Learn and Be Curious
Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.
The LP Learn and Be Curious, joined the list of Leadership Principles in the mid 2010s. It seems a bit unnecessary doesn’t it? Doesn’t Amazon hire super-geniuses that love learning? But that’s not what this LP is about.
Learn and Be Curious is about the desire to learn things, especially if they’re outside of your comfort zone. It’s about having a bias towards “tell me more” vs. “that’s not my job.” During the AWS onboarding, everyone needed to learn the basics of how AWS worked. This made sense for me as the Head of Banking because I was going to have to sell this to the market and make new products. But everyone needed to know the basics of AWS. So you had marketing people from American Express or Prudential trying to figure out what EC2 and S3 were.(1)EC2 is a fancy name for a computer in the cloud. S3 is a fancy name for a piece of data that you store in the cloud. In an ironic naming twist. S3 is actually an acronym for Simple Storage Service which has gone from an approachable name to technical jargon. And they all did it! It wasn’t that the AWS marketing team was any smarter than anyone else. It was that they were curious and open to learning.
My friend Rick was interviewing at Amazon. He was an investment banker, well over six feet tall with fine Italian suits. He looked nothing like a tech guy. We’d worked together before and I knew he had the right personality for Amazon. With a background as an investment banker, I wanted him to show off his love of learning and curiosity.
I told him to create an AWS website with a line of two of text.
He told me to jump off a bridge. “What?! Me?! But I’m not a programmer!” he said.
I explained that while this feels intimidating, it’s not that hard. You’re creating a “Hello World” program. In computer jargon, “Hello World” is the simplest possible program to show how to use a technology. By going online to sites like A Cloud Guru Joe could find step-by-step instructions to get this done.(2)A Cloud Guru (http://acloud.guru) has an introductory class AWS Software Architect Associate where you create a simple website as the first lab. The course is 10 hours long and goes through much more than this but just watch the first 2 hours and you’ll be golden. You can often find this class on Udemy for a discounted price of about $10. Much to his surprise, he sent me a link a week later that said “Rick is Awesome!” in a large font.
Curious people who get good at learning can do things that they never thought were possible. I learned this technique from my friend Larry when I was at Citibank. I wanted to learn more about parallel processing and how a company like Google could store massive amounts of data in the cloud and respond so quickly with search results. He said, “You know about technology. Why don’t you just download a small version of Google’s database, Hadoop, and see how it works.”
I was afraid to do it. I was a business person who hadn’t coded in 10 years. After finding a free online class on Udacity, I followed some straightforward instructions. After I was done, I could say, “I’ve installed and used a small four-processor cluster running on Cloudera Hadoop in a Docker container on my laptop.” It took a couple of hours to get things running but doesn’t that sound impressive?! It’s not that I did anything special or hard, I just let my curiosity overwhelm my anxiety.
“Learn and Be Curious” is about making things fun
Seeing something as exciting or intimidating is a matter of perspective. Imagine two brothers going down a water slide. The first brother looks at the slide and says, “Wow! We are 5 stories high and that slide goes right down. My heart is beating so hard, it’s practically in my throat. I’m so anxious and frightened. There’s no way I’m going down that slide.”
The other brother sees the same slide and says to himself, “Wow! We are 5 stories high and that slide goes right down. My heart is beating so hard, it’s practically in my throat. This is going to be the best thing ever! Let’s go down!”
Having a positive mindset is key here. If you’re tense and think of it as work, you get tunnel vision and focus on getting the job done. Selective tunnel vision is very important in other Leadership Principles like Delivering Results and Insist on the Highest Standards. But for this one, it’s about thinking more broadly and expanding your knowledge.
While it might be hard to see how you can make work fun, it’s easy to see the opposite—how we can make fun into work. The book The Inner Game of Tennis highlights how tennis can be a wonderful game of enjoyment, collaboration, and skill. But some recreational players take tennis so seriously and care so much about winning and training that they can suck all of the joy out of it.
Or take my friend Dan. Dan is a very senior person who’d managed to quickly rise to the highest levels of the organization. He worked hard and it paid off for him. He was telling me about his upcoming vacation to Florida.
“We’ll probably go to the beach and throw a frisbee around. It’s so frustrating though because my six-year-old doesn’t throw the Frisbee well,” he said. “I keep showing him what to do but he never gets better.”
I told him to take a different perspective. “Instead of seeing this as an outcome-based task, can you look at it as watching him grow up. It’s really fun and rewarding to watch him gradually getting better over time and see him grow up and get it.” That’s what learning is all about, not the outcomes as much as the journey.
Learning from Below-Average Athletes
When I was at Yale, I was surrounded by all of these amazing people doing things that I thought were impossible. There were great writers and artists writing books and putting on shows. I could never do anything like that. And then there were the jugglers. They would meet every Sunday on Old Campus and toss around complicated arrays of balls and pins in highly complicated ways. But the jugglers were an interesting brood, they seemed to have come into college without any juggling experience. They weren’t the sports types either. Though they didn’t have the hand-eye coordination to throw a perfect fastball (or any sort of fastball), yet they had no problem passing bowling pins and knives to each other.
So I picked up the Klutz Guide to Juggling and learned to Juggle.(3)This book, which started as a pamphlet to teach school kids to juggle, is the first book of the Klutz publishing empire. This pre-dated the “For Dummies” and “Complete Idiots Guide” series by decades. Judging by the title, they told me that anyone, even a Klutz, could learn to juggle. Learning to juggle is surprisingly simple once you put in the effort. I spent 3 weeks of evenings tossing balls up in the air in my room and could juggle 3 balls fairly well. I was so proud of myself that I told my friends. They all went through the same transition of:
- That looks really hard, I could never do it.
- But Rob just learned to do this, maybe I should try.
- It’s a bit of work but I’m making progress.
- Wow, I can juggle! I want to tell everyone about this!
Changing the World in a Small Way
A few years ago, I got into a conversation with a friend about the coolest T-Shirt I’d ever seen. T-Shirts can be a wonderful piece of wearable art. Here are a couple of fun things I’ve been wearing over the years:
My favorite t-shirt was classified as a weapon in the 1990s. I’ve got the full details on my website but here are the basics. The US Government was very protective of “strong encryption” the types of codes that they couldn’t break. As late as 1992, cryptography was on the U.S. Munitions List as an Auxiliary Military Equipment. As the internet started taking off, these rules seemed quaint. Strong encryption is core to the commercial internet. So in the mid-1990s, a number of computer programmers realized the issues of trying to avoid the export of an algorithm. They started playing games with export control, seeing how small they could make this encryption code, eventually getting it down to a few lines. Then someone realized that you could put it on a T-Shirt. According to the law, wearing the T-Shirt on an overseas flight or even showing the T-Shirt to a foreign national would be exporting a weapon.
Unfortunately, when the law changed in 2000 and the T-Shirt became legal, the T-Shirt went out of print. If I wanted the shirt, I needed to make it myself. This would be more work, but I realized that I had more control over the process. I could select my own design for the shirt and I could print it on high-quality fabric in whatever color I liked.
So then I needed to make the t-shirt. Most t-shirt printers want you to buy in bulk but Design a Shirt works well for one offs. Making the shirt is easy. I just uploaded the image and choose a shirt type. The benefit to making your own shirt is you can pay the $5 more for a super premium quality shirt. I also chose to pay another dollar to print the dolphin in blue. If you want to print the shirt, it’s still available on the Design a Shirt site.
The world needs more of these shirts—clever, interesting and pretty designs that tried to change the world.(4)I thought someone would recognize it when I wore it; however, even at technology events, I haven’t met anybody who mentioned it. I even added the last paragraph to the shirt to explain it to people. If you want to print one for yourself, it’s still available online.
Once I’ve started building things, it felt like I had a superpower. I could learn things that I thought were impossible. I could create things that I wanted and get them built. Now, instead of saying, “This is impossible,” I now ask the question, “How can I learn this?”
Building Your Learning Toolkit
My favorite tool for personal brainstorming is Mind Mapping. Mind Mapping lets you take an idea and explore it with various different subtopics and images. Instead of thinking linearly, you try to think as non-linearly as possible. So ideas EXPLODE from each others. Using images along with words makes it more fun and creative. Drawing pictures engages other parts of the brain, and partly just for fun.
Mind mapping was intimidating though—because I’d always been uncomfortable with my drawing abilities. Then I had a conversation with Katie, my wife’s 12-year-old cousin. Even at 12, Katie is quite the artist. Her grandmother, Margo, is an acclaimed southern artist who does beautiful work. We were having dinner a few years ago when Katie recommended some drawing books to me, by an author named Ed Emberly. Emberly’s work was just what I needed. He showed how to draw very simple drawings like faces or animals. My favorite is his book How to Draw a World which lets me draw simple figures for my mind maps. Others who are afraid of drawing tell me, “You draw really well. I could never do that!” But here’s my secret. My Ed Emberly drawing books are recommended for 7-8 year olds.
Exercises and Questions:
- What is something that you’d really like to learn but don’t know how? Can you work with someone to plan it and figure out how to get it done?
- How can you take something that seems that seems scary and make it an exciting adventure?
- Can you think of it in more exciting terms? Can you turn a bureaucratic task into a treasure hunt for information or a quest for the answer?
- Learn how to Mind map. If you already know how to Mind Map, draw a map of things that make you happy.
- Take a complicated and overwelming task you Mind Map it out in some silly little fun way?
- Think of something that you’ve always wanted to know and see if Google has the answer. The biggest difference between my mother-in-law and me when we run into tech problems is that I know how to Google for the answer.(5)BTW, Google’s head of search education has a bunch of resources.
|↑1||EC2 is a fancy name for a computer in the cloud. S3 is a fancy name for a piece of data that you store in the cloud. In an ironic naming twist. S3 is actually an acronym for Simple Storage Service which has gone from an approachable name to technical jargon.|
|↑2||A Cloud Guru (http://acloud.guru) has an introductory class AWS Software Architect Associate where you create a simple website as the first lab. The course is 10 hours long and goes through much more than this but just watch the first 2 hours and you’ll be golden. You can often find this class on Udemy for a discounted price of about $10.|
|↑3||This book, which started as a pamphlet to teach school kids to juggle, is the first book of the Klutz publishing empire. This pre-dated the “For Dummies” and “Complete Idiots Guide” series by decades.|
|↑4||I thought someone would recognize it when I wore it; however, even at technology events, I haven’t met anybody who mentioned it. I even added the last paragraph to the shirt to explain it to people.|
|↑5||BTW, Google’s head of search education has a bunch of resources.|