My early writing for Curious Lion was terrible.
I used to be a decent writer, back when I wrote about things that interested me. But I couldn’t find my voice writing about online training. Every other week I’d get a piece of content out that was as dry as the paper it was written on. As functional as the keyboard it was typed on.
One day I came across an online writing course called Write of Passage. It promised to show me how to write online, grow an audience, and establish a personal monopoly.
I signed up as an early adopter.
Thanks to the course, I started to write about things that interested me again. Only this time, they overlapped with my work. My personal monopoly was becoming clearer. I felt I had it!
But I didn’t. Yet.
I took the course for the first time in August 2019, but I skipped on a part of the experience. I’ll probably tell you I was too busy at the time, but the truth is I felt like I didn’t belong there. I was intimidated by the success of others.
Turns out it was the most important part. Taking the course again in July 2020, and applying to be an alumni mentor, is when I realized what it was.
Write of Passage isn’t an online course in the way I’d experienced them. There is a curriculum that you follow for five weeks. But it’s more than a curriculum.
It’s a community.
Perhaps I needed the responsibility of being a mentor, but I finally went all-in on the community. I reached out individually to each student who attended my weekly sessions to ask how I could help them. I gave feedback on assignments every night. I joined forum discussions, Twitter groups, and Zoom calls. I made friends.
Two huge things happened. First, my ideas flowed as if a levee broke. There is no substitute for sharing your ideas out loud and discussing them with others. Second, my writing improved. Feedback is the primary reason. Receiving feedback is a key part of my writing process now. You should’ve seen this hot mess of an article before the 11 (eleven!) people who offered to help out on Twitter got their eyes on it. You can thank them if you end up enjoying this.
So let’s talk about learning in groups. What is it that makes it so effective? And why did my experience improve exponentially the second time I took the course?
This is part one of a series. In part two we examine how to go about creating transformational group learning.
Who Should Read This?
This is for:
- Creators honing their craft through online learning. Group learning applies to any skill from writing to coding; from meditation to cooking.
- Knowledge workers who want to move up in their careers and take on more senior roles.
- Experts looking to fall in love with a new topic they’re still a novice in.
If you ever find yourself dropping out of a learning experience when it gets too hard, or you start a bunch of courses and never seem to finish them, then this is for you.
What Will You Learn?
Group learning is the key to unlocking your potential in whatever skill you choose to learn. We’ll explore why group learning is so effective for the individual. The nine reasons we discuss below are also benefits. Finally, you can use them to guide you in finding the right course for you.
But single-group learning isn’t enough; you need a mix of group types.
There are two types of groups for learning – Destination Groups and Journey Groups. You’ll learn what these are and why one type of group is better than the other for each of the nine reasons groups work so well. You need both types of groups to make a transformation.
We’ll revisit this diagram later in the post, but first, let’s look at nine reasons why group learning works, as these form the basis for understanding Destination and Journey Groups.
Why Group Learning Works
- Keeps You Accountable
- Learn More From the Struggles of Others
- Shortcut Learning with Mentors
- Keeps You Honest
- Closed Feedback Loops
- Build and Sustain Momentum
- The Power of Constraints
- Big, Hairy Goals
- You’re Not Alone
Keeps You Accountable
Do you take part in any group fitness? I did CrossFit for a while and rowing for longer. With rowing especially, I’d attend the same time slot on certain days. After a while, I got to know the regulars. We became friends. I remember one winter looking out my apartment at the grey slush we call snow in New York. The last thing I felt like doing was walking the nine blocks to class. But the only thing I felt like doing less was letting my friends down. I missed very few classes.
We show up for each other. If there are four people who you’ll let down if you don’t show up and bring your full self, you are more likely to show and bring your full self.
In my mentor sessions for Write of Passage, I asked everyone that attended to choose an Accountability Buddy. I wanted to formalize this aspect of group learning like the proper nouns in the previous sentence. I was a little nervous at first that people would balk at the idea of having to pair up. But my nerves were unfounded. What happened instead was a combination of finding out that some people had done this already and others jumping enthusiastically into pairs or threes to double down on the commitment they were making. It was thrilling! We’ll return to the concept of Accountability Buddies later in this piece.
Learn More From the Struggles of Others
We can shortcut learning with help from our peers, thanks to seeing them struggle.
In a fascinating study of heart surgeons, the researchers found that “individuals learn more from their own successes than from their own failures, but they learn more from the failures of others than from others’ successes.”
The authors of the paper point to Attribution Theory as a reason for this. When we make a mistake ourselves, we tend to attribute the reason for failure to something else, like luck. This prevents us from examining the failure to understand the root cause. When others fail, we don’t rationalize away the reason for failure. We’re free to understand why the failure occurred and open to performing the same task to test our new understanding.
Pay attention to the struggles of others. You’re bound to learn something.
Shortcut Learning with Mentors
What do Plato, Alexander the Great, and Justin Bieber have in common?
They all had mentors that guided their growth. Socrates mentored young Plato. Aristotle mentored a boy named Alexander who went on to conquer the known world. And Biebs had Usher and Scooter.
When you’re learning a new topic, you naturally have questions. You make mistakes. Sometimes you can continue without having those questions answered right away. Sometimes you can keep learning without correcting mistakes immediately. But most of the time you benefit exponentially from having your questions answered and your mistakes pointed out as early as possible. This is what a mentor does.
What sounds better: practicing for 10,000 hours alone and miserable, or working with a group of people, led by a committed mentor, determined to improve just like you?
Keeps You Honest
We saw how Attribution Theory can prevent us from learning from our setbacks. This is one of the many cognitive biases we have.
I’m a sucker for Confirmation Bias. There is no one better than me at finding a positive news story about a company after I bought their shares.
But when you have someone to share your ideas with, you are forced to be honest with yourself. On the many Zoom calls I’ve had since Write of Passage, I’ve chipped away at the learning flywheel, cutting away at the complexity I thought it needed.
Testing ideas in the open helps you see them more clearly.
Closed Feedback Loops
Group learning presents us with tighter feedback loops. As long as the feedback is constructive, we can use it to shape ideas, clarify explanations, and uncover unexpected outcomes.
Positive feedback is most helpful for novices who need it to maintain the pursuit of a goal. Negative feedback is actually preferred by experts, who are more concerned with evaluating progress towards a goal. Constructive criticism is simply more actionable than a compliment.
Regardless of the type of feedback, receiving it early helps you course-correct sooner. Choosing which feedback to implement and which to discard is a skill you can develop. Validating that with the group closes the loop.
Don’t underestimate the benefits of giving feedback either. I received this email from one of the students in my mentor group.
Giving feedback forces you to internalize concepts in a way you can’t when consuming them passively.
Build and Sustain Momentum
In their book, The Progress Principle, Teresa Amablie and Steven Kramer found that “of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
What does that mean for us?
They found that the more people experience the sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.
They identified two triggers for experiencing a sense of progress:
- Catalysts – actions that directly support work, including help from a person or group, and
- Nourishers – events such as shows of respect and words of encouragement.
Group learning is the perfect environment for catalysts and nourishers to kick-start your momentum. But what about sustaining it?
I saw how members of a group who have success are lifted up even further by others sharing that success. See for yourself on Twitter where alumni of Write of Passage are congratulated for their prolific creation of quality content and promoted enthusiastically by other alumni.
Success strikes when you least expect it. Having a group or community helps you sustain it.
The Power of Constraints
Group learning introduces constraints. You can’t work on anything you want; there needs to be some commonality with the group’s work.
Quick, try this experiment.
Tell me a story.
Not that easy is it? It’s too broad to be able to produce on the spot.
Now try telling me a story about a time you were happy.
Much easier right? There’s a place to focus. There are probably thousands of stories you automatically rule out. You can now bring creativity to your focus.
New ideas emerge easier with constraints.
Big, Hairy Goals
If everyone is reaching for the same goal, no one will stand out in achieving it. Competition in large numbers doesn’t just decrease the odds of winning. It creates underperformance.
We’re less likely to perform at our peak when we’re reaching for low-hanging fruit.
Groups push us outside our comfort zone, whether through encouragement or competition. We’ve looked at encouragement, so how does competition help?
For the answer, look no further than some of the greatest rivalries.
Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.
Often competing head-to-head, but also aiming for individual goals, these rivals used each other’s achievements at the highest level as motivation to keep working towards those goals.
The beautiful thing about this is that everyone benefits, not just those inside the group. Gates’ rivalry with Jobs pushed the tech industry to new heights. Agassi and Sampras inspired generations of tennis players and fans.
You’re Not Alone
In the age of stay-at-home orders and social distancing, Kurt Vonnegut found a cure for loneliness for us young (and young at heart).
“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”
Taken together, these nine reasons why group learning works well are also the benefits of well-designed group learning. Learning groups are powerful communities. You work together towards a common goal. You support each other and encourage free expression in the pursuit of those goals. You open up and get vulnerable about your journey. You celebrate each others’ success. You’re not alone.
Don’t Rely on Groups for Idea Generation
A quick, important caveat here. You are probably more creative when working alone. You need some time to generate ideas in the first place. Groups are notoriously bad for this. Have you ever tried brainstorming in a group? All the opinions, all the compromises, and rarely a stake planted in the ground.
You have to form your own opinion or idea before you can test it with others.
One Group isn’t Enough
So what made me skip out on part of the experience the first time I did Write of Passage? I was getting better at the solo work of writing, but I was intimidated by other members of the group. I never took full advantage of the community and lost out on the benefits we’ve just explored.
That’s because I was part of a Destination Group. There is nothing wrong with Destination Groups. But I was missing another very important kind of group. A Journey Group. Write of Passage finally introduced this kind of group in Cohort 5.
For a learning experience to be truly transformational, you need both Journey and Destination groups.
Two Types of Groups: Journey and Destination
BJ Fogg shared a unique idea for distinguishing between two types of group learning. He calls them Destination Groups and Journey Groups. I haven’t found much written on this concept, so I’m going to expand upon the idea here.
A Destination Group is a community in which the members are already doing what you aspire to do. The first Write of Passage had only this kind of group. David Perell led two weekly sessions where he shared his experience and ideas for writing online. David had 80,000 followers on Twitter and probably close to 15,000 subscribers to his newsletter back then. Fellow students had thriving blogs and hot streaks of newsletter writing I envied. David and those around me were already doing what I aspired to do.
A Journey Group is a community of other novices who want to make the change you want to make, and together you make this journey. Cohort 5 introduced this type of group with the alumni mentor sessions. We each led a session where our goal (which evolved organically as this was the first time we’d done this) was to guide students by facilitating discussions, providing prompts for self-reflection, introducing accountability, and answering questions based on our unique experience with the course.
The course evolved in two parallel tracks: the main sessions led by David (Destination Group) provided the frameworks, models, and aspirational examples for where we all wanted to be. The mentor sessions (Journey Groups) provided the support to tackle the mental and tactical steps for getting there.
As the leader of the Destination Group, David was the top rung of the ladder we were all trying to climb. As leaders of the Journey Groups, we mentors were the rung just above the students.
Members of both groups mostly started out as novices, but gradually leaders emerged to take on the role of teaching others or supporting them in their journeys. I introduced the concept of Accountability Buddies to formalize this evolutionary effect.
I asked each student in my mentor session to find a partner they would check-in with every week. I didn’t want to make it too onerous, so I suggested an early-week check-in to set goals for the next few days and late-week synchs to monitor progress and offer support. I wasn’t sure anyone would buy into this idea.
I was blown away by the response.
I had students ask me if they could have more than one Accountability Buddy. They formed groups of 3’s and 4’s. They met every day instead of twice a week. Evidently, my original ask wasn’t enough for them!
Students frequently tell me now that having an Accountability Buddy was a “game-changer”; that their engagement with the course sky-rocketed once they had someone to form a bond with.
Accountability buddies are the ultimate Journey Groups. Without them, many of my students would’ve fallen behind. Without them when I took the course the first time, I fell behind.
Why Do You Need Both Types of Groups?
Simply put, Destination and Journey Groups excel at different things. Having both types of groups in your overall group learning experience gives you the perfect mix of the nine benefits we explored.
Journey Groups, in which you’re working closely with others at a similar experience and skill level to you, are better for learning from the struggles of others. Your struggles are similar. By virtue of being smaller, Journey Groups are better for finding partners to keep you accountable and honest. Finally, you get much tighter feedback loops from close-knit Journey Groups.
In contrast, Destination Groups give you the ultimate shortcut to learning by exposing you to the ideas and frameworks of mentors you aspire to be like. Similarly, being around those you look up to can motivate you to set bigger, hairier goals. Destination Groups also tend to set the constraints around which the overall learning experience is built.
Both groups are equally good at giving you momentum – Journey Groups more so for building momentum through Catalysts and Nourishers and Destination Groups for sustaining success through the sheer size and reach of the bigger group. And, of course, you’re not alone in either group.
For a transformational learning experience, give learners access to both types of learning groups.
Find your community.
Look for communities that have both Destination and Journey groups. Seek out the topics you’re most interested in.
For those interested, my current online course learning stack looks like this:
- Building a Second Brain – the principles and techniques for digital note-taking and idea synthesis.
- Effortless Output – building on #1, this course shows you how to use Roam to build your second brain.
- Write of Passage – enough said.
- Performative Speaking – Write of Passage, but for delivering powerful presentations and speeches.
My stack is far from complete, but this combination of courses, and the communities that orbit them, are the reason I’m writing this article. They’re the reason I keep writing, and never feel like I run out of ideas anymore.
Seek out mentors and build personal relationships with them. Ask for their advice. Care about their lives too. You’ll be rewarded with all the ways we’ve seen you can shortcut your learning.
Pay attention to details. You and I could get the same advice from the same mentor or peer but one of us might miss the critical details. The other would be what Saul Bellows calls in The Actual, a “first-class noticer”.
Now go find your group.
Imagine what you can do with your new community and skills.
This is part one of a series. In part two we examine how to go about creating transformational group learning.
A massive thank you to the following passionate writers and learning enthusiasts for providing feedback on this article, and without whom it would be a complete mess: Jesse Desjardins, Nathan Clark, Andrew Marinopoulos, Paul LeCrone, Jenny Kim, Raghuram Sarangan, Ghislaine Guerin, Jens Bäckbom, Abhi Verma, George Diversiev and Abhishek Nair.