Learning What Can’t Be Taught

The example most people think of for learning is school. However, I’d like to argue that many of the features of learning in school are the exception, not the rule.

One example of this is that learning in school is almost always based on a standardized curriculum that teaches a heavily codified set of facts, concepts and skills. This is a necessity for the formal education process— it’s very difficult to train teachers and almost impossible to create uniform outcomes without articulating exactly what they need to teach.

However, the ubiquity of this style of education can create the illusion that most learning we want to do is of this type. Looking more deeply, it’s obvious to me that many of the things we’d really like to learn are not easily codified and so they’re not amenable to mass education.

How Did People Learn Before Schooling?

Interestingly, our stereotype of how learning works—standardized lectures, curricula and readings—is a much more recent invention. For the vast majority of human history there was no writing, reading and probably no dedicated teachers.

Instead people learned by copying. They found prestigious people and emulated their behavior.

Often this emulation was beneficial, even when both the model and the learner had no idea what the underlying mechanisms were for its usefulness. As Joseph Henrich documents, South American tribes avoided the scourge of niacin deficiency, common in Europe at the time, by cooking their corn with a bit of ash. This was a tradition passed down over time, probably the result of imitating healthier tribe’s eating rituals, but nobody knew the reason why it worked.

It seems this kind of learning was the dominant form of learning in premodern societies, which can help to make sense of how effectively people were able to live and survive in environments, even when their individual beliefs about the nature of the world seem almost absurd to us today.

Formal education came much more recently, but its prevalence now can create the impression that learning is mainly an activity of remembering things from books or understanding key, predefined concepts. However this wasn’t true for the majority of our history, and it probably isn’t even true today—we still learn most of what matters through some variation of the cultural learning protocol used in hunter-gatherer tribes.

What Can’t Be Taught?

Instead of equating learning with what is commonly taught in schools, I prefer to think of formal education as being the tip of an iceberg sitting on a far larger amount of tacit learning. This is knowledge and skills that we can’t articulate easily, but still make up useful knowledge for doing things.

I also think an inability to notice how large and predominant this tacit knowledge is can lead to a lot of frustration from students. They learn a lot in schools, but then go to work and find that they can barely do anything, and need to learn a completely new set of skills and knowledge to be effective.

Many of these same students then look back and think their education was a waste of time. In reality, it probably was as good as it could have been. The problem was simply that a lot of the knowledge and skills they needed to learn couldn’t be taught directly.

How Do You Learn What Can’t Be Taught?

I’ve thought a lot about how you learn this kind of tacit knowledge. Unlike learning from a formal curriculum, or a well-defined skill, there’s a number of problems with learning in this way:

  1. You might not recognize the skill or knowledge others possess. The environment is noisy so it can be hard to distinguish those with skill from those with luck, innate talent or other advantages.
  2. You might not even know how to describe what it is you need to learn, even if you can recognize it in others. Much ink has been spilled trying to explain exactly what makes Steve Jobs an excellent entrepreneur or Warren Buffet a great investor, and they’re far from isolated examples.
  3. Because there’s no books you can read or classes you can take, even if you correctly identify which skills you need to improve, it’s not clear how you do that.

These barriers mean that, unlike learning history, calculus or accounting, much of what makes learning tacit knowledge difficult isn’t even a problem for most learning tasks.

How do you get around this? I think the answer is to see what has already worked in our species for millions of years—finding prestigious examples and copying them. This may seem unglamorous, but it’s the mechanism by which you’ve already learned most of your tacit knowledge and how most of humanity has learned since the dawn of history.

Find people who have the skills you want to learn, observe them closely and copy their approach.

One of the major bottlenecks in this process is access to good models to emulate. Therefore, anything you can do to expose yourself to skilled individuals will accelerate your learning. In this sense, networking and mentor-relationship building can be seen as a core learning skill.

Another challenge is that much of the tacit knowledge that these models possess, even they won’t be able to articulate. Just as the tribespeople who mixed the ash and corn together didn’t know about niacin, many of the successful behaviors of models are learned unconsciously and can’t be easily justified by giving reasons.

This means that asking successful people what to do is less effective than watching what successful people do. Ask, and you’ll get a confabulated rationale for their behavior. Watch, and you’ll see their knowledge in practice.

Ultimately, I think most of what we need to learn to be effective in the world, even in highly technical, codified domains such as law or engineering, is in the realm of this kind of tacit knowledge that can’t be taught. Learning well in the world must deal with this fact. It doesn’t matter how good you are at reading books if the knowledge and skills you need can’t be found there.

Three Strategies for Behavior Change

Most of self-improvement boils down to behavior change. You want to exercise more, eat better, earn more money, learn a new language, stop worrying so much. All of it is a form of changing your behavior.

Looking around, there seems to be broadly three ways of changing behavior:

  1. Bottom-up
  2. Top-down
  3. Inside-out

I notice that people tend to stick with one of these methods, particularly if it has worked for them in the past. But, like all things, sticking to one method dogmatically may not be the best approach. As such, some people find some behaviors easy to manage and others feel completely outside their control.

In this article, I’d like to explore the broad outlines of each of these approaches and end with some thoughts about their strengths and weaknesses.

Strategy #1: Bottom-Up

A bottom-up behavior change process is the most direct. Simply decide how you’d like your behavior to be different and make it so.

Much of my writing on habit-building emphasizes this strategy. You start by deciding you’d like to exercise more regularly. You clarify the goal into a concrete habit (I’ll go to the gym every day for 30 minutes) and then you implement it.

Sometimes this process can be difficult, so you may want to pay attention to even smaller details of the habit-forming process. You may want to start with tiny habits and build up, you may aim to make the routine more consistent, you may want to condition yourself with positive reinforcement or punishment to strengthen the positive association with the new behavior.

The key to a bottom-up strategy is that you directly try to install the behavior you want. There isn’t much emphasis on the outcome of the behavior or how the habit changes who you are.

Strategy #2: Top-Down

Top-down behavior change takes a different approach: start with a goal or environmental constraints that will automatically cascade into a bunch of habit changes.

Undertaking the MIT Challenge was a powerful top-down driver. It automatically reorganized perhaps a dozen habits at the same time. I’d never try to tackle so many at once in a bottom-up fashion, but it was fine top-down since I only needed to mentally keep my goal in mind to reorganize all of my downstream behavior.

The challenge with a top-down strategy is that it depends a lot more on either having the environment force you to change (say by moving or changing jobs) or having so much motivation for your goal that you can obsess over it. Where top-down approaches usually fail is when the goal is only a minor interest, so it isn’t enough to summon up the energy to surmount the threshold for reshaping much of your life towards it.

Strategy #3: Inside-Out

Inside-out change happens when instead of thinking about your behavior or your goals, you make a conscious decision to be a different kind of person.

This strategy, when successful, can be the most powerful of all. Seeing yourself in a different way can often make your likes and dislikes change almost instantly, causing you to act differently as a consequence of believing yourself to be a different kind of person.

The problem with this approach is that it’s the hardest to will into existence directly. It can happen, but identity shifts usually don’t take place under your direct control. Just saying to yourself “I’m going to be productive” doesn’t make it so, and while writing affirmations may cause you to shift how you see yourself, the evidence about them is certainly mixed.

Another problem is that I believe people tend to focus on idealized versions of themselves that they want to be, instead of realizing that all realistic instantiations of their identity will involve trade-offs. Identity shifts happen when you want a new set of trade-offs in life, not because you only focus on the positive.

As an example of this, say you tell yourself you want to be the kind of person who always eats healthy—but then you’re also not the kind of person who relaxes with snack foods or eats a large slice of delicious cake. If you only focus on the positive it’s easy to imagine lots of desirable identity shifts. However, if you actually think about the real trade-offs, many of these are just wishful fantasies rather than real desires to be a completely different kind of person. If your real goal is some kind of moderation, I don’t think this strategy works well–better to go top-down or bottom-up.

However, I don’t think these difficulties in triggering inside-out change, should lead us to dismiss it entirely. Because it can often have powerful, lasting effects, even if it works less frequently, the durability and scope of the behavior change can be enough to keep it in mind.

Comparing the Strategies

My thinking process is usually as follows:

  1. If I simply want a new behavior (such as flossing or being more organized), and it’s not tied to an extremely compelling goal or project, bottom-up is the way to go. It has the greatest specificity but most limited scope.
  2. If I have an obsessive goal and many behaviors will fit into this goal, can I tie them together and approach them as a single unit? This has larger scope, but will fail if my goal isn’t obsessively interesting as much. I often try to jump-start this process by transforming more ordinary goals into obsessive projects, because I know I can ride the effects of these projects to catalyze other related behavior changes.
  3. Is the real aim to become a different kind of person? Not just a new, idealized version of yourself, but someone who pursues different trade-offs in life. If so, focusing on the identity shift may do much of the heavy lifting in shifting my behavior.

What about you? What is your dominant strategy for self-improvement? Share your thoughts in the comments!