Thomas Pynchon is a celebrated American author yet he titled his collection of early stories “Slow Learner”. Was Pynchon a slow learner? Clearly, he felt this way—and perhaps that’s a clue that being a slow learner is not entirely a bad thing. Dutch psychologist Coert Visser writes “I have an inclination to ignore advice and to do everything in the opposite way from how I am told to do it. Due to this I am often a slow learner (at least, it feels like that to me–other people are surprised when I say that), which can be a disadvantage, indeed. But the advantage is that I fully endorse what I am doing and learning and it gives a certain uniqueness to my approach to things.” For me being a slow learner is about questioning assumptions. Someone says “First, set up three columns” and I’ll be thinking “Could I do it with one or two columns? What if I had four columns?” As I ponder this, the class has moved quickly ahead to step 2 or 3 and I’ve yet to get my columns set up. One falls behind, but one does really learn about why the columns are set the way they are.
There is a parallel phenomenon in speed reading. If your goal is to get through a book as quickly as possible then speed reading makes sense. However, often the value of a book comes not from reading a page, but setting it down, leaning back, and reflecting on what the author is saying
Principles for HR professionals
The lesson for an individual is that perhaps being a slow learner is not a bad thing, not if the slowness is a result of wanting to understand a topic in depth. As an HR professional responsible for developing others, the lesson is that reflection and “playing around” are essential for deep learning. Given how much we want people to learn, this slow approach might seem counterproductive. However, if you look at someone like Pynchon, he not only learned how to write, he became one the preeminent authors of the 20th century. The time to do the learning was long, the quality of the learning was high, the results were extraordinary. And I wonder if this patient approach might not be faster in the end. If people deeply internalize learning, then perhaps it will last and not be washed away as the next new idea comes along. If the slow learner approach does make sense, then we should put less content in our workshops, trying instead to ensure that the learners draw everything there is to be had in the content that is there.
Your own takeaways?
What do you think? Do you feel like a slow learner? Is it a good or bad thing? Is there a deep lesson in this topic that can affect how we approach leadership development? (P.S. Coert points out that Charles Darwin was seen to be a slow learner, at least relative to his sister)