Real Learning, by the Late Great Jay Cross


“You are responsible for your own learning.”

It’s not the first time you’ve heard that. Maybe you heard it as you left school. Maybe you heard it from your Chief Learning Officer or L&D Manager (or if you are one, maybe you’ve said it). Maybe your manager told you it during your onboarding.

It’s a grand statement. But just one question, as Columbo might have said: “How do I do that, exactly?”


It’s the question at the core of the latest, and tragically last book by the Late Great Jay Cross. Jay himself was a kind Columbo of Learning. Affable, approachable to the end, but not one to leave a difficult question unanswered. In Real Learning, he takes on this question – if learning is up to us, how do we do it?”

You’re in the hands of someone who’s got maybe the best shot at answering that question. Jay coined the term e-learning before anyone else did. He (rightly) rejected most the value of most e-learning, and other forms of formal courses or classroom-based learning as disconnected from how people really learn. These modes of formal, course-based learning are defined as the ‘10%’ in the 70/20/10 model championed by Jay’s colleague Charles Jennings. Jay was a leading proponent of informal learning, which he defined as “the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way most of us learn to do our jobs.” This is the 90% – learning from others, learning from experience, learning anywhere except in a formal, structured training event.  So he’s well placed to answer the question.

The hero is you. And you’re on your own.

Real Learning, like all great books, has a hero: The Real Learner. The Real Learner has it hard. Most organisations pour the vast majority of their budgets into the 10% in the 70/20/10 model: making courses for consumption. But The Real Learner is also real busy. Finding the time for formal learning in the real world is very difficult. And they generally don’t work, because they’re not personal in any way, they’re disconnected from the immediate challenges of real learners and their teams, and they’re usually locked away in an LMS where they decay and become more obsolete with every internet minute. So what’s done to support the 90%? In most places, Jay laments, not much. He captures this absurdity with a simple graphic that should be tattooed onto every L&D managers’ arm:


If that wasn’t enough, here’s a tattoo for the other arm.

Jay quotes research undertaken by the Internet Time Alliance. Polling 200 CLOs with the question “Are your people growing fast enough to keep up with business needs”, 75% said No.


So when you hear ‘You’re responsible for your own learning’, it’s not just a platitude. It really means what it says: based on spending, and how little your organisation is doing to help you, you really are on your own.

What to do about it?  Get Real.

We could rail against the system and bemoan the injustice of it all. But Jay is pragmatic and realistic. Real Learning means and taking control of your own learning. In each chapter he sets out practical steps for doing this.  He recognises that first of all, learning is a skillset in itself. It’s a long time since most of us practiced our study skills. And work (and life) isn’t a test anyway. Learning (or re-learning) how to learn is a core skill for the modern workplace.

It all starts with you and your goals

The first section of the book is concerned with goal-setting. Learning is goal based. We learn because want to get better at something. But this section goes a lot deeper than the usual drudgery around SMART goals and alignment to corporate objectives. This is a more deep-rooted self-reflection before you set out to learn anything:

This section has a broad and generous scope. The advice is as much about living your life well as it is about being an effective learner – and Jay sees those concepts as tightly connected. In referring to four of the best pieces of writing about personal awareness and resilience, Jay as always points us towards some rich next reads.

Reflection is a key theme of the book. Real learning, in Jay’s view, must involve reflecting on your learning and experiences. We’ll come onto that later. The book lives up to its own values in that every chapter is full of JDI moments (though in my head, I hear Jay saying ‘JFDI’): Practical actions that you’re encouraged to stop and do right now. For example, start a Personal Learning Log in Google Docs and write down what you’ve learned today.

If you’re loyal to this, the book will take a while to work though. But that’s the point really – this is a toolkit more than a treatise.

Four steps towards real learning

Real Learning puts forward a model for how to take control of learning in the workplace

  1. Discover
  2. Assess
  3. Act
  4. Reflect / connect

The rest of the book walks through these steps with practical advice at each turn.


Learning begins with you discover new information. The problem is filter and control. We’re all overwhelmed with new information. Sifting through and distilling what’s really important is the primary challenge facing the Real Learner. Jay’s advice is to ‘Discover relevant and interesting material from the ongoing flow of information on the internet and from the people in your networks.’ Most of us are not naturally good at this. Jay refers to an IDC White Paper, ‘The Hidden Costs of Information Work’, which reports that knowledge workers waste a third of their time looking for information and finding the right people to talk with.

Jay’s main recommendations to work your discovery muscles:

  • Set up a dashboard to filter by topic / interest areas / sites you visit regularly / communities of practice
  • Build a personal knowledge network of people you trust, as Jane Hart puts it “We store our knowledge in our friends”
  • Build habits around sifting through information, making sense of it, and sharing it
  • Have high quality control – regularly review and cut out poor quality sources of information
  • Curate content – store it and annotate it to make sense of it, and share it with colleagues
  • Store it in your ‘outboard brain’ – you don’t have to remember things, just remember the people who know things
  • Get social – call on your network to help with your problems. And be as generous in return
  • Talk to people – ‘conversations are the stem cells of learning’
  • Allow for serendipity – don’t just follow people and sources that align with your worldview and reinforce what you already know. You must leave what Jay calls ‘Familiarland’. Let random ideas in, to avoid living in an echo chamber. That’s the key to creativity.


Assess and Act:

These steps are about synthesising information that you’ve discovered, deciding (often with others) what to do about it, and then doing something about it. Jay notes that Assess/Act are often done in tandem, for example in the context of complex projects.

Key to being successful in these stages:

  • Have an active community of practice: for most real learners, this is your immediate team
  • Have channels of communication so you can quickly assess information in real time – email is terrible for this, real time environments like Hangouts, Yammer, and other IM tools are better
  • Get your boss on board – the role of the manager in the real learning world should be to support you in assessing and acting. Jay posits that the number one most effective learning activity is to be set stretch assignments and to document and reflect on them.
  • Continue to reflect and course correct as you go
  • Make mistakes – learn from them. If you’re not taking any risks, don’t expect any returns.
  • Seek a coach or mentor if need one

Reflect / Connect:

Active reflection is the fourth leg of the chair. Throughout the book the value of blogging, journalling and other forms of active reflection are advocated. This is the ‘sensemaking’ step for the Real Learner. However it’s a step that most of us skip. We complete projects and we’re onto the next one. Jay espouses the power of habit making (citing some of BJ Fogg’s great work into habit formation). To form a new habit, attach it to something you already do, and make it something you do afterwards. For example, ‘After I make my first coffee of the day, I will review my goals’ or ‘After I brush my teeth at night, I will write one sentence on what I learned today.’ Jay advocates starting small and building more reflective habits over time.

This is not just a folksy suggestion. Jay quotes Harvard research which found that workers who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day writing and reflecting on what they had learned that day were 20 percent more productive than those who had not. Reflection helps to hardwire the learning and make it more available to your future self.

Jay is a fan of structured reviews too, especially for teams. Using ‘After Action Reviews’ to reflect on what we expected to happen, what actually happened, and what we have learned from that, can be a useful way to synthesise learning. Reflection becomes even more valuable when it’s shared and connected with others. Working out Loud is a form of shared reflection, where you share what you’re doing, and learning, usually in a blog format. It’s a win on many levels: It creates new knowledge for others, and helps to solidify your own understanding, and reinforce the value and purpose of what you’re doing. As more than one writer has said ‘I write to find out what I’m thinking’. It also confers social authority on the author. And what’s more, it’s a generous act.

Real Learning: A final act of generosity

The whole book is an act of generous reflection on the author’s part, as it curates and shares a life’s worth of insights into how to learn. This is definitely a lean-forward read. You’re never more than a paragraph away from a call to action or helpful resource. It’s one to savour and travel as you go about the journey of being a learner.  If the book has the tone of a valedictory, or college graduation speech, that’s done consciously. Jay notes in his intro that this will likely be his last major contribution to the field.

The recent news of Jay’s untimely death adds a deep poignancy to the whole read. But having had the pleasure of his company on a number of occasions, I sense he’d have little time for any sentimentality. The best testament to his memory would be to take on his advice and become a real learner:  Discover, Assess and Reflect, but most importantly: JFDI.


Find out more about Real Learning and its publication date here.