Learning from experience 2: Experimentation

The major thing that has held me back when it comes to learning is not the discovery of new things to learn (I am all about discovery and new ideas) but rather the willingness or bravery to try my newly learnt things out in practice. I guess it might be because I am Swedish.

The second behaviour to learn by experience is to experiment and test your new skills – did you learn how to say Hello in Chinese yesterday? Go practice in your closest Chinese restaurant! If you just learned how to swim – plan a vacation to the ocean. Give yourself ample opportunity to try your new skills in new contexts and environments.

Experimentation should be the easy part of learning – that is all you need to do is to try, alter and test new combinations of what you have learnt. However, like me, a lot of people often hold themselves back because of fear of failing in their experiments – without thinking that failing is exactly what the experimentation phase is about.

There is a catch though – as in science, if you want your experiments to really count they need to be observed by someone else. Sitting alone in your bedroom trying to pronounce “你好” is of course better than just reading it in a book – however it will not a chinese speaker make.

When I was around 13-14 I learnt a lot of programming through experimenting by myself, I read all the books on programming in my local library and in the end manage to rack up the knowledge of how to write programs in 9 or 10 different programming languages. However, it wasn’t until my first programming job that I learnt about how to really make software. In this job I experimented a lot too (I was way in over my head – but I managed it) but now I had the eyes of the rest of the team on me – something that both gave me insight to my errors and my successes.

To conclude, make a habit, for each of the things that you are learning to write down 1-3 situations where you – in the presence of other people – can try this skill or knowledge out. Wether it’s a pub quiz night, the local Chinese restaurant or dinner out on town – just make sure you go public with your skill as soon as you can – if you fail, just try again.

    The Zone


    Fear the known

    “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek” – Joseph Campbell


    The candy-coated feared house of the known

    Yesterday (21st of July) was Belgium’s birthday, and unlike in the Flemish parts of the country, there was a big celebration in Brussels. They had probably one of the biggest fireworks (at least longest) I have seen and me & Alsu even manage to spot some royal handwaving.

    This got me thinking about nationalism and its evil cousin xenophobia. For those who don’t know Belgium has recently been in a flux becuase of the inability of the currently elected parties to form government. This resulted in relatively timid displays of nationalism – at least in Brussels where a lot of people still want Belgium to stick together as one country.

    Nationalism isn’t always as peaceful, and spurred on by destructive forces it can turn really bad, even in Belgium. Probably why it can be so destructive is because it stems from such a basic human emotion – the fear of the unknown. Almost all of us can recognize this feeling – when we find ourselves in a new country, or just in a different part of town.

    I live in the borders of the maroccan and turkish parts of Brussels (in total between 100 000 and 200 000 people, about 50% of the inhabitants of these districts), which I think is great. There is a mix and an energy I love – but most of all, what you realize, is that it’s just the same as anywhere else.

    However, a lot of people are afraid of these districts – I recently met a girl who just moved in to this area and she was genuinely afraid of walking from the subway after dark. The fear itself doesn’t stem from any factual experiences – she had never heard, nor seen, nor experienced any unsafety. Rather it was all about a sense of not understanding or not regonizing what was going on around her.

    Instead of fearing this, the unknown, I would say the opposite holds more danger to you – fear the known. It is when you are surrounded by the known that you are stifled, your creativity goes bust and you stop developing. In the known you are not forced to think new things, to react to unexpected situations – to learn.

    For me – I use the fear of the unknown as an indicator that I am on the right track – that I am challenged and developing. Whereas when I feel that comfortable, warm, fuzzy feeling of the known – I try to urge myself to run, a bit like Hantzel and Gretchen should have done. Because behind that candy coated house of the known there is a witch – and all she wants is to stifle your personal development – so get out of there as quick as you can!

    “Nothing in life is to be feared.  It is only to be understood.” – Marie Curie

    Learning from experience, step 1

    “The things we have to learn before we do them, we learn by doing them” – Aristotle


    Last weekend me and Allison travelled by car down to the French north coast – also called Cote d’Opale – a beautiful place of beaches and cliffs. We ended up taking a chance for a hostel (suspiciously cheap at €10 per night) in a village called Montreuil-sur-Mer. It proved to be a great choice as the hostel was located within the compounds of a medieval castle – which we had to ourselves!

    Staying a night a hostel in a small french town in a medieval castle was an experience that I won’t forget. One of quite a few in the past year. My work and AIESEC has enabled me to be in many places and meet a lot of different people – as well as do things I wasn’t prepared for. This has left me thinking many times – how do you make the most of these kind of experiences?

    Since a long time back (think Aristotle & Confucius) people have known that we learn by doing, by experiencing. In 1984 David Kolb published a book that has since shaped the discussion on the impact of direct exprience in learning – he created a model describing learning to start from experience, continue with reflection and abstraction of key concepts and then action or practical use of the learning acquired. As any model, it’s certainly not perfect and much can be said about it – but it does provide you with a framework to make the most out of your experiences.

    With this framework in mind I have three personal things that I try to do in order to have more effective experiential learning in my life. The first of which I’ll share today.

    1. Seek out new things to learn – and never stop! Stimulate your divergent thinking by being in new and unexpected places. I find travelling for me, like our trip to France, is a way of discovering new and unexpected things to learn and try to understand- but your ways will of course differ.

    The key is simply to always be curious and try to go deeper, understand better and look at it from a new light. If you find yourself ever thinking “that would be cool to do” – then write it down and make a deal with yourself to go ahead and try. This type of experimentation got me to try things like hang gliding, not me in the video (I saw it on a Discovery show, wrote it down and then tried it) – a sport I would really like to take up for real.

    “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.” – Confucius

    Btw. today is a good day to start.

    Change the world through business

    Noko Jeans a Swedish company trying to set up export of Jeans from North Korea is just this type of business. They have decided to try the feat of producing jeans in and then exporting them from North Korea.

    Health advice for the lucky 5 billion


    Two liters of water per day

    In Brussels, as most places outside of the Nordic countries, you can’t drink water out of the tap. This is probably one of the most major things I would miss from Sweden. So you buy your water from one of the mind-boggling selection of brands available. However, buying water in bottles has one benefit: you can easily measure how much you drink.

    A male between 19-30 years old (that’s me!) needs about 3.7 liters of water per day. Discounting for the amount of water from food, the metabolism and other sources – you’re left with about 2 liters of water per day to drink. This means two bottles per day – easy to measure and track. So, now I’ve got a new goal.

    This is a great health advice of course, however 1/6th of the world’s population or 1.1 billion people can’t take this advice – they simply don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water.

    Over the past few days I’ve been reading “The next 4 billion” a study of the Base of Pyramid market (the 4 billion living on less than $3000 in local purchasing power), where they’ve amongst other studied the water market. This reading gives you a lot of insight into how to understand the developing world from a market based perspective.

    Today, still, most people in for example Africa relies on surface water – which might seem free but has a hidden cost in terms of disease and death (3800 kids per day). However even excluding these people, the worldwide water market in the BOP is estimated at $20.1 million (international dollars – not the US ones). This is clearly a space for more entrepreneurs to start creating new business models and technology – the economic returns could be huge.

    Making every day a divergent day


    This weekend was a busy one, but yet quite relaxing. Me and Alsu took some time for shopping, we watched two interesting movies (I am from Titov Velves, Slovenia/Macedonia and Nirvana, Russia), saw fireworks celebrating the launch of square Flagey (a lot of fuss about a square), visited the Brussels’ bazaar (it’s huge!), worked on the plan for our English education project and also had some time for just relaxing in bed.

    The varying activities this weekend got me thinking about creativity, or with a fancier word, divergent thought. Last year I read a lot about creativity and the thing that struck me as most important was that it is born out of being exposed to new and varying things. These create new, unique associations in your brain and will allow you to be creative.

    The innovation conference TED relies on this – the mix of different disciplines and schools of thoughts, exposure to new things in order to create new insights. It has been

    Three things I think can stimulate creativity every day:

    1. Go someplace you haven’t been, preferrably where you feel slight discomfort (the bazaar for me)
    2. Meet someone who is very different from yourself (try different religion, background, job)
    3. Do something you’re afraid of doing or can’t understand (say, watch football, go skydiving or go to a ballet)

    The only catch is – you need to keep finding new things, because new activities, people and places are all like the fruits I bought at the bazaar – only fresh and exciting for a short time.

    Productivity: 6 steps I took to make peace with my Gmail

    My GMail Inbox used to be horrible. I had probably 9-10 000 e-mail messages floating around that I never did anything about and new messages could easily get lost in the huge pile of read, replied, not read e-mail messages I had.

    I tried several different systems with labels and stars but nothing stuck – and the sheer amount of new e-mails I got made any attempt at cleaning up regressing quickly. I found myself “spring cleaning” every now then only to see it all slide back into chaos.

    Until I read about GTD and the way that this methology suggests you deal with incoming flows of information. So here’s a simple guide how I achieved e-mail peace of mind.

    1. Empty your Inbox
    Archive or Delete everything you have in your Inbox right now. Don’t keep a single message.

    2. Stop reading your e-mail constantly
    Visit your Inbox three times per day – at most.

    3. Create some labels
    I decided to only have these labels (and no others – better avoid complexity):
    today, tomorrow, this week, next week, someday and mailing lists. Their usage will become clear later on.

    4. Auto-archive all mailing lists, frequent mailers etc.
    Get your Inbox as clean as possible, for all those mailing lists or mailers, I create a filter and I chose to put the mailing lists label and also “Skip the Inbox” so I only see them under the mailing lists label.

    5. Process your Inbox completely

    Every time you visit your Inbox, go through your e-mails one at a time and go through all e-mails. For each e-mail take one of the following actions:

    Trash it:
    If it’s not important (spam, mailing lists, whatever)

    Archive it:
    If you want to keep it for later but it doesn’t require action

    Store it for later:
    Put that “someday” or “later” tag on it if it doesn’t require any action irhgtn ow.

    Do it:
    If it takes less than 2 minutes to reply just do the action required for the e-mail and then Archive it.

    Delegate it:
    Hit that forward button! If it’s not you how should do it forward it immediately. Then Archive it.

    Defer it:
    If you don’t want to do it now set a date when you do it. Now use your labels to set when you do it.

    6. Process your labels

    Now everyday make sure to process your labels. Take the “today” label first, finish that. By the end of the day make sure to move all the mails from “tomorrow” to “today”.

    Weekly, move your “next week” mails to “next week” and so on.

    And that’s it. This is all you need to make peace with your Inbox. Try it out with your GMail first and then try to apply it to other Inboxes in your life – like your voice mail or your regular (paper) mail.

    Remember – after each time you check your e-mail it should be completely empty. I mean it – not a single message should be unhandled. Don’t let any e-mail stay in the INBOX after you’ve processed it, and always process all e-mails from top to bottom.

    Urban waste management


    Mondays are garbage collection days on my street in Brussels and they are also a good day to think about sustainable practices for the coming week. Garbage in Brussels is collected in 3 differently coloured plastic bags (actually 4 but one is only for organic waste from household gardens). The three bags separates plastic packaging (blue), paper and cardboard (yellow) and all other waste (white). There’s a fine that can be imposed for sorting stuff incorrectly – however my street seems not to have bothered much about the potential for a fine, the street is usually only filled with white bags…

    This illustrates one of the problems with sorting at source – that it can be hard to get the general population to sort out their garbage properly. My hometown of Södertälje achieved over 90% of recycling (that is only 10% going to landfill) by using a system with only two bags – green for organic and any other bag for other stuff. The system uses infrared light to sort out green from other bags and then a mix of automatic (vibrating drums, eddy currents and the like) and manual (people) sorting to separate the “other” material. Companies like Wastetec in the UK hopes this is the solution to UKs horrible recycling record.

    If you like me, think waste management is more exciting than football, then a nice overview can be had over at BBC and a google on “solid waste management” brings up a lot of interesting articles, mostly related to projects in developed countries. For the full developing country perspective – World Bank has a lot of resources.