The Role of Learning in Personal Development

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Any personal growth I have achieved is because very talented people were very patient with me.

I was very lucky: I ended up in a youth work organisation that took training seriously. It was a voluntary organisation and so relied on its staff. They understood this. They trained us intensively and then left us to get on with the job. This attracted the gifted who wanted to do their thing. It was an organisation full of gifted people.

I’m wondering what this means for our personal growth and how we ‘train’ people in relationships and self knowledge (to make a false distinction — but you know what I mean, I hope). It has struck me that a chance remark by a friend can often have far more impact than a semester of training.

I have a confession to make: I’m something of a training junkie. I have enough interests to pursue to last me several lifetimes — and I’d like to thoroughly train in every one of them. (If you think that I decided early that I needed to be competent to gain acceptance, I couldn’t find it within me to disagree.)

And I’m usually a dedicated student. This is somewhat different to being a good (i.e., compliant) student. I can be outraged by those who make no attempt to teach. Just as one example, while I was studying acupuncture, in one class the ‘teacher’ spent the whole term reading to us from a textbook. I didn’t see why we should pay for this (and I was very surprised to see that the rest of the class didn’t seem to see anything wrong with this). The college has now gone broke — which I can only think was richly deserved.

I don’t think that the stray remarks of my friends have more impact than the training just because I don’t pay attention. So I’m wondering why this happens.


To learn a complex behaviour it helps to have a model. Learning from books and other media doesn’t prepare us for performance in the complexity of real life. When learning to drive a car, we do it by driving — no one seriously suggests learning driving from books. (Though this is suggested for things like diet and exercise — but that is a topic for another post perhaps.)

Knowing the stages of a worthwhile conversation may be important (or maybe not), but having the conversation is a different matter. This can explain why some of our training is so spectacularly ineffective, but it doesn’t explain why the chance remarks are impactful.

The Readiness is All

The reason those stray remarks are so effective I think is because they relate to what are live issues for us at the time. Not every remark by a friend (even ones on significant topics) makes much impact on us. The ones that do are the ones that relate to something that is significant for us at the time.

This is difficult to organise, although I think all of us will have experienced it. When we learn our native language this is usually done informally. It takes advantage of what the learner is interested in at the time and the response is usually pretty immediate, specific and positive.

I think this is the case with those apparently random remarks that go straight to our heart. They relate to what is significant to us and they are specific (though perhaps not always positive).


Do I think this means that there needs to be a revolution in pedagogy and ‘educational’ institutions? Yes, but this isn’t a post about education policy.

The major implication I see is: think about people rather than the body of knowledge that you wish to learn. If you want to learn something it may be a good first step to find someone who knows more about it than you. And then ask if you can learn from them. In my experience people are happy to teach what they love to those who are seriously interested.

Two caveats:

  • The teacher you find needs to be not too far ahead of you (if you want to take up the piano don’t approach a concert pianist), and interested in teaching (which you will probably get a feel for quite quickly).
  • This applies to domains of knowledge that aren’t about books and writing (although it may apply to these two). It may well be possible to learn reading and writing from books. But for other kinds of knowledge that involve physical skills a person to learn from makes it all hugely easier.

I am wondering whether your experience is similar to mine — or whether you find that the academic approach suits you down to the ground. Or perhaps you have found that learning from others has been more confusing than helpful. I’d like to hear about your experience in the comments.

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