Thad had had seven successful years as a software engineer. Lately, however, he was being confronted by increasingly complex systems. While he loved a good challenge, more and more, he simply felt overwhelmed.
“I have to figure this out. My career is stalling! I don’t want it to stop altogether.”
Unlike most of his colleagues, who had come to their engineering jobs as computer science graduates, Thad had a degree in building architecture. While he’d always struggled with his design classes, the programs he developed to help him create floorplans and other drawings had also been a big hit with his colleagues. They had also led to a job offer from a local firm that developed software for architects.
Maybe because of his background in architecture, he had always assumed he was a visual learner. He always drew diagrams of the systems he was building or debugging, and mind maps were his go-to process for taking notes.
Thad researched ways to improve his problem-solving. He learned that every person has a preferred modality for absorbing information, another for processing information, and yet another for communicating information. Many people prefer the same modality for all three, so these different aspects were often conflated into a single “learning style.” Some people, however, preferred different modalities for one or even all three.
This resonated with Thad. “Maybe I am one of these different-modality-for-each people. How do I figure this out?”
Start by listing the times a method worked
Thad was pretty sure he absorbed information visually. Communicating information didn’t seem to be a problem, either. So, he decided to start by identifying how he processed information.
He made a list of times he had successfully processed information visually. Then, he made a second list of times he had done so kinesthetically. Finally, he finished with a third list of times he had successfully processed information aurally.
“Hmmm,” he said. “Coming up with visual examples was easy. I have way more I didn’t put on the list. I struggled to come up with examples for kinesthetic and aural, though. So maybe I do process information visually after all?”
Examine each example
He looked at his lists some more. Something was niggling at him, and he wasn’t sure what. Feeling frustrated, he made a few circuits around his team’s work area and then returned to his desk.
“Everything in the visually column has a kinesthetic aspect to it, and the one item in the kinesthetically column is kind of visual. Why did I put them where I did?“
The first item on Thad’s visually list was mind maps. “I always take notes with mind maps,” he noted. “And then I never look at them again. So, I guess that’s absorbing information, not processing it.”
He moved on to the next visually item, drawing diagrams of problematic systems. “This is definitely processing information. Drawing a diagram always helps me understand what’s going on.”
Looking at the last item in the list, flowcharting threading deadlocks, Thad realized it was just a specific example of drawing diagrams of problematic systems.
Go beyond the surface answer
“Time to move on to kinesthetically, then,” Thad muttered.
He looked at the only example he had come up with, moving slides around to find the best order for presentations. “Why did I put this here?” Thad wondered. “It seems just as visual as drawing diagrams.”
Thad pondered this for a bit. Then, not coming up with any answers, he wandered down to the break room and back.
“Oh,” he exclaimed. “I think I get it. Moving slides around isn’t a visual thing—I’m not looking at the result. I’m feeling the difference as I get slides into the right order. So, kinesthetic for sure.”
Thad started to move on to the aurally column, but that niggling feeling was still there.
“What are you trying to tell me?”
His mind wandered back to all the times he had solved a problem by drawing a diagram. “Drawing…” he mused. “Drawing…” The niggling feeling seemed to grow stronger.
“Drawing…What is it about drawing that works so well?”
Thad spent a few more minutes not coming up with anything. Then, he said, “Well, if drawing diagrams helps me figure out engineering problems, maybe it will help me figure out this problem.”
After only a few minutes at his whiteboard, Thad stepped back, surprised to have found his answer:
“Ah—drawing helps me feel the system. That’s kinesthetic.”
Notice what is engaging
Now Thad’s list looked like this:
“One more item left,” Thad said to himself. “Explaining the problem to the rubber duck. I only do that when I can’t figure out how to diagram the problem. Somehow, waving my hands around as I try to explain what’s going on takes me to the answer.”
That niggling feeling was back.
Thad noticed he was waving his hands around as he talked to himself about talking to the rubber duck.
“Maybe it’s the waving and not the explaining?” he asked.
The niggling feeling got stronger again.
He reflected on his many discussions with the rubber duck. Had he ever not waved his hands around?
But—those discussions never went as well.
“So, it’s the kinesthetic factor again,” Thad declared, excited to have found the answer.
He checked for the niggling feeling, just in case he hadn’t actually found the answer. It seemed to be gone.
Thad sat down, relieved to have found the answer.
Know your way to process information
Thad now knew his career was stalling because he was trying to process information visually, when kinesthetically worked much better.
“Now I know how to tackle all these complex problems,” he rejoiced. “Soon, my career will be zooming along again!”
Happy to be back on the road to success, he wondered how he could use his discovery to help his team also be more successful.
Did any of them know their “learning style” might actually be three different things? Did they know their preferences for absorbing, processing, and communicating information?
“I’m going to ask in our next team meeting,” he decided. “I bet we all handle information very differently.”