The Best Way To Learn New Things

Science and business seem like two very different disciplines, but is the best approach to learning any different in these two fields?  These areas of life seem so unique, and the people in them can be quite varying (one with the nerdy pocket protector and the other dressed in the well-tailored suit).  However, both science and business require learning, and the best approach to learning in each is really the same.

Businessman-Nerd
The best approach to learning is generally through failure.  For example, Thomas Edison failed an astounding number of times before he invented a working lightbulb, and there are likely thousand of stories about how successes came as a result of many tries and many failures.

In many ways, this is really an application of the scientific method.  I’ve written a number of posts about Stephen Wolfram (such as using Wolfram|Alpha to look at your own social network, his views on big data, computing a theory of everything, and how he created his company).  In the effort to learn even more about how the world works, Wolfram has pushed scientific discovery to the next level, which he’s done with his book A New Kind of Science (NKS for short).

NKS, a discipline focused on how simple computational programs can create amazingly complex things, is really the scientific method applied by asking many, many questions and testing each question.  The nature of the problems being solved requires that more questions be asked and more tests be conducted.

Science progresses by asking questions and performing tests, and some answers can’t be found unless we ask the question.  NKS urges us to ask many questions and perform many tests, and in some cases, ask all possible questions and test each one.  Magical and amazing things can be learned as a result.

In business, Eric Ries has written up his approach to building strong companies in his book, The Lean Startup.  Ries’ approach is really the scientific method applied to business.  Ries (and his mentor Steve Blank) notes that a new business venture is really a temporary organization in search of a repeatable and scalable business model.  You can plan your new business all you want, but that plan usually falls apart as soon as it interacts with customers.

Ries describes how you have to pose a hypothesis (for example, customers are more focused on cost) and then perform a test to see if that is really true.  It becomes so important to let real data tell you whether you’re on the right track or not.  This may require performing many different types of tests and failing often.  Keeping track of these failures will guide you toward the best way to succeed.

A similar take comes from Seth Godin, master of marketing (author of such books as Permission Marketing and Tribes).  In this video interview, he discusses his book Poke The Box, and points out the importance of trying and failing in order to learn how to succeed – here’s an excerpt from the interview:

I’ve launched books that’ve failed.  I did a book called “E-mails Addresses of the Rich and Famous” – Roger Ebert got really mad at me.  I’ve made videotapes that didn’t work; I’ve made books that didn’t work.

My lesson was: If I fail more than you do, I win, because built into that lesson is this notion that you get to keep playing.  If you get to keep playing, you get to keep failing, and sooner or later, you’re going to make it succeed.

The people who lose are either the ones who don’t fail at all and get stuck, or ones who fail so big they don’t get to play again…

If you’re talking to a pacemaker assemblyman or an airline pilot, they don’t try stuff; they don’t say, “I wonder what happens if I do this,” and we’re really glad they don’t do that, because the cost of failing is greater than the cost of discovering what works and what doesn’t.

But almost no one I know builds pacemakers and I don’t know airline pilots.  Most of us now live in a world where the kind of failure I’m talking about isn’t fatal at all.  If you post a blog post and it doesn’t resonate with people, post another one tomorrow.  If you tweet something and no one retweets it, tweet again in an hour.  If you’re obsessed with doing what everyone else is doing, because of someone saying “you failed,” then you’re in really big trouble.

Here’s a quick overview of what we need to do – in science and in business – to help learn more and succeed:
  • Set a goal.   Decide what you want to do or what you want to learn.  In science, this might be to find an algorithm that performs a certain task or to develop a model that describes how something in the world works.  In business, this might be to come up with a product that serves a specific customer need.  This is the same as asking a question, such as “Will this model predict what happens next?” or “Will this product serve my customer’s need?”  In either case, you need to know what you’re trying to do first or what question you are asking.
  • Form a hypothesis.  A hypothesis is a statement that tries to explain behavior; it’s your belief about why something happens.  At this point, it’s only a guess, although an educated one, based upon your previous knowledge.  An example hypothesis might be “I believe customers will buy my product because they really want to protect the environment.”  How do we know if this is really true?  We’ll test it out.
  • Predict the outcome.  You need to test our hypothesis, which means understanding how feedback would come to you under two situations –  (1) if your hypothesis is true and (2) if your hypothesis is false.  This is a critically important step, and fundamental to being a good scientist or a solid businessperson.  I could probably go into a whole other post about how critical this is (and how some really smart people aren’t as careful as they should be with this step…).  Get really clear in your mind about these two things – what would the feedback look like if you are right and what would the feedback be if you are not right.
  • Try it out.  Create an experiment that will collect the feedback.  Ideally your test will give different answers if your hypothesis was correct or incorrect, and this way you’d be able to tell whether or not you’ve confirmed what you know.
  • Compare your results to your expectations.  Once you have your feedback – data collected from your scientific or business experiment – you need to analyze it to see if it confirms your hypothesis or not.   Is the feedback most consistent with your hypothesis or not?  If the data is unclear, try a different experiment.  If the feedback tells you that your hypothesis is wrong, great!  You’ve learned something you didn’t know before, and you can ask another question and carry out another test to learn even more.
Testing your hypothesis and having be incorrect might be considered by some as a failure.  However, without performing the test, you would never know that your insights was misplaced.  This “failure” is really one more step toward success, and as Seth Godin says, if you keep failing, “sooner or later, you’re going to make it succeed.”

This is really how we learn – ask a question, form a hypothesis, test it out, and look at the results – and fail often to get to the successes.

Question:  Besides science and business, are there other areas where you think the scientific method can be helpful?   You can leave a comment below.

I serve as Director of Data Science & Analytics Engineering at Areté Associates. I've also served in leadership positions with Elanix, Inc. (now Agilent Technologies) and Mentor Graphics. I live in Thousand Oaks, CA, where I've served the public as Chair of our city's Planning Commission and our county's Tobacco Settlement Allocation Committee. I have been married to my wife Stephanie since 1993, and we have a wonderful daugther Monroe. Learn more about me »

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