One of the core elements of the systems and habits approach to improvement is to constantly make adjustments to the way we live our lives in order to get better over time.
This naturally means that we have to keep learning and seeking out new information so we know where to make changes. Thinking systematically will help but only gives the general structure, not the specifics of each circumstance.
Therefore it is incredibly important to keep learning. As we learn our brain changes to match what it is we are learning.
In my office at work I have a picture hanging that has a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes that says, “One’s mind, once stretched, never regains its original dimensions.”
I have always assumed that quote was just a philosophical look at learning. I didn’t think there was a lot of truth to the fact that our brain is actually changing, physically.
In Brain Rules, by John Medina, the author says, “When you learn something, the wiring in your brain changes. Eric Kandel is the scientist mostly responsible for showing that acquiring even simple pieces of information physically alters the structure of our neurons. Taken broadly, these physical changes result in the functional organization and reorganization of the brain. This is astonishing. The brain is constantly learning things, so the brain is constantly rewiring itself.”
To summarize, he later states very bluntly, “The brain acts like a muscle: The more activity you do, the larger and more complex it can become.”
Yet most of us stop significant learning when we get done with school. Unless we choose a career in education, we shift to a mode of doing, rather than learning.
But what if we kept that thirst for knowledge alive? Can we step into our career with the same capacity to learn as we do when we are sitting in a classroom?
In continuous improvement, the idea is that we are constantly learning and gaining new insights. These allow us to constantly change. We make these small changes over and over and keep gaining new information along the way.
Peter Senge says that successful organizations have to become Learning Organizations. For an organization to succeed and compete in such a changing world it has to be able to acquire new information and change based of changes in the marketplace.
Senge says, “Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life.”
Learning is a major part of improvement. The two go hand-in-hand and when we shift to a mode of incremental improvement we often start to see a significant increase in our learning.
So when you set out to improve an area of your life, maintain a curious mind and understand that learning is just as important as any behavior change. Your brain will literally change and adjust based on what you learn.