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The Tricky Balance of Learning & Doing

A friend and I attended a National Writers Series event this week at the Traverse City Opera House. New York Times bestselling author James Rollins was here to talk about his latest book, Bone Labyrinth.

It was an interesting and informative night (as NWS events always are – more about that in an upcoming post), and Rollins talked about how, with no formal writing training or education, he decided he wanted to become a writer after 15 years working as a veterinarian. How he had to persevere through 49 rejection letters before his first novel was picked up by a publisher. And how, 32 novels and 7 million copies sold later, his writing process is much the same as when he started.

He also spoke about his research process. He weaves elaborate tales mixing scientific and historical fact and fiction in his books, requiring him to do quite a bit of research for each book. But not too much. He spends 90 days researching, then gets to writing. After 90 days, Rollins said, “I need to get words on the page.”

If left to his own devices and without this 90 day cut-off, he explained, all he would do is research and he’d never write the book.

This got me thinking: Aren’t there broader implications to this? Isn’t this the reason that some people, like Rollins, can publish 32 novels, and most of us can never get the first word on a page? Why do we get inspired to start something – a book, a business, a workout routine – and then get stuck?

And I concluded: There’s a purgatory between sloth and achievement. It’s where ideas fade and dreams die. It’s called the internet.

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The Internet Onslaught

How did we get by before the internet? We used to be so imperfect. You can’t help but excel at all aspects of human endeavor with so much information at your fingertips, right? Just surf around a bit. You’ll see that the secrets to success and high achievement are one click away.

For example, 8 of the 10 most popular articles of 2015 on Entrepreneur.com were:

  • 11 Secrets of Irresistible People
  • 7 Mental Shifts That Allowed Me to Become a Millionaire at 22
  • 10 Examples of Companies with Fantastic Cultures
  • 5 Things Millionaires Do That Most People Don’t
  • 9 Success Habits of Wealthy People That Cost Nothing
  • 7 Hobbies Science Says Will Make You Smarter
  • 9 Phrases Smart People Never Use in Conversation
  • 9 Things Managers Do That Make Good Employees Quit

Notice any patterns? A quick glance at Inc., Fast Company, Huffington Post, and countless other sites reveals much the same in terms of content focus and structure. Coincidentally, the most popular article on Entrepreneur.com on the day this is being written is…(drum roll)…”How to Become a Millionaire in Under 5 Years.” Sign me up!

It’s no coincidence that the internet is dishing up so much advice. Publishers are serving what we’re ordering. People go online seeking answers, direction, motivation and inspiration for challenges they face in business and in life.

Unfortunately, a great deal of content marketing and self/business improvement advice found in the vast expanse of the internet is – how shall I put it mildly – junk. It’s the equivalent of the modern day infomercial. Just as the infomercial pitchman leads us to believe that a newfangled vegetable slicer can drastically improve our culinary skills, a great deal of online content, punctuated by “click-bait” headlines, suggests that there are work and life hacks that, if implemented, can lead to massive increases in productivity and contentment.

That’s not say that there’s anything wrong with reading that “7 Things That Will Make You Fabulous, Wealthy and Happy” article. Perhaps it contains a nugget of wisdom that it will add some value to your life.

But be careful. There are downsides to too much online learning.

1. The Heavy Baggage of Information Overload

The first is mental and emotional overload. Like waves crashing on shore, our inboxes and social media feeds are relentlessly bombarded with advice, strategies and tactics for self improvement. We end up consuming so much self improvement advice that we never get around to implementing any of it effectively. One day we’re told to compile out daily to-do-list first thing in the morning, the next day we’re advised to do so at night. And so on. We end up changing our routine so frequently that it never becomes habitual. It’s overwhelming.

It’s no surprise, then, that highly successful and productive people block and filter information effectively. While the average Twitter user follows over 100 other accounts, hyper-productive people such as tech mogul Elon Musk and author Stephen King follow 50 or fewer, despite having millions of followers themselves. Admittedly a miniscule study sample, but an example of how high achievers selectively expose themselves to information.

James Rollins talked about his technique for filtering information. He keeps an “idea box” in which he places clippings from magazines containing interesting tidbits of scientific and historical information. If something piques his interest he puts it in the box. He uses information gathered in his idea box as inspiration for his books. But not all of it. He periodically purges clippings so as only to keep the best ideas. Otherwise, he explained, he’d have boxes and boxes to go through and never be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Much like a skilled curator carefully and thoughtfully manages an art collection, successful people manage what information they take in and when. It’s a minimalist approach to learning.

2. Comparing and Contrasting

The second potential downside is the urge to compare ourselves to others. This is an impulse we all face and must fight on a daily basis in all parts of our lives, personal and professional. We look at what others are doing and it makes us feel inadequate. Or we judge others to make ourselves feel better.

Seriously, why wouldn’t you feel inadequate when you read that the “4 Things High Performers Do Before 6 a.m.” includes writing 1,000 words, doing CrossFit, meditating, and eating steel cut oats with flax seed. I mean, come on – aren’t there successful people that guzzle coffee and troll Facebook friends first thing in the morning?

The danger is that we assume we can never keep up, so we never try at all.

3. Learning Can Lead to Paralysis

The third and perhaps most important – and harmful – side effect of all this information is that it impedes action. Knowledge may be power, but too much is dangerous, especially if it comes at the expense of action. Just as too much stuff in your garage prevents you from pulling your car in, too much stuff in your head can prevent you from moving forward in your life.

“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” –Henry Ford

Let’s say you want to start a business. There’s a foundational amount of knowledge you need to know before implementing your idea. So you start doing research online. There are millions of articles that address the many facets of entrepreneurship. You read, and read, and read, hurtling down rabbit hole after rabbit hole. Some advice inspires you. Then something else contradicts it. Next thing you know six months have passed and you’re right where you started – nowhere. Frustrated by your lack of progress, and twisted into knots by everything you’ve read and learned, you give up, vowing to start anew in six months. And by that time there’s a mountain of new information to digest. It’s paralyzing.

Learning, in and of itself, is not particularly helpful, except as an intellectual exercise or for purposes of cocktail hour fodder. Selective learning, followed by relentless implementation of what you’ve learned, is the path to progress.

“Often we are caught in a mental trap of seeing enormously successful people and thinking they are where they are because they have some special gift. Yet a closer look reveals that the greatest gift that extraordinary successful people have over the average person is their ability to get themselves to take action.” –Tony Robbins

The pursuit of knowledge can be a crutch as well. It feels like action, but it’s not. It feels good to be inspired while learning about a great new kettlebell routine, but it’s not going to get you the toned body you desire. That only comes (so I’ve heard) from cranking out reps at the gym.

Trial and error in the real world is the best method of learning. But learning is not “trial.” And while you’ll avoid “error” if all you ever do is learn, you’ll never get where you want to go.

4. Learn, But Keep a Salt Shaker Close By

It’s also important to keep in mind that all the advice you read online is written by people, fallible and imperfect just like you. Some are experts worthy of your attention. Others simply self-identify as “expert”. Regardless, what has worked for them may not work for you.

So take what you learn with a big ‘ole grain of salt. By all means, take a tip, adopt a tactic, but don’t try to model your methods solely after those of others. You’re unique, and your path to achievement is, too.

Fight the Fails and Learn

There’s no textbook that is going to teach you how to become a great parent. You don’t need an MBA degree to start a business. You can’t research your way to a successful New Year’s resolution.

Don’t let your perceived lack of knowledge hold you back. Just take action, however imperfect. Sure, you’ll fail at some point. That’s inevitable, but it doesn’t make you a failure. It makes you normal. It’s part of the process, because the trajectory of success is not linear. There are lots of peaks and valleys. It’s important to fight back from the fails, rather than giving up altogether. That’s where the real learning takes place.

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  • Bridget Harrington

    Information Overload!!!! You nailed it!! This is something I’m working on fixing in my life! I’m rereading ‘The Power Of Now’ by Ekhart Tolle. A refresher on the book always seems to help when I ‘Overload’ and need help in quieting the mind/ego. I Love all the information in your Blog Jay I can relate to most of it and it makes sense!! Thank you for your time in sharing your thoughts and info!! I always look forward to your msg, you write with such style!! Love you guys xoxo to my Nieces xoxo

      • Heather Aardema

        My favorite line—You can’t research your way to a successful New Year’s resolution. Love your writing Jay!

  • Laura Jolly

    This is the first post of yours I’ve read and I totally enjoyed it! Nice job pulling together several modern-day challenges of the learning process. Great insight and advice.

  • Donna

    So well written Jay! A coworker once told me that sometimes even a bad decision is better than no decision at all, and I have often thought of that when I am trying to make a decision about something. But I like how you put it better Jay, “Just take action.however imperfect.” Thanks Jay!