Editor’s note: Suneel Gupta, who served as Groupon’s first VP of Product, built products at Mozilla, blogged for MTV, developed television concepts for Sony Pictures, and wrote speeches in President Clinton’s West Wing. He’s working on a new startup in the mobile health space. Follow him on Twitter at @suneel.
There’s a classic scene in the 80s movie The Karate Kid when Daniel LaRusso discovers that he’s actually learned how to fight. Here’s how it goes down: Miyagi agrees to train Daniel-san after learning that he’s been taking daily beatings from Johnny and the cobra-kais. To Daniel’s surprise, Miyagi has him sanding floors, painting fences and waxing cars. Daniel gets frustrated that the old man is wasting his time and is about to quit when something important happens. Miyagi starts to throw punches, and Daniel realizes that he can actually defend himself. As it turns out, “sand the floor” is a killer way to block a punch. Daniel-san had been learning all along.
I’m willing to bet you’ve experienced a similar breakthrough – a moment of surprise when you realize that your effort has actually paid off. Maybe you were asked a tough question during an investor pitch and were surprised when you delivered a clear, cogent answer. Maybe you ran a race and were surprised when you actually accelerated during the final stretch. Maybe you asked someone out on a date and were surprised when you stayed composed despite the awkwardness. We tend to walk away from these moments believing that we just “got lucky” when in reality it was the byproduct of hard work and experience that finally “clicks” into place in a given moment. Prior to that moment, however, it’s easy to believe that our time and effort is being wasted.
Here’s the problem: We expect learning to be linear. When we invest 10 hours of effort into learning a new programming language, we expect to feel 10 hours smarter. In reality, we could actually feel less smart than before we started. Why? Because by starting — not conquering – a new challenge, we’re positioning ourselves somewhere in the uncertain middle of a learning curve. Not a predictable line, but an unpredictable curve. You’re not advanced enough to be an expert and not remedial enough to be a novice. You’re just out there at your own specific point between mediocrity and excellence.
During that sometimes lonely climb, it’s the Miyagi moments that pull us through. The moments of breakthrough and epiphany when we realize we’ve actually learned something. So how do we experience more of those moments?
Teach It Out
Writing out your thoughts is a common way to crystallize your thinking and arrive on insights, but teaching those thoughts to someone else, even if they’re half-baked, is even more effective. The only reason I ever passed the California Bar Exam is because Leena Rao is an incredibly patient wife (then fiancée). Every day, she’d have me spend an hour teaching her what I learned. It was mind-numbingly boring material, and I can’t even imagine how she feigned interest, but those sessions forced me to convert a massive amount of unorganized information into a presentable construct.
My former boss, (and current Greylock partner) John Lilly, once told me that he’d learned more by teaching computer science at Stanford than from actually taking the classes. During my first day at Mozilla, he spent a couple of hours whiteboarding ideas. I took copious notes and said very little, which is why I was surprised when he concluded with: “Thanks. I learned a lot.”
When you’re on a steep learning curve, find a way to teach out your learnings. If you’re a novice, then find someone who doesn’t care whether you’ve mastered the material. If you can get them to
understand something new, then you’re getting closer to a Miyagi moment.
Learn the Art Of The Question
I’ve been fortunate enough to observe lots of strong leaders and would argue that the ability to ask good questions is the most under-appreciated craft of effective leadership. Without being able to ask good questions, your learning is handicapped by false assumptions and a narrow view of the overall problem you’re trying to solve. Steve Case (AOL Co-Founder) calls this craft the “listening gene,” but the good news is that it can actually be learned. Yet if you search Amazon for “how to speak effectively,” you’ll find about 10 times as many results than if you search for “how to ask good questions.”
When you learn to ask good questions, everybody becomes your teacher — even candidates that are clearly not the right fit for your team and investors that are clearly not interested in investing in your idea. If you want to learn how to ask good questions, observe people who rely on that art for their career — trial lawyers, journalists, socratic-style professors, etc. Spend an hour watching Charlie Rose, and pay attention to how intently he listens. He’s constantly using what he learns to unlock new stories, and even make bad-asses like Shane Smith cry.
Whether you realize it or not, you are learning something new every day. Taking time away from the firehose can help you appreciate and process what you’ve learned. Much like athletic training, the learning sets in between the training sessions during recovery. Schedule breaks during the day, during the week, and annually (vacation). Take up hobbies that get you away from the office. Put them on your calendar. My friend and advisor, serial tech entrepreneur Michael Wolfe, has helped me transition into fatherhood and entrepreneurship, and posted this masterful article on Quora on how to bake exercise into a busy schedule.
Whatever you do, spend some of your recovery time alone and all of it away from new information. Give yourself the whitespace you need to organize what you’ve already learned. I’ve been using the “concentrate” app to effectively shut down all sources of new information for 20 minutes each day. It’s fantastically effective.
Charlie Chaplin once said that “life is a tragedy when seen as a closeup, but a comedy in long-shot.” In the tech world, we love the idea of conquering a steep learning curve, but that journey can be frustrating and often lonely. Zoom out from time to time and realize that you’re actually better off than you were before you started the journey, if only because you’re closer to reaching your next Miyagi moment.
Note: Suneel Gupta is married to TechCrunch Senior Editor Leena Rao.