Serendipitous Learning

One of the commonest but least useful questions people ask about learning is: "What use will it be to you?"

The plain answer is there’s no way of knowing in advance. Sometimes you find yourself needing something and there it is; right from an area of interest or piece of learning you undertook years ago with no thought it would ever be useful. I’ve proved many times that nothing I learn is ever wasted.

I am always finding past learning helpful, even in areas that seem of no practical benefit to my working life. Their commonest use is to spark creative thoughts and possibilities. Indeed, there’s a good argument creativity is mostly linking ideas that haven’t been linked that way before.

I’m a keen birder: a bird-watcher. Pretty useless, eh? Not at all. Listen to this.

Birders use a term called "jizz." It stands for "general impression, size and shape." I believe it was coined in World War II to help pilots distinguish between enemy aircraft and friendly ones. You only got a split second to decide whether to attack or not.

Anyhow, birders use "jizz" as a primary tool to identify a flying bird from a mere glimpse. It works because you build experience in what common birds look like. The more birding you do, the better you become at using "jizz." True experts astonish novices by casually glancing at a distant bird and saying "Broad-winged Hawk" in a bored voice. It’s not BS. They’ll be right 99.9% of the time. Why does it matter? So you can focus on unusual birds and "filter them out" from the common ones all around.

And what have I been able to link this to in my business life?

Using "jizz" allows birders to put their attention where it matters. They don’t get distracted by common birds and miss the rarity among them. That’s a great trick for managers. Use your experience to "filter out" unimportant data and snap right to the one or two things that are unusual and worthy of attention. Do it as birders do: spend time looking at common issues until you can recognize them at the merest glance. Good birders never say watching common birds is a waste of time. They do it partly from their love of birds and partly to tune their capacity to spot rarities by "jizz.".

By knowing about "jizz" I’ve also been able to understand you don’t need to know all about a situation in detail to see it for what it is and start work right away to deal with it. A quick glance at its "jizz" is often enough. How much use would that have been in the past days in dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? Suppose government agencies had taken a quick look, grasped the essentials of the problem and started on a relief effort well before knowing all the details. I think thousands of people could have been saved.

There are other links as well. Birding has taught me the importance of context ("habitat" in birding terms). Understanding habitat lets you know where to look for birds. Experienced birders see more than novices because they know where to look. They also know to rely on peripheral vision, because it’s great at picking up movement over a large area.

Good managers know where to look to understand what’s truly important in their business. They can also learn to use their peripheral management vision to alert themselves immediately to any changes needing attention.

So follow your passions. Learn all you can about anything that interests you. Never mind if it’s "useful" or "relevant." It’s all relevant. If you’re passionate about cats, learn all you can about them. If you love hiking, learn all you can about the sport and the places you hike through. Keep adding to your learning. One day (you can’t predict when, so don’t worry about it) it’ll be just what you need.

When people say they’re "out of ideas" or they’ve "got a creative block," what they mean is their minds have run out of fuel. Learning supplies that fuel. The richer your experiences, the more creative and useful the links you’ll be able to make between them. And the more likely you’ll be able to find the insight you need in some future tight spot.

Postcript by Rosa: You can always find Adrian Savage, our Guest Author today, within the right-column listing of our Ho’ohana Online Community. Adrian is the author of The Coyote Within. His ho’ohana is in sharing insights on how to survive and prosper in a harsh world.


  1. says

    Excellent post. Your description of “jizz” reminds me of Malcom Gladwell’s book Blink.
    I am a firm believer in personal development for personal development’s sake. Study what turns you on. Don’t worry about the application. If you are passionate about it, you will find use for it.

  2. says

    Adrian, this is a fascintating post! In the “new” science way of knowing, the world is governed by pattern, not by rules. Curiously,humans seem to be designed to be(maybe I should say “have evolved to be”, I don’t mean to imply I’m an Intelligent Design advocate LOL) exceptional at pattern-recognition, as your post illustrates. It’s this pattern competency that is a key to mastery…analytical capacity, while extremely valuable along the way or post-mortem for learning purposes, seems to be far less effective in practice, for birdwatching, managing, or coping with a crisis of whatever magnitude.

  3. says

    Wonderful post. Keeping our minds open to possibilities, serindipity, links, non-verbal cues, incoherant murmurings… all can inspire new ideas and fantastic results. Thanks for a truly fine article.

  4. says

    Carnival of the Capitalists – Hosted by Evelyn Rodriguez

    Rethink(IP) did such a fine job of presenting the Carnival of Capitalists last week that it’s a tough act to follow. Thanks – I think – for setting such a high bar. It’s always an overwhelming task to compile the

  5. Darcy Caldwell says

    This is an AWESOME article! Thank you for posting it!!! I am writing a piece to try to get high school students to appreciate some non-academic workshops our faculty is offering, and this article offers great fuel for the argument to learn for the sake of learning. EVERYTHING is relevant, after all. Thanks for teaching me about “jizz.” THANK YOU.