If you were anything like me, math class was painful, on a good day. Oh, if only fidget spinners had been invented back then. I can vividly recall discussions with my mom revolving around the question, “When am I ever going to use this stuff?”
Elon Musk knows why.
The CEO of Tesla and SpaceX was speaking at the International Space Station Research & Development conference in Washington, D.C. (a conference at which I’m probably not even smart enough to work the coat check room), and had this to say about why students are so bored by math:
You just sort of get dumped into math. Why are you learning that? It seems like, “Why am I being asked to do these strange problems?” Our brain has evolved to discard information that it thinks has irrelevance.
His insight for how to fix this problem has relevance well beyond that of ninth grade geometry.
He went on to explain that schools are not doing enough to teach why students are learning math. Schools should be providing context by teaching math within the context of solving a problem, like building a rocket, constructing a bridge, or taking an engine apart.
Then students understand, and this is the key, why they are learning math or physics (and will learn how to use a screwdriver and socket wrench along the way).
And that may be precisely why you aren’t learning much at work.
How many times has a leader put you into a new situation in which you were forced to learn, but the “why” was either non-existent or uninspiring. Learning how to run that new equipment, how to use that new software, or how to call on a customer for the first time just isn’t as compelling when the why is “so we can hit our numbers.”
As a leader, you have the opportunity to provide the context and the purpose for why you ask your employees to learn something (or to do anything, for that matter).
While children tend to be focused on more extrinsic factors for learning, such as being able to do what their friends do or to avoid being reprimanded by parents, for adults the motivation to learn is intrinsic.
Adults learn new skills to make them more promotion worthy, to learn how to solve a specific problem (problems that you can clearly outline for them), to feed a desire for an increased sense of competency and self-esteem, or to nurture a love for continual learning in and of itself. The point of learning for adults has to be clear and linked to their self-interests and/or what really matters to them.
In other words, learning should be linked to a purpose.
So if you want to turn your conference room into a classroom, share thoughtful reasons why. Ask for it if you’re the student/employee, and provide it if you’re the teacher/boss.