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When You Have to Learn Something New

By Marty Nemko

In today’s ever faster paced workplace, we’re increasingly asked to learn new things: new software, new procedures, information for a presentation, etc.

I’ve just had to learn something new. Although it was outside of work, my attempt to learn it offers lessons for learning in the workplace.

I needed something new in my life. I’ve had the same career for 18 years, the same house for 29, the same wife for 33. I don’t think an affair is the answer, so I decided to audition for a part in a production ( of Agatha Christie’s play, Ten Little Indians. Lo and behold, I got cast: 358 lines worth.

Would this 55-year-old mind, who has trouble remembering the plot of a play he just saw, be able to memorize 358 lines?

To avoid freaking out at the enormity of the mountain before me, I adopted a mantra: “No looking ahead. One line at a time.” As soon as I found myself distracted—for example—worrying that I’ll screw up in front of my wife—I instantly forced myself to get back to the line at hand. Learning Lesson: Stay focused on bite-sized chunks.

Some lines drove me crazy. For example, I so struggled with “You’d hardly believe it when you think how beautiful a day it was this morning.” My first reaction was to catastrophize: “Early Alzheimer’s?” But I forced myself to stay in the moment and just work on the damn line. I slowly read the first half of that line five times. Each time I said it with full feeling so it would really penetrate. Then I turned away from the script and said it five times. I repeated that process with the second half of the line. Finally, I put it all together, trying to say it faster and faster. Alas, even after I got it, I forgot it the next day. But after a second stint, I got it solid. (I think.) Learning Lesson: We rarely talk about the importance of sheer doggedness, but it’s crucial.

When I was struggling, I found reassurance in the fact that, for time immemorial, millions of people, including much older people, have memorized parts. If they can, I can. And if I forget some lines and have to ad lib, the world won’t end. Learning Lesson: Avoid freaking out by realizing you can survive the worst-case scenario.

I realized that seeing where the line appears on a page was giving me clues I wouldn’t get on stage. So, after I felt I had learned my lines fairly well, I hired someone to read the other characters’ parts while I chimed in with my lines. Finding someone was easy: I placed an ad on and within a few hours had gotten 20 responses from people willing to do it for $10 an hour. The woman I hired, Jeannette, was a very experienced actress. Frankly, it made me a little sad to think that despite the ostensibly low unemployment rate, the job market is so weak that I got so many applicants for a low-paying very temporary job. Learning Lesson: A coach can be a cost-effective aid.

I asked Jeannette to, every time I made a mistake, to bracket the word(s) in pencil. That way I could work on it when she was gone instead of feeling pressured to try to get it correct in front of her.

She corrected even the slightest error: for example, “You believe” instead of “You think.” She explained that many directors insist on that, but I’ve decided to spend only a little time trying to get it perfect. If the director insists on meaningless perfection, I plan to defy the order. I doubt she’ll de-cast me. One of my core principles for being productive is to do things to the very good but not perfect level. That enables me to accomplish more of value, at or outside of work. Learning Lesson: Not everything needs to be learned perfectly, even when the boss asks you to.

Now, four weeks before the play opens, I know my lines pretty well and won’t spend much more time, outside of rehearsal, memorizing them. If I spent more time, I’m concerned that, by the end of the play’s run, I could be bored with it, which could dull my performance.

So, I’m focusing on acquiring the two dialects I’ll need. Why two? Because I start off pretending to be an upper class Brit but am later discovered to be a Cockneyish guy. Instead of taking a class or buying a dialect CD, I found a person with a natural upper-class British accent and another with a Cockney accent to say my lines onto a cassette tape, leaving a few moments after each line for me to try to imitate it. Unlike classes and CDs, this approach teaches me precisely what I need to know for the part and no more. That’s why, in all contexts, I’m a fan of just-in-time learning. Whenever I need to learn something, I most often just google it, read one or more on-target entries and/or phone someone I’ve identified using google or otherwise. Learning Lesson: Before considering a back-to-school stint, ask yourself whether just-in-time learning would be wiser.

Frankly, I’m still scared that during performances, I’ll lose it all because I’ll be having to not only remember my lines and say them in the proper dialect, but to stand and move as I’m supposed to, and to react fully to what’s occurring on stage. And God knows what will happen if thoughts intrude such as that my wife, my mother, and maybe even some of you readers will be in the audience twittering, “He’s struggling with his lines.”

I think there’s one more lesson I better remember: think positive.

We’ll see if it works. I’ll find out when the play opens: Oct. 21.

Is there one lesson from this column that you want to remember for the next time you have to learn something?

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