How do I learn?

Back in May I realized that Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself was a cornerstone piece of writing that I need to reread annually.  Its simplicity of language belies a depth of clarity and analysis about what it takes to understand oneself and, from that strong foundation of self-knowledge, build a successful personal and professional life.  I’m grateful to my friend and colleague Ankur Shah for sending it to me.

While most of the topics Drucker covers about self-knowledge and taking feedback were topics I’d expected to see, I was pretty taken aback by the section titled “How Do I Learn?”  I’d just never given the questions he asks any thought.  An excerpt:

How do I learn? The second thing to know about how one performs is to know how one learns.   Many first-class writers – Winston Churchill is but one example – do poorly in school.  They tend to remember their schooling as pure torture.  Yet few of their classmates remember it the same way.  They may not have enjoyed the school very much, but the worst they suffered was boredom.  The explanation is that writers do not, as a rule, learn by listening and reading.  They learn by writing…

Some people learn by taking copious notes.  Beethoven, for example, left behind an enormous number of sketchbooks, yet he said he never actually looked at them when he composed.  Asked why he kept them, he is reported to have replied, ‘If I don’t write it down immediately, I forget right away.  If I put it into a sketchbook, I never forget it and I never have to look it up again.’  Some people learn by doing.  Others learn by hearing themselves talk…

Am I a reader or a listener? and How do I learn? are the first questions to ask…

I found this perplexing because I honestly had no idea if I was a reader or a listener.  I didn’t find school torture at all, I read like crazy, so it seemed like I had to be a reader.

But the more I sat with that answer the less right it felt.  My best insights come by talking things through with people.  It’s only through hands-on, digging in conversations that things become real to me, that I can imagine how a solution will interact with the real world – what will and won’t work, and what’s holding something back.  I’m a talker/listener.

And then I started to think about all the reading that I do – what do I make of that?  Specifically, I started thinking about how well I recall things.  There are a lot of people in my life who have incredible memories; my wife is one and I know I don’t hold onto information the way she does (wish I did).  As a stark reminder of this, last month, just before I threw out 15 feet worth of 10 year old business school cases, I flipped through a few of the binders and was humbled by how little I recalled of the more than 1,000 cases I’d read. (Existential crisis on the cost of business school left for another day)

If I’m a listener and a talker who loves reading, and if I read to push my thinking, then I have to do something about reading differently.  It occurred to me to make my reading a bit more like blogging, by forcing myself to process information by capturing it and writing it down.  My parameters were to make the notes as visual as possible, to keep it to a page, and to focus on big concepts.

I had my first go at this for another “must read and reread piece” last week – The Theory Behind the Practice: A Brief Introduction to the Adaptive Leadership Framework by Heifitz, Grashow and Linsky.

What I’ve learned so far from this is:

  1. The decision that something I’ve read is worth processing in this way is itself important
  2. The little drawings of people and all the visuals help a lot.  For example the person holding the flag is the “leit,” (source of the word “leadership”) who went out ahead of the army carrying the flag.  He was often killed.  Kind of impossible to forget the heat you take as a leader with that little drawing floating around in my head.
  3. For the way my mind works, all I need the notes for is prompts, so they can be brief.  That is, without the notes a year from now I’d only remember 25% of the big concepts in the piece (e.g. the difference between technical and adaptive leadership will stick either way), but the moment I see high-level prompts in my notes I’m transported back to the full concept.  No need for the notes to provide all of those details

Creating these notes was easy enough to do with a 31 page HBR article.  I suspect for a 250 page book it will take more doing, but I’m going to give it a go, because if I can’t boil it down what are the chance that it will affect my actions for more than a month or so?

What about you?  Do you know how you learn?  Once you’ve figured it out, what do you do differently?

8 thoughts on “How do I learn?

  1. I feel relieved to read this post. I have always felt myself chatty & wondered why… sigh… Why do smarty pants pedigreed education peeps never highlight this style? Another epiphany over 50 for me & the reason why I always read your blog… Thank U!

  2. Excellent post and an important subject. Related is knowing how the brain works and recognizing that a writer also has that awareness and writes accordingly. From the stand point of learning a well written piece enters and sticks with ease; a poorly written piece has to forced in and won’t stick without a lot of internal re-organization – which is too much work.


  3. Drucker’s question is a good one. And I agree Sasha I think we don’t ask it enough so we aren’t learning about our learning. And if we’re not learning about our learning how can we ever get better at it? Your mapping and drawing out what you’re reading is an interesting idea. One thing I know about my learning is that whether I’m speaking with people or reading, if I really picture what is being “said” – I’m able to see discrepancies that need to be resolved, blank spaces that need to be filled, more questions that need to be answered until they are… That approach helps me participate in the ‘conversation’ and learn and remember more. [BTW not my idea: see work of Robert Fritz on creating and structural thinking]

  4. Hi Sasha
    Thinking about how people learn is often covered in train the trainer type courses, and I’ve also considered it more deeply in some extensive facilitation skills training I’ve done. Drucker may well touch on or cover these, there are a few models which often referred to (see including VARK (which stands for visual, aural/auditory, read/write and kinesthetic learning styles) – see You may have also come across a model which suggests we might have tendencies towards one or more of being an activist, reflector, theorist or pragmatist – see
    I’ve found these useful in both reflecting on my own learning, and in planning training or facilitated activities, they can also be handy in meetings to help figure out how people are dealing with problems differently. Like all such models, there are critiques around which suggest that there isn’t anything to them.
    What excited me about your post was your aim to ‘make my reading a bit more like blogging’ and your use of visual notes. I find such visual notes really helpful. I don’t find my memory good, but I can often visualise where on a page I read something useful. Which is why I love working with graphics, I have been trained by the excellent Vanessa Randle and Penny Pullan of Graphics Made Easy ( and am currently taking advantage of Emily Wilkinson’s skills in visual representation through coaching sessions in which she is creating visual records of what I share (more about Emily here: It was just brilliant when, near the end of our first session, she asked “so where are you now in this?” and asked me to write or draw on the fantastic visualisation she had made with me. That was so much more helpful to me than a simple discussion, where I find myself caught up in words and forgetting what has been said 15 minutes ago.
    Also something else resonated for me in what you said, as I suddenly realised on Saturday that I might be a writer – some sort of social writer, as I much prefer writing things in response to other people’s blogs (as I’m doing now) or writing blog posts than other sorts of writing. I’ve spent years describing myself as a facilitator, project manager and other such things, but never a writer – it feels interesting and useful. So just as you are making your reading a bit more like blogging, I’d like to reframe what I’ve considered to be just messing around reading and commenting on blogs in to something creative and reflective and that I learn from … writing!
    Thank you, you’ve helped me to think about whether I learn best by writing.

  5. > If I’m a listener and a talker who loves reading, and if I read to push my thinking, then I have to do something about reading differently.

    I, too, have been grappling with this and have taken to [sketchnoting]( and mind-mapping. After reading Managing Oneself, I re-read it & made a mind-map for it just to test the waters and I have already found that it’s helped me retain and make connections I didn’t make in the first reading.

    Great post, thanks!

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