Learning by osmosis

Last year in March I was at the SXSW conference in Austin, and there were some heroes of mine that I wanted to study at a closer distance.

I got to spend a good deal of time hanging out around Tony Hsieh of Zappos, touring on his book tour bus two nights and ending up at his hotel room through 4 in the morning.

We didn’t exchange much more than a handful of words, but nevertheless, I felt like I learned a bunch from just watching him and being around him. The term I used to describe it was “learning by osmosis”. Just from watching him, my subconscious got a message that it could use to rediscover a lost part of myself.

Remember osmosis from your biology class back in elementary school? Well, at least I do. Elementary school in Denmark, that is. Osmosis is the process by which water is transported between cells, through a semipermeable cell membrane that only allows water to pass through, but not solids.

Then there was Evan Williams from Twitter, whom I did not meet (actually, I did, but we didn’t speak), but I watched the interview by Umar Haque. And not even in the same room. From a big screen in the room next door.

Nevertheless, I had the same experience that I could actually learn something from him, not so much by the words he said, but by the way he was being.

Turns out I wasn’t just imagining things.

In this excellent 1-hour audio program with Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) and Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline), they talk about mirror neurons, and they use my exact expression: Learning by osmosis.

And mirror neurons are exactly what’s at play here. When we watch other people, parts of our brains are automatically and instantaneously mirroring what’s going on inside them. How it happens, nobody knows. But it does. And this is what allows us to tap into the learnings of another person. This is what allows us to learn without words, if we let ourselves.

This is how children up to about 6 years of age learn. They don’t learn cognitively. They learn through osmosis. And they learn fast, so perhaps it’s worth it to try and do it even if you’re older than 6.

So next time you’re at a conference, let go of pen and paper and stop trying to record everything with your mental mind. Allow your subconscious and your intuition to just sense into the person on stage, and allow your body and your subconscious mind to just learn what it needs to learn from that experience.

I find that it’s a great way to access inner resources that you’d stashed away and forgotten about. You see them in others, and your body responds by letting you know, they’re yours, too.


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