The Learning Formula

A number of years ago I came across a very interesting factor in the learning process. I was coaching a young race driver who, no matter how many times I told him what to do, he just couldn’t get it. So, relying on my knowledge of the “mental game” and on my study of sports psychology tactics, I felt he must not have a strong and clear mental image of what he was supposed to do.

The theory states that an athlete should do visualization of the technique in order to develop the mental image of the goal, and in doing so, he or she will perform it. I’ve used this process since I first read about it in an athletic coaching journal that I got from my phys ed teacher in grade 9, and I knew it worked. I can’t begin to tell you the number of hours I’ve spent since that time with my eyes closed, in a relaxed mental state, vividly imagining every last detail of what it was I was trying to perform.

Working with this young driver this day, it seemed that no matter how many times I told him to let the car drive out to the edge of the track and within a few inches of the concrete wall lining the track, he would not do it.

So, I knew that it was critical that he have a strong mental image of what he was trying to do, and therefore encouraged him to do mental imagery. He sat in the trailer with his eyes closed, imagining having the car come within inches of the wall. After a couple of 15-minute sessions, I could tell that he could see in his mind exactly where he needed the car to be. He had a very strong mental image of what he needed to do.

Back on track, guess what happened? He drove exactly where he had earlier. I was a little confused. After all, everything I had ever studied within the mental game and sports psychology said that all an athlete needed to do was visualize what he wanted, and his mind would take him there. And while all the research proves that this is true, it wasn’t happening this day. But why?

Well, maybe it was. It just wasn’t happening fast enough for me or my driver. Sure, racers are not the most patient people in the world, but neither are other athletes… and business people, and…

As soon as I asked him where his car was on the track, I knew that I was onto something. His reply was something along the lines of, “I’m not sure.” It was that moment where I realized that simply having a mental image of what you want to do is not enough, at least if you want relatively fast improvement or change. In addition to having the mental image, one also needs awareness of where you are right now in relationship to this goal.

That’s when I developed what I call the Learning Formula: MI + A = G. MI stands for Mental Image, A stands for Awareness, and G is the Goal you’re trying to achieve. (Sure, I know from a pure math perspective MI means M times I, but in this case I’m just using it to represent two words – my apologies to all the math-fanatics out there). What I’ve discovered since that time is that this may just be the most natural way of learning humans do. Definitely, it is the most effective.

By having the young driver tell me how far from his ideal image of where the car should be on the track, he immediately became aware, and within minutes he changed his technique to what I had spent hours telling him to do. Within minutes, he fixed the problem – the problem that I couldn’t fix by telling him what to do – by simply having a clear Mental Image of what he wanted to achieve, and Awareness of where he was in relationship to that image. It was as if his brain looked at the two – the image of the ideal, and what the current situation was – and said, “Okay, body, I guess he wants these two things to come together – do what it takes to make that happen.”

The Learning Formula applies to much more than just racing, or just sports. It applies to just about everything, and certainly to business.

MI is much like a business’s long-term strategy or business plan. It provides the goal, it provides the direction. A is much like a business’s short-term measurements: metrics, reports, key performance indicators. Without both the long-term strategy and plan – the Mental Image of where the company is going – and the short-term measurements providing an awareness of how on-target the company is in relation, it is doubtful the company will perform as well as it could. I will go as far as saying that the company has a very good chance of failing if it doesn’t have both.

When I suggest to business people that they need to have a strong mental image of where they are going, and of their long-terms goals, they often point to a strategic plan document and say, “We’ve got it.” The problem with most strategic plans are that they are fact-based. I’m not suggesting that is wrong. In fact, you need to have the facts and the details. But without the feel behind the facts, without the emotions, and without the behaviors, that’s all they are – facts. When a person, a team, and an entire company can truly feel what the future looks like, they can imagine the emotions, and imagine how they would behave when the strategic plan is being played out, big things happen. For example, a goal of $20 million in revenue is a fact. It’s could be a great goal for a company, but it doesn’t necessarily provide what people and teams need to perform at their best. Help them imagine how they would behave, how they would feel, how the company would act… when the revenues are at $20 million. If everyone in the company can imagine that, the chances of reaching that goal is ten times what it would be if your employees only saw the numbers – the facts – presented in a spreadsheet or strategic plan document.

And then be sure to build awareness of where the company is in relation to that goal. Use metrics, reports, whatever to ensure everyone is aware of where you are now.

Let me know when you have as much success with MI + A = G as I’ve had.

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