When you work 20 years in an office, you don’t have 20 years experience. You have 1 year of experience, repeated 20 times”

I so appreciated this provocation by Cultural Innovator Sami Ismail’s challenge at TEDx Roma.

Indeed, are we just doing the same thing over and over?. Or are we intentional and rigorous about learning from our experiences? In what ways, are we mindful agile learners? How can we really learn from recent events? from the past?.

Unfortunately many companies do not have a real learning culture.  Most of us are expected to learn on the job. We progress with minimal training, irregular performance reviews and the occasional 1:1 with our boss.  If we are lucky.

The learning cycle

One of the most effective, simple and useful tools to maximise our learning, in my view, is from the Kolb (1984) experiential learning cycle. It forms the foundation of how we deliver programmes for our clients.  It works because it is at the core of how adults learn. The cycle is a continuous one of 4 phases:

  • Having the concrete experience e.g.: doing the job, undertaking the action
  • Reflecting on what happened, what when well, what could have gone better etc
  • Conceptualising/Theorising to understand what are the lessons learnt
  • Applying the learning

We often have a phase we feel more at home in.  You may recognise your preferred learning style, from these Honey and Mumford (1982) descriptions:

  • Activist: doing and experiencing
  • Reflector: observing and reflecting
  • Theorist: understanding underlying reasons, concepts, relationships
  • Pragmatist: problem solving, testing

We are most effective when we are skilled in all 4 styles. And engage all 4 phases of the learning cycle as appropriate.

Mindful learning

A development in this field is Yeganeh and Kolb’s (2012) recognition of how mindfulness can enrich our learning in this process.

They recognised that we can over-routinise our learning styles. Which means we can get stuck in particular ways of acting and reflecting. Of conceptualising and experimenting.  Mindfulness which is about being aware and attentive can help us be more intentional and expansive.  As mindful learners, we break out of the normal ways of perceiving and acting.  We challenge the status quo and become more creative.

Drawing on their suggestions to break free from our routines and liberate our minds, we can become mindful learners as:

  • Activists: Remind ourselves to come back to our breath. We focus on a new touch, sound, sight or smell. So our mind re-sets and switches off autopilot
  • Reflectors: We practice sitting with our thoughts and feelings. Rather than acting on them. We practice acceptance rather than judgement
  • Theorists: We challenge our assumptions. And consider other peoples’ perspectives. We embrace shades of grey rather than black and white thinking
  • Pragmatists: We practice novel questioning. And shift the conversation by asking questions and generating possibilities. We experiment with people and events in ways that we don’t normally do.

The more mindful we are about learning from our own experiences, the richer our transformation. And that of our organisation.  And at the end, we are all responsible for our own development and consciousness.

An inspirational learner, my friend Alison Mowbray is committed to asking herself this question daily. ”What can I do today better than I did yesterday?” 

It is a good question to ask, at any age.


  • Honey, P & Mumford, A, (1982). The Manual of Learning Styles. Maidenhead, UK, Peter Honey Publications
  • Kolb, D. (1984), Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Ismail, S. (2015),“The problem with experience for entrepreneurs” presentation to TEDx Roma, Rome, 21 March 2015
  • Mowbray, A. (2013), Gold Medal Flapjack Silver Medal Life: the autobiography of an unlikely Olympian, Matador (UK). 
  • Yeganeh, B. & Kolb, D. (2009), “Mindfulness and Experiential Learning, OD Practitioner, Vol. 41, No. 3, pp.13-18
  • Photo by davisco on Unsplash


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