Learning without getting killed

Very few of the decisions we make today have the ability to kill us. I could bumble through life making poor choices and silly mistakes every day and probably live to a ripe old age, such is the power of civilisation and the social safety nets that we now have in place. I speak, of course, for the privileged part of humanity that lives in an essentially post-scarcity society where the difference between wealth and poverty is measured in comfort and dignity, not survival.

But for most humans who have ever lived good decisions and skilful use of acquired knowledge have been the difference between life and death. Someone who is unable to hunt or gather, unable to build a good shelter, unable to track and hide, is someone who probably didn’t last long.

With this in mind it’s worth thinking about how learning would naturally evolve in such an environment. If mistakes for most of our history have been potentially life limiting in nature, how did we manage to learn everything we needed to learn without getting ourselves killed?

These days we do a lot of learning in the classroom. I call this head-knowledge. What we learn in abstract ways we generally can only apply in abstract ways. When we need to learn practical things we may still see books and pencils but we also see tools, objects, machines, materials. And where the skill required is a practical skill involving humans we see various forms of on-the-job training. Whether you’re a medical doctor or a police officer you will spend a lot of time learning by doing under close supervision by experienced practitioners.

All this is a long way to saying that when it comes to practical skills humans learn best by doing. Which takes us back to my initial question: for most of human history how did we learn by doing without killing ourselves? We didn’t have abundant food that we could waste or endless opportunities to evade predators or enemy tribes. We could not simply dive in and hope for the best.

Humans are special animals for a number of reasons but the most important one for me is that we have an extraordinarily long adolescence. Because our brains, fully grown, are so large we have to be born early and are completely useless for years. Then we spend a long time biologically and culturally immature, even our psychology is markedly different before we reach our late teens. Culturally, biologically, we are unique in that we are, for a large part of our lives, utterly useless at worst, and somewhat awkward at best. But it is in that period of uselessness that we most often display two things that are seen in other intelligent animals but none come close to us in degree: we mimic and we play.

Mimicry is the first way in which we learn without killing ourselves. We copy what other people do. We learn from the mistakes of others so we don’t have to make them ourselves. Mimicry is how we acquire simple, mechanical skills in a safe way.

But mimicry is a poor second compared to our real learning superpower, play. While mimicry lets us copy what we see, play lets us learn from experiences that we haven’t had in real life, perhaps those that nobody has had. In play we not only learn the mechanical skills but we also get to test our mettle emotionally, practice social rituals, build relationships, and so much more. All within what is essentially an altered state of reality. While we may not really be running away from a tiger or battling for a castle, in play the experiences are real to us. The physiological responses to imagined danger are very similar to those of real danger. In play we transport ourselves, simulate alternative versions of the world, and learn within them. All without taking any real risks. Hence, learning without killing ourselves!

Fans of 90s science fiction would probably think of this as being like the Holodeck on the Starship Enterprise. But instead of needing a room filled with fictional technology, nature provided us with imagination and the ability to shift into an alternative reality any time, anywhere. Take that Gene Roddenberry.

Humans can learn exceptional amounts of head-knowledge from listening and thinking, reading and talking. But when it comes to learning stuff we can apply in our lives there’s no substitute for real experience. Which leaves you with two options:

– Do the stuff for real
– Play

Both of these are great options but while doing something for real is often expensive and slow, play can get us a lot of the way there for a fraction of the cost. Remember that play is how we learn things when we can’t actually do them. Play is our natural learning process. But it’s not just cheaper and quicker than the real thing. In some ways, play is actually a better way of learning because humans don’t learn very well when we’re stressed.

When stressed your brain is flooded with fight, flight, freeze chemicals. At a biological level the potential for embarrassment or social shaming are treated no differently from physical danger. And that makes sense when you consider that loss of social status for a social animal is a physical danger. We can’t survive if rejected by the group. We can’t breed if nobody will go on dates with us! A lot of learning scenarios are full of stress triggers. I still get the occasional bad dream about coursework I’ve not completed or exams I haven’t studied or. And I’ve been out of formal education for a decade!

This is where play goes from being a convenient alternative to practicing with live ammo and becomes a superior learning tool. In play humans don’t suffer the same stress hormone surge of real life. In play we can remain light in our thinking, almost childlike. This lightness, this playfulness, is the secret sauce. It lets us try things we would never try otherwise. In play we can explore outcomes that we wouldn’t have the nerve to explore anywhere else. And because play is a often social activity we can explore with others. Learning and understanding is multiplied, group connections are strengthened and the result can be a step change in performance.

And it’s fun. Let’s not forget that it’s fun.

In workplaces today, especially the modern office, play is in a bad way. Open plan offices, strict deadlines, information overload, and the general existential stress that comes from insecure jobs leaves humans in a state of terror. Play is seen as a waste of time. Some offices belonging to super cool startups and the like offer pool and table tennis which is nice. But games are not all that play can be. Play is, as previously stated, a transformational state of being. A few rounds ping-pong can be relaxing and refreshing but unless that playful spirit comes back with you to the rest of your day it’s no more than palliative care for the terminal spirit.

Understanding play at a much deeper level is necessary if businesses are to bring this learning superpower back to life in their employees. It means understanding play not just as discreet games but in ritual and in banter, in superstition and ceremony. Play, as a transformational act, needs to be seen and felt in the very marrow of the business. Playfulness as a quality of being should be present in all things, even in the most serious of moments. Because play is serious. Far too serious to be left to the kids.


Aran Rees
Founder and Coach
Sabre Tooth Panda: creativity’s hard, not impossible