Become the Person your Project Needs
Toolbox vs. Situational Learning
The capabilities of the average man could be doubled if his situation demanded it.
People don’t build projects, projects build people.
The type of projects you choose to work on will determine what kind of person you become.
Which of your skills develop and which lie dormant, what sides of your personality are expressed and which are suppressed are mostly a function of what your environment demands of you.
From elementary school all the way through post-grad, learning is category-driven.
You’re taught things that ought to come up pretty regularly based on other people’s experience. We start with the category (math) and then identify all the tools that might be useful in solving problems of that type.
The math book then manufacturers situations in which you might need to calculate the distance between a ship and a lighthouse when given only the angle of depression from the top of the lighthouse to the boat.
The idea is that when you encounter a situation like this where you need a particular kind of knowledge to solve a particular kind of problem, you have that framework ready.
This is toolbox learning, and it has value. Particularly if you go out of your way to acquire tools not a lot of people have. Basic math probably won’t give you much of an edge in life, but deep knowledge of game theory or some technical frontier will.
The contractor with a warehouse of tools and equipment can build better and faster than a single carpenter with a hammer and some nails.
The most important kinds of learning - especially those that shape our character and identity - cannot happen this way.
In real life, especially when working on important things, learning happens in exactly the opposite order. We are confronted with a probably never-before-seen situation and have to develop the right capabilities to handle it effectively.
Toolbox learning is theory first, then how to practice it.
Situational learning, as I call it, is practice first, theory later.
The important stuff is learned through trial and error - step by step - situation by situation. Only after experiencing it can we make sense of it and hang it on a mental model for next time.
Accumulating knowledge is learning individual things, experience is tying them together. Here’s a beautiful visual metaphor (it’s animated - be sure to click play):
Far from being rivalrous, the two types of learning are complementary. Dozens of mental models of theory will make it easier to identify patterns and eventually develop predictive power about what courses of action are likely to work well.
A big store of experience will also provide more data with which to verify theory. A theory may make a lot of sense until it’s actually implemented.
In theory there is no difference between theory and practice - in practice there is.
Each type of learning has its own traps. The toolbox learner risks becoming so comfortable with theory that he forgets to every actually take any action.
The situational learner risks getting so entrenched in activity that she forgets to stop and reflect on what is working well and what isn’t, and if what she’s doing is really what she wants:
There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.
Projects are powerful because they require both types of learning: a project won’t get started without taking action, but it likely won’t finish well without a deep theoretical understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Much of the value of an audacious and challenging project isn’t the completed project, it’s the completed person.
Thanks for reading Joel's Jambalaya! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.