing.

Instead, during your time with the specialized expert, lead the conversation as deeply as you can into whatever brought you to them for assistance and information.

You’ll find that experts are not only very willing to deeply explore their specialty with you, they’re usually able to break down much of what they know into relatively simple explanations. These will help you quickly come at least partially up to speed and grasp what’s going on in their field of knowledge.

People Who Won’t Share What They Know

There’s not much you can learn from people who clam up. I remember working at a factory when I was in high school, assigned to assist a specialist who was the only one in the factory who knew how to build a particular product.

Every time his production process approached a crucial operation, he sent me away to get parts or to ask a different team some questions. I soon realized he simply didn’t want me watching and learning what he alone knew how to do.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that learning from people who won’t share is possible, but it takes a long time. Your most fruitful strategy – short of spying – is to piece together tiny bits of information gleaned here and there from:

  • Observations they allow,
  • Answers to questions, carefully phrased to avoid arousing their suspicions,
  • Other people who interact with the close-mouthed person, and
  • Your own research, starting from whatever little bits you have learned.  

People Who “Know Everything”

These people tend to be firehoses of information, too, but unfortunately they usually spew a mix of both accurate and inaccurate information. The bad news is there’s no easy way to tell which is which.

This is because people who “know everything” will rarely admit when they’re out of their depth. Even if they happen to be experts in one or two fields – which is not always the case – they are happy, even eager to give you their analyses and opinions in every other field, always with the same authoritative stance.

You can, of course, learn much from these people within the fields where they are legitimate experts. But you must be careful to pinpoint the boundaries of their expertise. If you can’t – and often they make this very difficult – it’s generally better to take everything they say with one or more grains of salt.

In addition to all these factors, your willingness to listen to and learn from what other people share with you can be the biggest factor. If your heart and mind are closed off to new ideas, information, and points of view, you won’t learn anything from anyone.

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2 Comments

  • Janet Cunningham Reply

    Helpful. Now I know why some people just cut me off.

  • Dominic DiFrancesco Reply

    Great article. We can glean information from almost anyone we meet even those that know less than we do. I’ve found this quite often. They see things differently and many times that’s helpful. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

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