In October 1911, explorers Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott started one of the most daring races in the history of mankind—they began a 1400 mile round trip voyage to the South Pole. Amundsen led one team and Scott the other. Only one of these parties would return from their journeys. Both men were close in age and had the same amount of experience, but their results were tragically different.
According to Jim Collins, the author who studied this epic race in his book Great by Choice, the key difference was in discipline. Amudsen took a highly disciplined approach with the journey. The goal for him and his team was to travel 20 miles every day. Whether the weather conditions were good or bad, he kept his team focused on moving 20 miles. In comparison, Scott pushed his team to exhaustion on clear days, and would wait out the days with poorer conditions in their tents.
In the starkest showing of discipline, on December 12, 1911, Amudsen and his team were only 45 miles away from the Pole. The conditions were good and the team was eager to push through to the finish, hoping to travel 25 miles that day and ensure they arrived before Scott’s team. Amudsen’s decision? To go just 17 miles that day.
Over the course of the journey, Amudsen and his team consistently traveled 15-20 miles a day and arrived at the pole on December 14, 1911—five weeks ahead of Scott’s party.
The Inner Game of Learning
We can learn a lot from Amundsen’s “20-mile” approach and specifically apply it to the inner game of learning.
The inner game, in this context, is how we can control our mindset and our strategy when we approach learning something new. Typically, when we get set to learn something, the challenge is not with the content but the process in which we go about it. There’s already a ton of great content out there that can make a significant difference, but many of us fail in the learning and application of it.
While most of us probably won’t embark on a life-or-death learning journey in our lifetimes, what we learn and how we learn things can make a substantial impact on our personal and professional lives. Here are a few ways you can step up your inner game in the learning process.
Chart The Course
Recently, I’ve been considering taking a part-time course to level-up my skills. With a ton of options available, from eLearning modules to Mastermind Programs to university courses, I was left paralyzed by the number of potential choices. Each option had both pros and cons, and there was really no way of deciding which would be the best choice for me, short of having a crystal ball. So I decided to frame things differently:
Based on my personal and professional goals, what was the best direction to head in?
Instead of imagining my part-time course as taking me in a straight line from point A to point B, I imagined it as a direction. If I were sailing a ship, I’d know where my destination port would be, but how I’d get there would depend on the weather, the crew, and a myriad of other external factors. By choosing the direction that I felt most comfortable going in, I gave myself the confidence of knowing that one way or another I’d arrive at the right destination—and immediately felt less pressure to map out the perfect route.
This approach also encourages me to anticipate challenges before they occur. As the ancient Stoic, Seneca, once said, “the man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.”
We might not know exactly what type of challenges may come our way during the learning process—it could be an increase in workload, unexpected financial difficulties, or any number of other issues. But knowing that problems will arise, one way or another, helps us be on guard for when the time comes. If something sets you off course in your journey, get back on track as soon as you can.
Measure Your Effort, Not Your Results
There’s a popular folklore in the comedy world about a young comedian who approached comedy legend, Jerry Seinfeld, and asked for advice on how to achieve success. Seinfeld’s advice? Grab a calendar, put it up on the wall, and commit to writing one joke each day. For every day that the young comedian wrote a joke, Seinfeld told him to put an “X” through that day on the calendar.
The point of the exercise? With each X that goes up on the calendar, the young comedian would build momentum with the habit of writing jokes each day. Intuitively, it would become harder to break the habit because of the time and energy it took to build a streak.
Measuring progress and building momentum is critical for the inner game of learning. When you can see the progress and build momentum in the learning process, you stay motivated and excited about building off of it.
So how can you measure your learning progress?
In his 2015 best seller Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts—Becoming the Person You Want to Be, renowned executive coach Marshall Goldsmith explains how he creates lasting behavior changes with his clients by applying active questions. At the end of each day, asks his clients to answer questions starting with the phrase “Did I do my best today to…” followed by behavior change goals like “eat a healthy diet” or “build positive relationships.” The client then rates themselves on a scale of 1-10 for how much effort they put into that specific area that day.
Goldsmith collected data over the course of 79 studies with a total of 2,537 participants who asked themselves six standard questions. The results are compelling: 89% of participants saw improvement in at least one item, 65% improved in at least four items, and 37% enjoyed improvement in all six items.
It’s important to emphasize that effort and not the result was measured. When one measures effort, they measure what is in their control. Regardless of what happened that day, whether it was an irate boss or bad weather conditions, effort that was put in can be measured and tracked consistently, even if results vary.
Amundsen’s 20-mile approach did not always lead to 20-miles. In the end, his team averaged between 15-20 miles. Inclement weather, fatigue, and difficult trails inevitably led to shorter days. But there’s no doubt that Amundsen focused on the effort and kept his team moving each day.
Build In Reflection Points
Whether the learning objective is short-term or long-term, building in reflection points is crucial for tracking progress and determining whether a course correction needs to take place.
At Actionable, we use our Actionable Conversations platform to guide our behavior change goals. The “Closing The Loop” questions that users are asked at the end of the 30-day behavior change tracking are a critical component of the learning process. Here are a few questions that we get prompted to answer:
- Reflect on your thinking, learning, and work on this commitment. What are you most proud of?
- Where did you encounter struggle during the process, and what did you do to deal with it?
- Where did you meet success, and who might benefit most from what you’ve learned along the way? How can you share this with them?
- On a scale of 1 – 10, do you feel you’ve created a new habit through this process?
- Even though the formal check ins on this commitment are now complete, the growth certainly doesn’t have to end! How do you plan to continue to improve this area of your life?
These thought-provoking questions can help clarify how much progress has been made, and prompt ideas about how to continue to make improvements.
Depending on your learning objectives, you may want to consider daily, monthly, or quarterly reflection points to help guide your learning process. Building them into your schedule ahead of time and having a set number of questions to ask yourself can help you overcome inertia and start the reflection process.
Amundsen’s crew was no different in incorporating these reflection points. Meticulous notes were taken in his journal about the conditions, the team, the dogs, the equipment, etc. to ensure that the current situation was clear, which then helped him to inform future decisions.
At 4 a.m. on January 25, 1912, Amundsen and his crew returned to their base camp. It was a grueling trip—only 11 of the 52 dogs that started the journey survived. It took Amundsen’s team 99 days—10 days fewer than scheduled—with no human casualties. Tragically, all members of Scott’s party perished on the return leg of their journey—only 150 miles away from basecamp. Amundsen’s steady, consistent approach gives us a model for approaching any learning journey we want to pursue, while Scott’s approach provides a warning about the dangers of working in fits and starts, only making progress towards our goals when the conditions are favorable.
As renowned motivational writer and author, David J. Schwartz wrote in his book, The Magic of Thinking Big: “Invest in education. True education is the soundest investment you can make in yourself.” There are few things in life that will have such clear ROI as investing in education and learning for ourselves. It’s why successful people like Warren Buffett and his business partner, Charlie Munger, read at least 500 pages per week.
As you embark on your learning journey, take a moment to prepare your inner game and invest your time in the process. It won’t always be easy but it’ll be damn well worth it when you reach your destination.