Fast Company

Ready Set Go

Ready for your next assignment, your new job, a sales call with a new customer, or fixing an iThing? Readiness has become the true test of learning.

My son hollers "Ready, set, go" before bounding down the hall as if he's both lone sprinter and starting horn, announcing to the world he's old enough now to run fast. When's the last time you took steps toward readiness prior to taking off?

My inbox contains reports on "organizational readiness," "talent readiness," "learning readiness," "e-readiness" and a "desirability readiness." In business, the readiness buzz often implies general preparedness rather than vigorously working through activities you and your organization are readying yourselves for.

While I can make a neurologically sound case for acquiring copious information (it builds the neural pathways which scaffold more learning ahead) your power to put knowledge into action at the moment you need it should be the true test of learning anything new. You're not ready until you've gone through the paces, adopted and adapted, and accurately perceived what the work actually involves.

True readiness comes from knowing in your bones you can meet the demands of new situations and adjust when you hadn't anticipated those spot on. It comes from moving past "I remember learning about that" to "This is like the time that other thing happened." It's how you learned to play a sport, drive a car, and get a date. How ridiculous not to first practice various scenarios, even if you can't think of them all.

Benjamin Disraeli, former prime minister of Britain, said, "One secret of success is to be ready when your opportunity comes." More than a century later, though, education programs (school and company training alike) frequently sidestep the messy business of actual readiness -- turning the knowledge you acquire into actions you feel comfortable with and adapting to improve while learning more.

Although it's unrealistic to expect yourself to feel primed for every situation, getting ready helps you to lay the groundwork for bouncing back and bouncing in again.

Practice makes possible.

When we lived near Atlanta I joined a beginners' tennis team. My husband was the coach so everyone assumed I'd play well. Ha! Frequently watching him play only proved knowing about doesn't easily equate to knowing how. Telepathy isn't a learning technique to count on. While I intellectually grasped what to do, I didn't improve until I put into practice the effect of moving in or standing back. It wasn't so much what I learned in practice, I was moving. I learned from my mistakes, with body parts not in my head, and I could feel when I was hitting and serving correctly. I'm still no Anna Chakvetadze, but I can play.

Practicing creates connections between body and brain to complete specific movement. It also helps establish the big-picture in your thoughts. Chinese culture values practice so highly the expression for learning includes two symbols: one for studying, the other for practicing constantly. Learning comes from activity itself, not reaching a goal.

Find the end at least once

Imagine moving to a new town and asking someone for directions to the nearest grocery store. People determined to foster your learning-skills rather than grocery-acquisition-skills might reply, "How do you think you get to there?" You might cycle through what you know about local roads, but you won't get a quart of milk. If, however, you were told to turn left at the first stop sign, follow that road to the traffic light, turn left and follow that road until you see the grocery, you'd be there in a few minutes. On the way home, because you reached the end, you might have the confidence to branch out, take a different route.

Although some argue that the more you learn up-front the more you can experience, I believe the more you experience, the more you're open to learn and the wider breadth you can accomplish. By working back from the end, you gain the skills and leeway to forge your own path.

Try as if you mean it

Innovative thinker Dean Hovey taught his daughter to ride her bicycle in under an hour. He put on training wheels so she felt how a bicycle maneuvered. Then he removed the training wheels and bicycle pedals altogether. Without distraction to figure out what to do with her feet, she gained the rhythm and sensation of riding on her own. When Dean put the pedals back on, it was only one small addition. Not much had changed, though now she could ride.

When you get ready, create similar conditions to those you're aiming to encounter, adding in each new factor slowly so you can adjust with each step.

Invest the time

Harold Schonberg, former music critic for The New York Times wrote about a European conductor who wasn't very skilled, who created fabulous music because he kept his orchestra in rehearsal for each concert for a full year.

You can acquire some proficiency at almost anything if you put in enough time. Ongoing trial and error expands the collection of mini experiences you assemble for new situations.

Seek direct experience

A few years ago I worked with a team of Scandinavian business leaders in the U.S. We visited a high school where a man asked, "Why aren't these students learning?" In the community where he lives, most teens apprentice to learn the skills they'll need to earn a living for the rest of their lives. Learning models vary widely around the world. The one most U.S. schools and businesses have adopted is usually talk-based, instead of hands on or based on direct experience.

Jump-start your appreciation and context for a task, if it's not too physically dangerous, by doing the work before learning all about it. When you get a sense of what it feels like to be in someone else's shoes you begin to establish the mental furniture you'll need when you begin to learn about the task.

Live the aspiration

Irish poet, David Whyte, tells a story of being a marine biologist, knowing in his heart he was a poet. A friend, who was a monk, visited David and they talked about his inner poet. The monk suggested each day David do one thing as a writer. He suggested David write a poem, write a letter mentioning he wrote a poem the day before, research the poetry market, read something on poetry, and do this for a year. At the end of the year, "You'll be a poet," his friend said. And David was.

To do anything new you need to pick the right combination of muscles for the task. They need to come on and go off at the right time, and they need to have the exact right intensity. That requires living through the initial uncomfortable moments and finding your pace.

Immerse yourself

I lived in East Africa during a year in college with a family who spoke no English. I needed to find the right words (or accompanying hand gestures) to convey meaning about everything from food portions and sleeping arrangements to washing my clothes. I also learned how to cook amazing meals because the women I lived with prepared giant feasts for marriage ceremonies in the local community. I had never prepared food for five hundred people; however I seemed to soak up everything I needed to know when given a large bowl, mounds of ingredients, and basic instructions.

By diving in, you feel the emotions around you, pick up pheromones from other people involved, and generally sense a situation more accurately than you could by observing from a distance. Although poolside antics are considered irresponsible, the "sink or swim" metaphor contains some truth.

Imagine

Charles Garfield, who worked for years with the astronauts at NASA, watched them rehearse everything in simulators. Later he studied peak performers, people who were experts in what they did. It struck him that they also used mental simulations, imagery to help them succeed. In the mind's eye they walked through every step of the complex processes and visualized both what there were doing and how they would do it.

Mental rehearsal establishes the pathways, associations, and connections stimulated by the real-life experience and triggers the same whole-body circuitry. When you then take action in the real world, you have a sense you've done this before, and can do it again.

Get ready or not

When it comes to readiness, each of us is like a hockey player as he skates down the ice, He's thinking, "Who is coming at me from the left, the right, behind me, in front of me?" These are the sorts of questions and messages that help us get ready to enter a foreign market, write a novel, ask for a promotion, master Ruby on Rails, or learn to be a good parent. You can prepare forever. To be ready, begin.

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