If you hold a cat by the tail, you learn things you cannot learn any other way.”
Mark Twain (American Humorist, Writer and Lecturer. 1835-1910)

I absolutely love to stretch my mind and learn. The process is very seldom easy but, in the end, the knowledge and experience I gain is more satisfying than eating my favorite meal. Knowledge feeds my spirit.

Many months ago, I embarked on the renewal and rebranding of my career. Out of that decision, four new programs have emerged; two topics for the business world, one for the health care industry and the fourth for the field of education. What I did not foresee those many months ago was that all four programs would be scheduled for their public debut within weeks of each other. So the pressure to learn has pushed my brain into high gear. As a side-effect of this activity burst, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the process of learning.

In my early years, I was not a good student because I was seldom engaged with the subject being thrust upon me. My mind was always dreaming, planning and inventing. A few years ago, my brother gave me my report cards from grade school and high school. The comments on them can be summed up by the following quote from one of my teachers, “Jim is a very bright person. But, he has trouble focusing and completing a task. His mind is always wandering and he seems to daydream a lot. I think he can do much better than he does.”

My mother did her best to see that I was educated and her best was terrific. She got me into Scouting so – I went from being a Cub Scout, to a Boy Scout and an Explorer Scout. She encouraged me join Junior Achievement and paid for art classes, as well as supporting my whims of building and flying model airplanes, stamp collecting and a mired of other endless curiosities. My father stoically went along with all my adventures, and my grandfather engrained in me that “As long as you give it your best try, you will never have anything to regret.” The bottom line is that I was never once told that I neither was incapable of learning something nor was I made wrong for failing. In fact, I was encouraged to try out new ideas and learn from my mistakes. I will always be grateful to my parents for expanding my curiosity and supporting my desire to learn.

I wish I could say the same for my early formal education. I disliked most of my classes, not because of the subject matter, but because of how they were taught. I disliked hearing, “Memorize such-and-such. We will have a quiz tomorrow.” I saw no reason and had no passion to simply regurgitate answers.

Achieving your dreams in life isn’t just about learning; it is about learning how to learn and learning continuously. The French painter Henri Matisse put it succinctly when he wrote, “Study, learn, but guard the original naiveté. It has to be within you, as desire for drink is within the drunkard or love is within the love.”

True learning is more than response to stimulus, more than a rote answer to a question. Learning is a multilayered, interconnected process that flows among three areas that are separate but connected to one another, like circles overlapping. I call this the Trinity for Learning: Problem Solving, Willingness to Learn and Learning How to Learn.

Problem solving is the most obvious and vitally important. You are most likely proficient at this skill, but problem solving is just part of the learning process. It is the willingness to continue to learn that provides you with endless potential for personal growth. It is in this circle that you constantly choose to be curious and willing to step into the unknown. It requires the understanding that learning is a never-ending, on-going process.

It is the “learning how to learn” circle that is pivotal. Real learning is about life, not classroom behavior. What takes place in the classroom should create a foundation for a lifetime of learning. To quote the London School of Business professor and author, Charles Handy, “Those who are always learning are those who can ride the winds of change and who see a changing world as full of opportunities rather than dangers.”

William Glasser, the creator of “Choice Therapy” and one of my heroes on the subject of thinking, wrote, “ “We learn from . . .10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we discuss, 80% of what we experience and 95% of what we teach others.”

Here are four strategies for learning:

Learning comes from studying, experimenting, failing, trying again and learning. You can’t learn if you don’t fail – Period. So, my advice is – fail a lot and learn a lot. When is the last time you made a mistake or failed? What did you learn from it?

The prolific author of books about playing bridge, Alfred Sheinwold made it clear: “Learn all you can from the mistakes of others. You won’t have time to make them all yourself.” Read biographies and articles on successful individuals who have overcome adversity. There are endless lessons to learn that may well save you a lot of frustration.

Supercharged learning happens by engaging people, especially by interacting with others at social events. But, here is the catch. No one wants to be around someone who has nothing to contribute and simply takes up space. As harsh as that sounds, I’m afraid it is the truth. So, here are two suggestions. First, stay informed. This simply means that you read newspapers, watch and/or listen to news programs and keep up on current events. Second – be curious, listen and ask questions. You don’t have to carry the entire burden of propelling a conversation. Everyone loves to talk about themselves. Once you master this, you can actively seek out individuals from whom you want to learn.

I’ve written about this attribute many times but never enough. We are judgment machines and judgment often stands in the way of learning. So, my final suggestion is to turn judgment into curiously. Politics, religion and cultural beliefs are only a barrier if you make them so. Broaden your vision. Again, ask questions, listen to the answers and, keep your opinion to yourself. You will learn a lot more from listening to what may, perhaps, be a different perspective than by defending your position.

Turn these four strategies into habits and I guarantee that they will contribute to you living an exceptional life.