Knowers and Learners

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At breakfast earlier this month, my friend Roy Gilbert made an offhand reference to two types of people, knowers and learners. It was a distinction I’d never heard before. But I liked the idea of identifying someone as a learner, just because it’s so hard to make any change to our identity, unless part of our identity is itself a commitment to change.

At work I often marvel that the self-professed raconteur doesn’t become, for just one meeting, a sphinx. Why doesn’t the tried-and-convicted critic shock everyone just once with a simple affirmation? Why can’t I do these things? I don’t know. A few days after I met Roy, the great Twitterer Eric Barker pointed out a Harvard Business Review article, “The Best Way to Use the Last Five Minutes of the Day,” suggesting how we can become learners:

Every day, before leaving the office, save a few minutes to think about what just happened. Look at your calendar and compare what actually happened — the meetings you attended, the work you got done, the conversations you had, the people with whom you interacted, even the breaks you took — with your plan for what you wanted to have happen. Then ask yourself three sets of questions:

  • How did the day go? What success did I experience? What challenges did I endure?
  • What did I learn today? About myself? About others? What do I plan to do — differently or the same — tomorrow?
  • Who did I interact with? Anyone I need to update? Thank? Ask a question? Share feedback?

It’s a great essay. It reminded me of the advice that aQuantive’s old CEO once gave Redfin folks at a brown-bag lunch, that your competitive advantage comes from having made more mistakes than anyone else, that the most important behavior an executive can model for others to see is the admission that she’s wrong.

The Harvard essay, and many like it, are part of a culture of learning that has been one of Silicon Valley’s signal contributions to business culture. As the Valley’s engineers have become executives themselves, practices like group de-bugging and rapid iteration have become standard elements of business decisions as well as software projects. These days, even a Cleveland ketchup factory is trying to become more like a lean startup.

It wasn’t always that way, not even at startups. When I began working in Silicon Valley, startups were gladiator academies for ambitious young men competing to be the smartest person in the room. We were all knowers. The cult of precocity demanded that every entrepreneur have a vision of her fully formed company emerge like Athena from Zeus’s forehead, with a story of derring-do to go along with it.

Now with the emphasis on “pivoting” and “failing fast,” we all seem to have become learners, not knowers. Try to imagine a ’90’s dot-com founder admitting that his white-hot, world-changing company started as a desperate side-project to sell bedroom slippers with flashlights embedded at the toes. You can’t. But this goofiness is exactly what has made Groupon’s founder so revered.

There are, of course, drawbacks to an emphasis on learning. It can become a California-style narcissism, an extended adolescence in which no one is ever wrong, only learning. Executives feel blameless, even when their mistakes cost people jobs. They breezily refer to pivoting as if it were a nifty basketball move rather than a reorganization that involved a layoff.

This casual mutability is what Robert de Niro’s Jack Byrnes hates about Dustin Hoffman’s Bernie Focker, what Kantians hate about Hegelians, what standard-model physicists hate about string theorists: you can never pin down where they really stand. Their ideas are always becoming something else.

If you’re the one entrusted to make decisions, it’s important to get them right. But I still think that most folks are too scared of being wrong, and thus unlikely to make a decision at all. Then once we’ve made a decision, we’re too stubborn about sticking with it. That’s why my money is on the learners, and why it’s important to think of yourself as a learner, no matter how much you’re supposed to know.

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Chief Executive Officer

Glenn is the CEO of Redfin. Prior to joining Redfin, he was a co-founder of Plumtree Software, a Sequoia-backed, publicly traded company that created the enterprise portal software market. Glenn was raised in Seattle and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. Redfin is a full-service real estate brokerage that uses modern technology to make clients smarter and faster. For more information about working with a Redfin real estate agent to buy or sell a home, visit our Why Redfin page.

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