Continuous Improvement: A Simple Glance of What Lifelong Learning Really Means

By Dean Yeong on February 5, 2018

It’s your first day of school. Everything is novel to you. It’s fearful and uncomfortable, but at the same time, you’re curious. You observe, you explore, you experience, you experiment, and you learn.

We all went through this process. But at a certain point, we stop learning. In general, the majority stop learning once they get out of school. “We’ve grown up. We’re not a student anymore. It’s time to do something big,” the stories—or to put it better, excuses—people create to mark the end of their journey of learning.

But there is a small group of people—like you—who believe in continuous improvement. It means learning never ends. Not after school, not when you get a job or promotion, not when you become a parent or grandparent, not when you’re old. The only time you stop learning is when you’re lying on your deathbed.

When you stop learning, you stop living.

I’m not trying to convince anyone to hop on the train of never-ending improvement. Instead, I’m writing this with three objectives in mind:

  • Why? Many people are interested in continuous improvement, but sometimes, we just don’t have a strong enough reason to do it. I’m writing this to point out why we should keep learning.
  • How? The next challenge we face is how. How do we learn continuously? What should we learn? How to utilize what we learned? I’ve included a few useful models and strategies to help you learn effectively
  • And finally, I want to point out a few obstacles we’ll eventually face along the path of continuous improvement.

How Great People Succeed

With the recent success of Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk became known as one of the most successful and innovative entrepreneurs of our time. To accomplish that much across four different industries—software, transportation, energy, and aerospace—isn’t an easy feat, if not impossible. And Elon Musk has done these in his 40s.

Elon Musk

We can’t argue that Elon’s intelligence, audacity, and resilience have played a critical role in his success. Without intelligence, one couldn’t build and lead organizations of this size single-handedly. Without audacity, one couldn’t confront the big industries that haven’t been changing for decades. Without resilience, one couldn’t withstand the challenges along this tough journey.

However, intelligence, audacity, and resilience are not uncommon in the realm of entrepreneurship. Many great entrepreneurs possess these traits, but not all of them accomplish these enormous feats.

Part of the reason is that not every entrepreneur wants to achieve what Elon Musk has. But beyond that, there’s something special and unique about Elon that made him stand out: his willingness and ability to learn.

According to his brother, Kimbal Musk, Elon read two books a day when he was 16, and these books spanned across multiple topics from fiction, science, philosophy, business, engineering, and more. I read two books in a month (you can check out my reading notes here), but to Musk’s 60 books, the amount of knowledge and wisdom acquired are just incomparable.

The key doesn’t only lay in how much information Elon consumed, it’s also how he absorbed the information and how he implemented these insights afterward. In fact, reading is not learning. Learning requires execution and feedback. Learning is a process.

How Great People Failed

Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great was king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon after succeeding his father, Philip II, to the throne in his twenties. During his ruling years, he created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from Greece to northwestern India.

He was undefeated and commonly considered as the most successful military commander in history. However, the Macedonian kingdom quickly fell apart in less than a decade after his sudden death. From the onset, we are inspired by how great a conqueror Alexander the Great was without digging deeper into how and why the entire Macedonian kingdom ended up in pieces.

Mosaic of Alexander the Great

When Alexander set out for Asia, he appointed his general, Antipater, to be the ruler of Macedon and never set foot on the land again. He was filled with the desire to conquer new lands without spending the time to build a foundation for his empire and plan for an heir. Alexander died suddenly at the age of 32 and even on his deathbed, when asked who his empire should be left to, he replied “to the strongest” which sadly wasn’t the case.

Alexander was indeed a great learner. He became a student of Aristotle at the age of 13. And he didn’t stop learning even when he became king. He studied and adopted the culture of the new lands he conquered and learned from many philosophers he encountered in his campaigns.

But at a certain point, Alexander stop learning and adapting. He didn’t transition from an experienced general to a great king. He was great at leading battles but never good at delegating responsibility to rule a kingdom. Yes, his empire grew larger every day, but that is also the very curse that divided the entire kingdom when Alexander died.

It’s common for us to believe that we don’t need to learn anymore. But the moment we have these thoughts is exactly the time when we need to learn and improve the most.

Commit to Continuous Improvement

Learning comes in many forms. It’s common for people to refer to reading books, watching tutorials, and attending seminars as a form of learning. Indeed, these are part of the learning process. However, they are not complete. The sad truth is, many schools and organizations still emphasize these passive learning methods over everything else today.

OBSERVE, EXECUTE, REFLECT

To learn effectively, we need to cover all three primary forms of learning:

Three forms of learning

  1. Observation. What we see, read, watch. The good news is that we have unlimited access to information and many tools to help us better consume them.
  2. Execution. What do we do after consuming a piece of content? How to implement and utilize it in our lives? Learning doesn’t stop after you read something. Instead, you only truly begin to grasp what you consume when you put them to use.
  3. Reflection. Write down what you learned from both your observation and execution. Review and reflect on the results to help you better understand and utilize them in the future.

These three forms of learning are what makes the learning process complete. By combining observation, execution, and reflection, we get to consume knowledge, understand concepts, and utilized insights on a much broader scale.

THE CONCEPT OF KAIZEN

The combination of the three forms of learning also brings us to the concept of continuous improvement. Instead of just information consumption without further action and interpretation, we now act upon them and review the results we get from them. By repeating the process over and over again, we get a feedback loop that helps just to learn and improve continuously.

Definition of Kaizen

One of the most popular concepts is known as Kaizen, spread from the Japanese culture. In translation, Kaizen means “change for the better.” Many see this as a productivity strategy, but in my personal opinion, it’s more of a philosophy whereby we continuously refine our approach and systems so we can improve.

Learning is a process, not a race.

The Kaizen philosophy is then distilled to a process where organizations implement to improve their management and operations.

  • Identify. Identify what you want to change and improve. Then, make assumptions about the results you could get from your actions.
  • Test. Carry out small tests to validate your assumptions.
  • Plan. Based on the results you get from testing, create a plan to implement the changes.
  • Execute. Do—carry out your plan and make the changes.
  • Review. Measure your results and track the progress of what you do. Then, spend time reflecting on them.
  • Repeat. Repeat the process by further improving the system and identifying new problems.

In Kaizen, we’re not aiming to be perfect. In fact, people to practice the philosophy of Kaizen don’t believe in the idea of perfect. Making changes is hard, making enormous changes with the goal of achieving the delusional state of perfect only makes it harder. A better approach wouldn’t be focusing on making small improvements and gaining small wins—then, repeat the process.

If Kaizen teaches you only a lesson, it would be this: Learning is a process, not a race.

Three Stages of Learning

Learning in every subject matter comes in three different stages. I first heard about this from Ido Portal in an interview hosted by London Real.

The three stages of learning are different from the continuous improvement model. Instead of a method to get better every day, these are the stages we go through every time we implement the model in a new, unfamiliar field.

  • Stage One | Exploring. At this stage, you are exposed to something new, something you have no idea about—you’re exploring a new idea, a new methodology, a new movement, or a new solution. Our brain has no memory of the routine at this stage. At this point, we’re driven by our curiosity and the desire to learn.
  • Stage Two | Perfecting. Once we get over stage one—after spending enough hours to explore and learn the fundamentals of anything—we’re getting to stage two, perfecting. Here, we start to get a grip on the new skill we’re learning, and we’re not beginners anymore. Now, we’re starting to find ways to perfect our skills, to use improved vocabulary when writing, to take photos with better angles, to find better ways to close a business deal.
  • Stage Three | Maintaining. It’s more of a keep-doing-it repeatedly than learning. We know precisely what the routine is, and it’s not a new thing or skill anymore. Our brain programs the routine and makes it automatic to reduce the need for decision-making every time we’re doing this particular job.

The better we get, the less we learn

It’s important to understand these three stages because they answer a few burning questions we all have when comes to learning and mastering a new thing, skills, or knowledge.

HOW TO GET GOOD?

We can’t get away from the question “how do I get good?” when we talk about learning. We all want to do better, and we all want to reach a stage where we master what we do.

The only way to get good at anything is first to get bad, and get bad again, then get better (but still pretty bad), and better again. Then finally, you get good.

Mastery starts from the willingness to suck at first.

  • To become a great writer, you need to be willing to write shitty pieces that no one reads.
  • To start and grow a business that impacts the world, you need to be prepared to fail, and fail again.
  • To lift heavy weights, you first need to start lifting an empty barbell.

This may not be the answer you want to hear. But this is the truth. Don’t try to find another way around because there is no other way around. Every expert was once a beginner.

It’s difficult to get started, not because circumstances are hard and people are judging us. Often, no one actually cares about what you do and how well you do. It’s our ego that kills our drive to start learning and doing. Our ego wants us to think that we should be good—before we even try.

Slowly, you will find that things become easier and more comfortable as you learn and practice. Yes, you pick up new skills as you go, but what really makes a difference is that you shut your ego up every time you put in the time to be bad.

HOW TO GET GREAT?

In 1979, Bill Walsh was hired as the head coach and general manager of the San Francisco 49ers. And in just three short years, Walsh turned the 49ers from being the worst team in football to a Super Bowl victory.

The year before he arrived, the long-suffering 49ers went 2-14. The team was demoralized, broken, filled with negativity, and operated with a culture of losing. In Walsh’s first season, they lost another fourteen games. Yet, two years later, the 49ers won the Super Bowl championship, and Walsh became the “genius” coach.

The question is, how did it happen?

To transform the 49ers, Bill Walsh wasn’t focused on winning. Instead, he got the entire organization to buy into what he called the “Standard of Performance.” In other words, it means what should be done, when, and how. Instead of aiming to win the championship, Walsh’s only mission was to instill these standards at the most fundamental level throughout the entire organization.

In his mind, if the players could take care of the essential details, the score would take care of itself. And indeed, that’s the truth.

When you begin to learn something new, it’s easy to get confused about where to start. Then along the journey of learning, it’s common to think that we need some shiny objects to do better when they are simply distractions. In both cases, the best solution is to focus on the fundamentals.

Many top achievers attained their success by ruthlessly focusing on the fundamentals—even if it bored them to hell—and allowing the marginal improvement—even if it’s only 1%—to propel them to success. While on the other hand, most of us can’t even sit down to finish a single book.

There’s no secret to getting great. All you need is to focus on the fundamentals and keep putting in the work.

HOW TO STAY GREAT?

Practice. Repeat. There’s no shortcut.

THEN WE GET BAD

Now you’re great—better than just good. You explored, and you perfected your skills. You learned from your experience, and you slowly mastered what you did.  Then you stopped learning and started to stagnate.

We need continuous practice to stay at the level of mastery. However, we don’t really get better anymore simply because there is very little room for improvement. We repeat what we’ve mastered every day to maintain our level of competency.

Be willing to be suck

And then it’s time to move on. At a certain point, you need to be willing to give up what you’re great at, so you can start learning and practicing what you’re bad at. It’s uncomfortable to move away from the things you do best and step into stuff you have zero clues about. It’s painful, but it’s the sacrifice you need to make in order to grow.

  • Quit the comfortable job you’re good at and start your own business.
  • Start reading autobiographies and fiction after reading hundreds of non-fiction books.
  • Change your writing style to learn how to tell stories after you’ve gotten good at writing lists (that’s me!)

The truth is, lifelong learning and continuous improvement don’t just equal to mastery. Instead, it’s about the act of learning, improving, and refining itself. You don’t stop when you master one thing. You move forward. You explore new fields. You don’t stop learning.

So, Where Should I Start?

No. Not reading, not getting a teacher or buying a ton of courses.

Instead, start reviewing your beliefs and reflecting on your behavior. Consuming more information doesn’t mean learning when you don’t know who and where you are, and what you truly want in life.

Where Should I Start Really?

To give you a better direction, here are a few best ways I think everyone could start learning once they get clear about themselves and where they want to go:

  1. Get curious and stay curious. Start questioning things you find interesting, and don’t shy away from things you don’t know. Pretending you know everything to look cool is the act of ego-filled ignorance.
  2. Now, you start—Reading. Any problem you try to solve and any skill you’re interested in mastering are recorded in some form or other. It’s easier to get access to them today compared to two decades ago. There’s no excuse for you not to read.
  3. Create a system to get feedback. Give people around you the permission to criticize you, let them tell you when you suck, and make it easy for them to give you feedback. You don’t need to act upon all the feedback, but it serves as a helpful guide to what you should learn and improve next.
  4. Traveling. Travel to and live in places with a different history, culture, and lifestyle than yours. It kills the ego that makes you think you’re the center of the universe, and at the same time, opens up your worldview and introduces better beliefs and systems that you could adopt in your work and life.
  5. Becoming an apprentice. Reach out to people you look up to and people you aspire to be one day, and find ways to work for them—even if it means to work for free.

Be a Student. Stay as a Student

I get it. It’s scary and uncomfortable. It’s like you have endless to-dos when you think about continuous improvement. But it’s learning that makes us human. A monkey—and most animals—learn just enough to survive. We too are animals. But we’re slightly more than that because of our ability to learn.

The good thing is that you have all the time you need to learn just about anything you want. With the abundance of information and the ease of accessing it, learning becomes so much more effortless today.

You can think of the entire process as a paradox because at the end of the day, we don’t carry anything away with us. But that is the very thing that makes the process meaningful—and by learning, we get to leave something behind when we left.

Promoting Lifelong Learning

The previous section was supposed to be the end. But now, you may be wondering: “Great! I’m with you for continuous improvement. But I want my spouse, kids, team members, [insert anyone else here] to practice this too. How can I convince them?”

The quick answer is that you can’t convince anyone. I can’t change your beliefs or behavior (who am I to do so?) unless you’re motivated to change. So, you can’t change people around you to believe in and practice just because you think it’s good for them.

But you can influence them, and make it easy for them. There are three things you could do:

  1. Teach by action. Don’t just tell them to learn. Instead, be a role model and show them why it’s important to keep learning and how to do it efficiently and effectively.
  2. Reward positive behavior. When the person you try to influence shows an interest in learning something (anything) and starts taking action, reward them. Compliment them, encourage them, and show them your support.
  3. Encourage failures. One of the vital elements of learning is to start executing. And the journey is full of setbacks and obstacles. Don’t blame, criticize, punish your kids, friends or employees when they fail. Instead, encourage them to fail—fast and often—and show them how to review their failures and repeat the process again and again.

FOOTNOTES

  1. I’m learning to tell stories instead of writing instructions. Clearly, these stories are not from me. They are from many amazing historians, researchers, and writers before me. I can’t list them here because I’ve been collecting these pieces from many different sources for a very long time.
  2. Speaking of learning, one of the biggest obstacles to learning is actually how our brain works. This article is meant to encourage your to learn, and I’m looking forward to writing another piece on the art and science of learning itself. But before that, here are a few books I can recommend if you’re interested: How We Learn, The Art of Thinking Clearly, Deep Work, Thinking, Fast & Slow, and Think like a Freak.
  3. Four people you should check out: Tim Ferriss on wisdom from the successful, Ryan Holiday on ego, Ramit Sethi on experimenting, Ido Portal on being formless.
  4. Speaking of lifelong learning, there is a debate on being a specialist and being a generalist. Here is my view: learn everything and practice the first principle thinking (it means boiling down what you learned to the most fundamental facts). This helps you to break out from the constraints of specialists by introducing new ideas from other fields to what you’re doing at the moment.
  5. Ido Portal is the best person to learn more about the “Specialist vs Generalist” debate. Google his name, read and watch everything he said.

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