in Management

What 9 year olds do that’s worth billions to corporations

Olivia & her Rubik's CubeWork, even life, is a kind of Rubik’s cube. Allow me to explain.

I’ve never solved a Rubik’s cube. I’ve tried, of course. I turned it this way and that till one side was the same color. Then, frustrated and having no idea what to do next, I tossed it aside. I didn’t know anyone who had solved it either.

So it was with pride and awe that I recently watched my 9 year old daughter, Olivia, teach herself to solve the cube. In a few weeks, she went from not knowing anything about it to solving any cube handed to her. Now she just competes with herself on time. Her personal best is 1 minute 33 seconds.

The way she learned to do that – methods that can apply to learning almost anything – are worth billions to large companies.

Where to start

When Olivia wants to learn something, she expects that someone else has already shared something related to it. Her first stop is usually YouTube and it’s there she found the Simplest Tutorial for 3×3 Rubik’s Cube (Learn in 15 minutes) by TheSergsB.

She watched it and tried to follow along, making slow progress. Like any video tutorial, she’d pause it when she couldn’t keep up and would watch the tough parts over and over.

Neither Olivia nor SergsB think of what they’re doing as working out loud, but that’s what it is. SergsB is making his work visible, framing it as a contribution, and in doing so is developing a network (now 14,000+ subscribers and 3+ million views) that gives him access to other possibilities. Olivia started by just consuming that content, but then she took it a step further.

Getting better

Even before she could complete the puzzle, Olivia started sharing her progress with family and a few friends at school. We offered encouragement which further motivated her to keep going. Since she wasn’t competing with other people, she wasn’t reluctant to share what she was learning. The goal was simply to get better.

As she started talking with people about it, she learned about a faster model of the cube and met more people at her school who were interested in Rubik’s cubes. One of them was Amiri Bell, a fifth-grader who had won a local contest for solving 4 cubes in 7 minutes. Amiri also taught himself to solve the cube by watching a YouTube video.

Sharing practices

At school, Olivia’s teacher told her about the Rubik’s Cube club in fifth grade. Amiri was part of that club but so were people who were learning to solve the cube for the first time. It is, in effect, a community of practice. As the definition states, “It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.”

I knew Olivia wanted to keep improving her time, so I asked her what she would do when she got stuck. “Probably watch more videos,” she said. She also wants to learn to solve bigger cubes. The original cube is 3x3x3 and the biggest is a mind-boggling 11x11x11. That will be something she can get help with in the fifth-grade club.

Life is a Rubik’s cube

Olivia learns other things this way too. Whether it’s playing golf or playing cello, she benefits from studying the visible work of others, she shares what she learns herself, and she connects with others who are learning so they can all get better.

Now think of how people in your company learn to do anything. Is knowledge from experts freely available online or is education outsourced to a Learning & Development department? Is the opportunity to learn reserved only for those labelled top performers?Do people compete with each other based on what they know, thus suppressing sharing and learning?

If any of that is true, it’s a colossal waste of human and commercial potential.

We could learn a lot from 9 year olds. We could all work out loud, focus more on getting better than getting ahead, and connect what we all know so we can build on it.

If we did that, think of how much better things would be for both the individuals and their firms.

Get Free Email Updates!

If you enjoyed what you have read so far, signup now and receive an email every time I publish new content.

I will never give away, trade or sell your email address. You can unsubscribe at any time.

  • http://guylipman.wordpress.com Guy Lipman

    We’re living at a great time when so much information is freely available, and obviously learning how to access it and learn from it is crucial. But I believe the bigger challenge now (and differentiator between successful and unsuccessful learners) is gaining and maintaining the motivation.

    I love that you pick up on how essential connections to others are to that motivation. Even just the fact that you’re talking about your daughter, rather than some theoretical case study, makes it a lot easier to be engaged by what you’re saying.

    • http://johnstepper.wordpress.com John Stepper

      Hello, Guy. Increasingly I’m finding that the scarcest resource is not time or money but attention. Peer support featured in my last two posts and is part of the solution to helping me pay attention to things I say I care about. (Yoga and support from my wife might feature in a future post. :-))

      Making use of the knowledge available involves a set of learnable habits, as does creating that knowledge in the first place. It’s not the concepts of working out loud that will make a difference, it will be whether we can help people develop the habit of doing it.

  • http://houldsworth.wordpress.com Barry Houldsworth

    I frequently find my daughter working on a project of some sort with the iPad nearby displaying a YouTube instructional video, and I have personally solved work problems, fixed numerous appliances and performed car/motorcycle repairs with online assistance, saving thousands over the years.

    I really believe that the ability to use online assistance to solve problems is a class that should be taught in school, and giving back by sharing your own experiences should be part of that class.

    • http://johnstepper.wordpress.com John Stepper

      That is a great idea. Would love to teach such a class. I’m sure I would learn a lot!

      I was talking about these ideas with a middle school class on Career Day and they all had examples of how they themselves worked out loud or knew of people who did. At one point I asked them what they wanted to be and others kids suggested ways they could make their work visible and build a network. It was an impromptu working out loud circle before I even thought about such a thing.

      Nice to learn so much from kids. :-)

  • Pingback: What 9 year olds do that’s worth billions...

  • http://twitter.com/clayhebert Clay Hebert (@clayhebert)

    All education is now free. All you pay for is the packaging.

  • http://activatelearning.wordpress.com Activate Learning Solutions

    Great post! Yes I agree with everything you wrote. I see and experience it every day. In my spare time, I knit and I’m part of a knitters group (or three). Each of these groups share their work out loud through use of tools like YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest. All of them blog, all of them share their work on social platforms such as Craftsy and Ravelry. They have the added bonus of meeting socially in person for a more intimate gathering of sharing, showing, learning, promoting, acknowledging and encouraging each other’s work. It’s a safe environment to play and experiment with different techniques. This is definitely the way organisations consider how to have their people learn.

    • http://johnstepper.wordpress.com John Stepper

      Hi, Helen. I like the knitting club examples. They remind me of the wide range of examples in Jane Bozarth’s new book “Show Your Work”.

      We can work out loud without necessarily using social platforms at all. They just help amplify both our access and our reach. Without contribution, curiosity, and connection, the social tools don’t add much on their own.

  • brigit calame

    Thank you for this inspiring story, John! I love the way you connect work and learning. Learning is at its best and strongest when it directly relates to the work context and is shared in this work context with others in my view.. But I find there are a lot of mental barriers within adults within organizations to start doing this. Maybe related to the ‘knowledge= power’ thought, but I find it’s sometimes also related to inner voices such as ‘is it interesting enough what i wanto share’ or ‘won’t they think I’m stupid if i ask a question or ask for tips’. So yes there’s an incredible potential for organizations if employees would share their work and collaborate more, but somehow the key to unlock it has become a bit hidden in the ‘adult world’.

    • http://www.johnstepper.com John Stepper

      Thank you, Brigit. You’re right about all the mental barriers adults create. I see them in kids too but the barriers haven’t been reinforced by years of practice yet (to stretch the metaphor). It seems natural to wonder “Will anyone care?” and “What if I am rejected?”

      The only thing I’ve found that changes behaviors in a sustainable way is a guided mastery program over time. I describe it in a few blog posts and in more detail in the book as a 12-week program that gradually helps people develop new habits and a new mindset. To help further, Working Out Loud Circles provide peer support over those 12 weeks.

    • John Stepper

      Hello, Brigit and thanks for your comment. I also see fear as perhaps the biggest barrier. It seems natural that, we shrink from possible rejection or ridicule no matter how small the chance of that and how great the benefits. That’s why, to help people develop the habit of sharing their work, we frame it as “guided mastery”. We take small steps and get feedback along the way until we’re comfortable doing more. Then, inside an organization, we can also provide social proof to show that others are safely doing it and benefitting from it.

  • Pingback: “Nuevas” formas de aprender en el trabajo | Mariano Sbert

  • Pingback: “Nuevas” formas de aprender en el trabajo | Mariano Sbert

  • bruce galinsky

    Great work as usual John. Another example – when I was recently studying for the PMP exam I happened across several excellent PMP study guides that were posted on slideshare. People has created these slides for their own use, or their company use, and then decided to post and share so that others may benefit. It cost nothing for this person to post these slides and yet they i am sure they provided benefits for many like me, who were first looking to create their own study guide, or were trying to avoid the significant fees for training material.

    • http://www.johnstepper.com John Stepper

      Hello, Bruce and thank you. I like that example. It reminds me of examples in Jane Bozarth’s book “Show Your Work”, in which people worked out loud on all sorts of topics. My favorite was a woman in her 60s who, after hand surgery, started baking and decorating cookies as therapy. She simply chronicled what she was doing and learning and talked about her progress. That got others involved, including her own family, and her daughters wound up starting cookie businesses. Two of them!

      I hope to capture that sense of normalcy in the book. It’s not just for young people or self-promoters or networkers. It’s good for everybody.