The Importance of Informal Learning: A Conversation with Jon Tota

The 70/20/10 model of professional development suggests that about 10% of what we learn comes through formal means (classes, courses, elearning, workshops, etc), about 20% of what we learn comes through supportive relationships (supervisor support, mentors, coaching, etc) and a whopping 70% of what we learn comes through informal means (stretch assignments, playing with new ideas, talking with colleagues, having coffee with LinkedIn connections, etc).

Jon Tota, founder of Syntax + Motion and host of the podcast Learning Life with Jon Tota, has literally made his living through the “70” part of the 70/20/10 model – by having conversations with other people. Recently, I had a chance to talk with Jon not just about the value of having conversations, but simply how to have meaningful and productive conversations with others in order to learn.

Transcript of the Conversation with Jon Tota

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast of all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning and I’m your host today with our podcast Train Like You Listen, which is brought to you by Soapbox, the world’s first and only rapid offering tool for instructor-led training. It’s a little bit like instant pot for anybody who’s putting together instructor-led training. So, you throw in a few ingredients. You throw in how long is your session going to be, how many people are going to be there, is it going to be in-person or virtual, what are your learning objectives? And then out pops a lesson plan for you. If you want to find out more information about it, go to Soapboxify.com

Today we are talking about the importance of informal learning and I’m joined here by Jon Tota, who is the founder of Syntax +Motion. He’s also the host of the Learning Life podcast. Jon, thank you so much for joining us.

Jon Tota: Thanks for having me, Brian. It’s good to be here. 

6-Word Biography

Brian Washburn: I love this opportunity to talk because, from one podcaster to another, it’s always fun to have the ability to have a conversation. But before we go too far, we always like to have our guests introduce themselves to our audience using a six-word biography. So for today’s topic, for example, the value and importance of informal learning, my six-word biography would be, “I’ve learned important lessons quite unexpectedly”. How would you introduce yourself to our audience in exactly six words? 

Jon Tota: Yeah, so being brief is a challenge, of course, with this but I would say for me it’s, “I’m a lifelong learner and storyteller”.

Brian Washburn: Ooh, that was very smooth. Okay, so Jon, you have a podcast called Learning Life and this strives to teach us something new each week. The topics and the guests are just varied from across the spectrum. What do you get or what do you hope to learn just by having conversations with people? 

What Can You Learn from Informal Podcast Conversations?

Jon Tota: Yeah, so I started the show back in 2016 when I was running a live learning program for Entrepreneurs’ Organization. And I just thought it’d be a cool practice to start interviewing all of the experts who came in to speak for us, get them offline and talk to them in an interview format, and it was eye opening because you got something different from them than they delivered on stage. You saw behind the curtain a little bit and you started to understand how they learned, how they processed and formed that expertise. And so I just turned it into a weekly show, spun it off into Learning Life and continually interviewed entrepreneurs, thought leaders, experts, just interesting characters. And I think that I’ve learned more from doing the shows, you know both personally and professionally, than anything else that I’ve learned in a formal forum for, you know, over the last five years.

Brian Washburn: You know, it’s so interesting just to be able to talk to somebody off- stage because the onstage persona and “onstage” can be a metaphor, right? But anytime somebody is in front of a group of people, they seem so well put together and it’s really fascinating to hear what’s going on, kind of, behind the curtain.

So, it sounds like one of the things that you’re able to do is to take a peek behind the curtain and to hear people’s insecurities, hear people’s journeys to how they were. They weren’t always, you know, the expert on what they’re talking about. I think that’s really, really neat and I think just conversations is a really good way to learn informally. You know, in addition to the podcast and the general conversations you’re having, you also offer an e-learning course on Enterprise Selling. What do you think is the right mix of formal structured learning and informal learning to get where we need to go?

What Is the Right Mix of Both Formal and Informal Methods of Learning?

Jon Tota: Yeah so, I like that question because I’ve been in the learning and development space for over 20 years. And I started as a trainer who designed, scripted and shot all of our training videos and early interactive content and then I started helping other people develop their content in that same way, like a lot of us have done. And I think that the mix of content depends on the role, or what you’re training people on. But maybe more than the mix I’m always focused on the cadence, both formal and informal. That while, you know, depending on what you’re trying to learn, some hard skills, there’s going to be a higher percentage of formalized. certified training. But, I almost feel like you need to unplug yourself from that and see content, share experiences, interact with people throughout any formal learning. And so, while the percentage might be higher for someone who’s in some true hard skills training environment that they must, you know, get certified.

I think it’s– at certain moments you almost have to unplug from the structured formal course, be able to interact with others, socialize the content, and then use it in some way to, you know, to actually be able to– you know, you ever ride in a car, right, when you’re a passenger, you can go in that same route over and over again you never remember how to get there. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah, absolutely. 

Jon Tota: One time you’re in the driver’s seat you realize “oh, I wasn’t paying attention at all.” You know, so I think that sometimes it’s going out and practicing things, having conversations, you know, talking about the topics, and just mixing that back and forth as much as possible.

Brian Washburn: I think that’s a great metaphor because I think that lots of people– I certainly can relate to that and then you get in the driver’s seat and people are like, “alright, you know where you’re going, right?” I’m like, “no, I don’t really.” (CHUCKLING) 

So, you were talking earlier about the opportunity to talk with people off stage, right, and be able to learn from them. I think that that’s a really fascinating concept because people– you never know what’s going on inside somebody’s mind or how they got there. And oftentimes for me, I get to find these things that I have in common with somebody who is so successful and I’m like, “oh, that’s pretty cool.”

So what benefits have you personally garnered from engaging people in some of these informal conversations?

How Have You Personally Benefited from Informal Conversations?

Jon Tota: And, you know, I think to your earlier point, you don’t always see the– there’s a persona that everyone has, or that face that they show when they are an expert or they’re perceived as the leader of their company or whatever it might be. They can’t show the vulnerability. They can’t share every mistake. They may have investors who don’t want them talking about mistakes like that. 

When you have these informal conversations, when you can take things offline with people and really dig a little deeper, you start to learn that everybody has similar challenges. They solve the same problems. Entrepreneurs all, kind of, struggle with the same challenges that we all have. But what’s really intriguing is how did they pivot? How did they solve that problem? You know, what resources did they leverage or execute in a certain way so that they solved the problem in a different way.

And I think, for me, what I love is that, you know, we’ve recorded over 160 episodes of my show and the same themes come up over and over again. But you hear a different way that someone solved for it each time, you know, you go down that road. And I think that’s cool to see that, you know, we’re tackling the same problems. But depending on what your business is, depending on who you are, you kind of go about it a different way and there’s no right or wrong in this world.

Brian Washburn: And the folks that you’re talking with are generally entrepreneurs. And I’m just thinking transferable lessons that people can take for those who are listening, who are like, “oh, I’m not an entrepreneur”. I mean, we– you can have these conversations with anyone, right? You can have these conversations– you focus on entrepreneurs because your audience is focused on business and entrepreneurs.

People who are listening can also have their conversations with colleagues, with peers, with supervisors, with like, how did you get where you are? Or even, you know, go on LinkedIn, and start to have some conversations with other people who are in the industry. I think that this idea of having conversations is such an important one to really start to, kind of, learn about, you know, we’re not alone in some of the problems that we’re facing and there’s no one right way oftentimes to solving it. You know, there’s a number of people who are listening and for whom engaging people, especially strangers, you know, going on LinkedIn, or just opening up with an email or something like that, you know, opening that conversation can be uncomfortable, whether it’s strangers or, you know, a supervisor, things like that.

What are a few tips you may have to offer people to just get started in talking to people with the intent to learn from their stories?

Advice for Starting Conversations With Someone New In Order to Learn

Jon Tota: Yeah, I think that’s a great point from your perspective is that you might be an interviewer, by trade. You might have a show, or that might be your role. But I think that everyone just has to be curious.

And I did a whole season where I interviewed learning and development executives and they weren’t entrepreneurs. They were executives, instructional designers, people in those roles. And I learned as much from all of them as I would have from any entrepreneur interview. And it was just that I was genuinely curious about their role, the challenges they were dealing with, and the solutions they were coming up with.

And I think it’s this idea of that, if you are– or just kind of go down that road of curiosity, and you look at every individual you talk to and think “I can learn something from everyone I talk to because their experience set is different than mine. And whatever experience they can share with me will be unique and different.” And it doesn’t matter what walk of life or what role they have in an organization. You learn something from everybody you talk to. 

So it’s– and like you said, to get over that hump, I think we build up a little bit of this anxiety around, how do you get into a conversation? How do you, how do you break in? And I think it’s kind of nice to have a few questions in your head that you know you want to ask anybody. You’re curious about these things no matter who it is you talk to. And if you’re in a situation where it’s in the office, networking thing, or you’re on a Zoom call with someone and you just want to learn as much as you can, you know, that you can fall back on these couple of questions that you ask everyone.

And it’s also kind of cool too, because over time, as you know, being an interviewer, you look back at all these people you’ve asked those same questions to, and there’s this really interesting experience set that you’ve garnered from all those conversations. And, yeah, and that kind of gets over the anxiety a little bit, if you know what you’re going to ask them and you’re not trying to create it on the fly. 

Brian Washburn: I think that preparation is so important for lots of walks of life, and particularly in the learning development field. You know, whether it’s having talking points, whatever it might be. But having these conversations that’s– I love that you said that. I don’t even think about this very often, but you know, I’ll go out and have coffee with somebody and I have, you know, little sticky notes that I have my questions on. Or I’ll put some notes into the note app on my phone, just to make sure that I have a few things so that it’s not awkward. Cause some people, you know, will just jump into the conversation. Other people are just like, “so what do you want to know?” And it’s important to be prepared.

Get To Know Jon Tota

Brian Washburn: Jon, I have a few speed-round questions before we go. Are you ready for these speed round questions? 

Jon Tota: Ready for the speed round. 

Brian Washburn: Alright. So, you are, we mentioned several times, you’re a podcaster. What’s your favorite thing about doing a podcast? 

Jon Tota: Just learning, learning about people and roles and walks of life that I’ve not been exposed to myself.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, it’s so fascinating because we talk to so many different people, and it’s a great reason to have conversations with other people. What’s the best professional or career advice you’ve ever received? 

Jon Tota: To me, this is specific to my role as an interviewer. But a good friend of mine, who’s a much bigger interviewer than me, said “don’t be a fan boy.” Your number one job when you’re– and this could go to anyone, having any conversation.

Your number one job is to get the best information, the most valuable information from that guest for your audience, not to pump up their ego. And this could go to those same questions that you want to have in your head when you’re having conversations. You’re not trying to make them feel better. You’re trying to capture the really important, valuable stuff. And so, yeah, it always goes through my head: “don’t be a fan boy.” You know, “do your job.” (CHUCKLING)

Brian Washburn: (CHUCKLING) That’s a good one. Are there– is there anything that you’re reading right now or listening to that we should let our audience know about?

Jon Tota: Yeah, so I’m an audio guy, at heart. So I’m an Audible listener. So I listen to a ton of audio books and I’m always listening to one fiction and one nonfiction. Right now Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir who wrote The Martian. Great. I love sci-fi/space. That’s kind of my escape. And, nonfiction, Hacking Growth by Sean Ellis. And I love the book because it really kind of profiles all these iconic companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Dropbox, and how they spurred the growth in their user. Fascinating read. 

Brian Washburn: That’s cool. I’m just– out of curiosity, why is it always one fiction, on non-fiction? 

Jon Tota: It just– the mood I’m in. I have a lot of, a lot of lawn to mow and I love to get into a fiction audio book while I’m mowing. But when I’m in the car going to work, I want to stay focused on business so I shift gears into non fiction. 

Brian Washburn: Nice. And before we go, I’d be remiss if I didn’t invite you to make any shameless plugs that you might have. 

Jon Tota: Yeah, I love to promote my podcast show, The Learning Life show with Jon Tota. So, to me, it’s on all the major podcast channels. So wherever you listen, Apple, Google Play, Spotify. Just search for Learning Life with Jon Tota and our website is learninglifeshow.com. We’ve got 130 episodes. As of today, we released 130 episodes. Release one every week. And there’s just tons of interesting knowledge, great characters on there. So yeah, check it out. I’d love people to listen. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. And there’s a whole season with learning and development professionals as well. 

Jon Tota: Yeah, it’s a great season too. I learned a ton. And I think anybody in the industry– they’re all these big companies, companies that I’d never worked with, like CVS Health and Uber. And just listening to them talk about the same challenges that we all have and how they solved for them. And so, yeah, we have a season on that. And we’ve got some really interesting characters sprinkled in there.

So, yeah, anyone wants to go down that rabbit hole and start to explore some of those good interviews, they’re there. 

Brian Washburn: I love this. Thank you so much, Jon, for, for giving me some time. Hopefully we’ll have another chance to talk at some point in the relatively near future, because I think it’s just a fascinating topic about what you can learn just with conversation. John Tota, who is the founder of Syntax + Motion, also the host of Learning Life podcast. 

Jon, thank you so much for joining us. And, thank you, everyone for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen, which can be found on Spotify, iHeart Radio Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you hear, go ahead and give us a rating. That’s how other people find out about us. And don’t forget to subscribe. Until next time, happy training, everyone.

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