It’s a long way from learning to doing.

In theory, there’s very little in the way of us all being outstanding. Google “self development” and you will be presented with over three billion options. Amazon carries over one hundred thousand titles. There are countless speakers and coaches all offering the keys to oustanding performance.

And yet, so little happens. Why is that?

  1. We are creatures of habit, and are very attached to the beliefs and behaviours that have got us to wherever we are now. It may not be wonderful and we may want more, but we’re very reluctant to let go of what got us to now. We are often hopeless at unlearning and overwriting old habits to acquire new, more productive ones.
  2. We’re afraid. All the science indicates we are much more motivated by fear than reward. We walk towards reward, but run away from danger, and letting go of what we know to experiment with what we don’t spells danger.
  3. We don’t really want it that much. Most career progression is via management, and management is pretty safe. It may not feel like it, but managers deal with knowns and are armed with a vast array of tools and techniques, and if all else fails, consultants. We’re happy to do well, get good appraisals, and continue up the well defined ladder. Leaping off the ladder though, into the unknown and unquantified and the presence of real career risk is another matter altogether. The paradox is that nobody ever really made a difference by climbing a ladder someone else had placed there.
  4. We don’t do the work. It’s fun to hear a great speaker and be inspired, or to read a book and learn something new. The trouble is, it’s often passive. We consume rather than participate. We hear, but the learning is transitory. We don’t integrate it, or experiment with it. We observe rather than orient, and what we might have learned dissolves as the next interesting thing comes along.

All this is fine. Most self development books get bought, YouTube and Vimeo clips get watched, and most inspirational speakers get booked for vicarious pleasure. We get excited by the idea and the energy, and the stimulation to the imagination. Brief moments of “I can do that” that lasts until we have to go back to the office. Bits of what we read, or watch, or hear sticks but rarely changes the impact of what we do.

For ten years I worked with an exceptional, ground breaking leadership development organisation. In a week, they created impact and insight that changed the way people understood themselves, and their capabilities. As a result, one of two things used to happen. They went back to the workplace that hadn’t changed like they had, and either got so dissatisfied they left, or they just fitted back in. The ones who left, got another job and fitted in somewhere else.

Only a very few did something that befitted the capabilities they had discovered.

Self development is an act of determination and courage, and those who pursue it are like gold dust. There are three hurdles they have to negotiate.

  • From acquiring the knowledge to understanding it. It’s easy and fun to download the imparted knowledge. The real hard work though is really understanding it. It’s the difference between people who create case studies, and those who study them. The people who created them had no-one to follow. They succeeded (or failed) by doing, not watching. Interrogating a case study to really learn from it what it might mean to us and what we do is hard work. Not many do it.
  • From understanding it to committing to use it. New knowledge, particularly about ourselves, is scary. Our knowledge is only valued if it is fossilised, while our evolving customs and thought patterns are viewed with distaste and scepticism. Tyson Yunkaporta. Sand Talk. Putting what we’ve learned into a plan is the work of an entrepreneur with all the risks that go with it.
  • From committing to doing. Making the leap. No safety net. Taking on those who really don’t want to be disturbed. Not being fazed by the trolls. Risking failure. The reverse side to this is the exhiliration and satisfaction when it works, and the likelihood that we can repeat it. In many respects though, it can be the easiest. As anybody who’s ever made a parachute jump knows, once you’re out of the aircraft, it’s pretty difficult to get back in, and everything is down to training and the way the parachure was packed. So it is here. The middle step is the hardest.


It’s difficult to put what we learn into practice when much of our day is spent doing what we currently do. Changing what we do attracts attention, disrupts the expected rhythm and unsettles people. What sounded brilliant on the stage, in the video or book becomes more problematic when being practiced on those not expecting it.

There are ways through it though. As someone once said, you can’t learn to ride a bike by reading a book. So how might we do the work?

  • Make what you want to do real. If only at this stage to yourself. Write it down. Imagine what you might do and write the story of it, and what you imagine might happen. Challenge yourself – write a best case, and then a worst case. Compare the two. What are the differences? What else might you need to learn? Carry the round with you, Think about them on the commute, or in the gym. Make them real for you alone.
  • Tell somebody. Expose yourself to comment and criticism with somebody you can trust. A coach, a good friend, or failing that, your dog. Writing things down and saying them changes things. You can’t unthink or unspeak things.
  • Choose one thing. People will notice if you go the whole nine yards, but as your thinking becomes clearer, there will be one thing you can do. Big enough to test, small enough not to raise alarm. See what happens and learn, then choose another one thing.

Advisers, consultants and coaches make a good living for a reason, but it’s not them who make the difference. They can help you work it out, and the good ones will travel with you, but they can’t do it for you.

It’s a long way from learning to doing. It’s a journey not to be taken lightly. In the end though, there are things that nobody understands like you, which nobody can do like you, and nobody can do for you.

If it matters, make the journey.

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