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Learning from Others

Posted by on Oct 19, 2012 | 6 Comments

I waste a lot of time on Facebook. Most of the time is spent posting and responding to the relatively controversial topics of the day.


It’s an opportunity to learn from people that have a different perspective.

To the outsider, it may appear to be senseless arguing. In reality, it’s a deliberate attempt to elicit explanations and justifications for opinions and beliefs to develop understanding and empathy. This ranges from the political to the social, from the mundane to the most important topics of the day.This also includes a healthy dose of running–related discussions.

For example, I recently started a discussion about the role of gravity in forward motion. Ken Schafer, Damian Stoy, Curb Ivanic, Cory Torkelson, and a few others discussed the issue at length. Each of us came from a slightly different philosophical background (Pose, ChiRunning, barefoot running, etc.), which led to an awesome discussion. While we didn’t agree, my own understanding of running increased.  The value of such interactions cannot be overstated.

Another example- at last year’s New York City Barefoot Run, a bunch of us “experts” held public clinics and engaged in a lot of discussion. I was disappointed to see most of the “experts” professing their particular brand of barefoot running without really listening to their clinic attendees (or fellow experts). We all had slightly different opinions on the topic and it should have been an awesome opportunity to learn. Instead it felt more like a combination between a college lecture hall and an infomercial.

How to Learn from Others

So how do you go about tapping into the vast knowledge base of the people around you? Here are some tips:

  1. Check your ego at the door. Funny thing about humans- we all think we’re slightly above average. This leads us to a belief that our thoughts and opinions are correct because we have special insight the average person doesn’t have. This leads us to think and say things like “I’m surrounded by idiots!” This sets us up to automatically dismiss the opinions of others. To guard against this, I always assume I’m the dumbest person in a discussion. This leads me to seriously consider the opinions of others, even if I vehemently disagree.
  2. Be open to all possibilities. I like religious debates… mostly because people talk about religion as if we have indisputable facts backing up our particular beliefs. Atheists will insist there is no God. Christians will insist there IS a god. Is there indisputable proof of either? Nope. There’s a chance either side could be right. Or both could be wrong. What if the Norse had it right and there’s a bunch of gods? I have quite a few strongly-held beliefs… but I’m always open to the possibility that I’m wrong. Be open to dissenting thoughts and ideas no matter how outlandish.
  3. Don’t be so damn defensive! Building metaphorical walls may protect your fragile opinions, but they also work to keep you from learning.
  4. Don’t judge morality. More specifically, don’t automatically apply your moral code to others. Some people may have an option that fits their particular moral code. Understand that others come from different backgrounds.
  5. Be aware of the in-group/ out-group bias.. We like people that are similar to us; we consider them to be part of our “in-group.” This includes people with similar beliefs. We tend to gravitate toward people that are part of our in-group and treat them better than ‘outsiders.” This makes us less likely to take the thoughts and opinions of out-group members seriously. Resist that urge and seek out people with divergent thoughts, opinions, and backgrounds.
  6. Be aware of the fundamental attribution error. We tend to chalk up our successes to our internal dispositions (we’re a good, smart, rational, hard-working person) and our failures to external events (the sun was in my eyes, that teacher hates me, someone gave me contaminated food at the aid station). We do the opposite with other people… we assume their successes are the result of luck, chance, or the influence of outside forces. We assume their failures are the result of their actions, personality, etc. This skews our ability to learn from their successes and failures.
  7. Be aware of the confirmation bias. Once we decide on an opinion, we seek out information that “proves” we’re right (concept known as the egocentric bias). We also tend to ignore information that “proves” we’re wrong. This filter is EXTREMELY powerful. For example- most barefoot runners agree barefoot running reduces injuries. However, we focus on the people that have successfully overcome injuries via barefoot running while ignoring people that have gotten injured barefoot running. In essence, we like to be right. This leads us to filter incoming information appropriately. To overcome this, actively seek out information that conflicts with your world view. This is the reason I engage in so many discussions with barefoot running skeptics… it helps offset the confirmation bias.

Following these seven tips will help you learn from others more effectively. If you find someone that disagrees with you, instead of trying to persuade them over to “your side”, think of it as an opportunity to learn something new. You’ll find it’s an enriching experience.



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  1. Trail Clown
    October 22, 2012

    (1) It’s not humanly possible to check one’s ego at the door. We cannot rid ourselves of our ego. And by boasting of being the dumbest, you are actually claiming to be the smartest.

    (2) The truth actually lies in a realm we cannot access as humans. God versus No-God is a dualistic argument…there can be no winner in that argument because the truth is not a dualistic one.

    (3) Don’t be so defensive about people who are defensive!

    (4) Your viewpoint is that morality is “all relative”. Actually morality is the one part of life where not being open to all possibilities is probably a good idea.

    (5) You can’t pick your parents…our original in-group. Snowballs from there as we grow up. Hard to break that part of our nature. Millions of years of history tells me we won’t be breaking that habit anytime soon…

    (6) I’d actually rather be lucky than good…

    (7) Again, hard to break the egocentric filter. But of all of these 7, this one (#7) is the one I do think is most important to be aware of in one’s own daily life…

  2. Geoff
    October 20, 2012

    One thing is indisputable in life though: The older I get, the more I realize how little I can be certain of!

  3. squirrel
    October 20, 2012

    One more thing to remember is that often times the beneficiary of the debate won’t be you or the person you’re debating but the public, the onlookers, those who may not have an opinion formed or are new to the subject. I try to keep that in mind when I debate people that are intractable, that won’t budge from their positions even though they’ve been proven wrong time and again. Religion, politics, barefoot running are obvious examples. So when I’m about to throw my hands up in the air and walk away, I remember that I’ve benefited many times from the patience of others and watching debates on difficult topics, letting others butt heads, has helped me learn a lot.

  4. Bare Lee
    October 20, 2012

    The trick is to find the right interactive software when interacting discursively:

    coffee for science;

    tea for politics;

    *** for religion & art;

    beer for sports; and

    wine for most other topics.

    All lot of arguments could be avoided by following this simple schematic.

  5. Ken S.
    October 19, 2012

    Hi Jason,

    Could I add some more items to your list?

    1) Define exactly what you are debating, or exactly what the source of your disagreement is.

    2) Make sure everyone involved has a common understanding of all terminology. I’ve seen a lot of debates go nowhere because people didn’t realize they were using the same terms in different ways.

    3) It helps break the disagreement down as much as possible, and start with the most fundamental elements.

    4) Remember, in the end, the outcome won’t matter much to anyone. Enjoy the process!

    For a long time I stopped participating in online “debating” primarily because people were not able to follow your guidelines. Now I’m looking forward to participating. Thank you for creating a place where people can have intelligent and thoughtful discussions about running. I hope we can disagree without being disagreeable.

    Now, I have to go prepare my zingers. Oh right! Nevermind.

  6. Angie Bee
    October 19, 2012

    Your first sentence said you “waste” time on facebook…..i think you may be conflicted 🙂

    I find I have to work to develop a balanced view of both my own accomplishments, views, and stages of growth as well as others. That coupled with a short tolerance for confrontation. It makes me uncomfortable and then quickly “meh” sets in. I learn better from watching than the stress of debate. I am def a lurker. I dislike the feeling of trying to convince people of something. I assume that if they want information or perspective they will seek it out.