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George Leonard’s 4 Learner Types Explained

In this article we discuss George Leonard and his four learner types.

When learning how to learn, we must be acutely aware of the obstacles that block our path to excellence. What are the main traps and pitfalls we’ll encounter on the learning journey? And how do we become truly exceptional in our pursuits?

We look at four types of learners – one exemplary, three questionable. Together they’ll give you a spookily accurate assessment of whether or not you’re on the path to true competence and expertise.

You can use the exemplary archetype as a template for improvement in almost any area, from your relationships, hobbies and career, to your overall approach to life.

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What Are George Leonard’s 4 Learner Types? Quick Overview

The four learner types are The Dabbler, The Obsessive, The Hacker and The Master. Think of these as archetypes or profiles.

You aren’t just doomed to one of them, unable to change course. Rather, you move between all of them. You may resemble The Hacker in your hobbies and The Master in your career. On a frustrating day, you might be in the Dabbler mindset and then wake up the next as an Obsessive.

The first three profiles explain why you fail to become exceptional. They’re contrasted with the ideal: The Master, the learning avatar that will lead you to excellence in your pursuits.

These characters come from the writings of author, teacher and aikidoist George Leonard, who has been an enormous influence on me.

Great, let’s unpack these four learner types, then – beginning with The Dabbler.

George Leonard’s Type 1: The Dabbler

You’re alive in the 21st century, so I can guarantee you’ll resonate with this avatar. 

The Dabbler is characterised by constant seeking and a lack of stick-to-it-iveness. This is the person who has experimented with many hobbies, interests or specialities but has never seriously committed to any of them. This means they don’t build up any true competence.

Source: iStock Photo

When The Dabbler embarks on a learning journey, they’re overcome by excitement. They love buying the new equipment. They show up early to classes, do extra work at home, and share their exploits with friends and family. They’re just so in love with their new pursuit.

If you’ve dedicated years or decades to certain fields or pursuits, you’ll be well aware that the initial excitement always wanes. Learning is never a constant high. Past a certain point, whether we’ll learn deeply and stay in the game long-term depends more on our levels of consistency and diligence than our excitement.

The Dabbler doesn’t get that. Rather than sticking through the obstacles and hiatuses, they jump ship and opt for the shiny new option on the horizon, convinced that it’s The One. After a few months, they realise it wasn’t all it seemed, so they go off in search once again.

In the professional world, we see this archetype in people who have had dozens of jobs. Though bursting with enthusiasm when they accept a new position, they soon become restless and start looking around. After years of repeating that cycle, they have no specialised expertise to offer, no career capital, and no rudder guiding their career boat.

George Leonard warns that we all dance with the Dabbler mentality in modern times. There is a plethora of stimuli and shiny new options all around us. We’re bombarded with the new. New career opportunities, new hobbies and new romantic partners are all made out to seem greater than our current ones. These options tempt The Dabbler inside us.

Push our comfort zone and boundaries? Always. Explore life and find the career, hobby and spouse that work best for us? Of course. Do so at the expense of long-term commitment and diligence? Never.

Check out my article on how to manage the early phases of the learning journey.

George Leonard’s Type 2: The Obsessive

While The Dabbler has commitment issues, George Leonard’s Obsessive is plagued by the opposite problem. This learner type taps into our impatience and overambition.

The defining trait of The Obsessive is a gung-ho approach to endeavours. They set unrealistic goals and work night and day to achieve them. Though able to cultivate diligence and work ethic, their excessive eagerness and lack of patience eventually backfire.

Plateaus – stretches involving hard work with no apparent improvement – are nothing but a nuisance for The Obsessive in us. It wants quick results, exponential growth and continual signs of progress. In an attempt to bypass those plateaus, we redouble our efforts, with diminishing returns.

In career, this looks like trying to climb from junior to partner in five years or wanting to start a six-figure business in two months.

The Obsessive eventually crumbles under their enthusiasm. Burnout and stress hit. They can’t keep up their ridiculously demanding routines. And the whole thing just caves in.

What are the signs that The Obsessive is active in you? Here’s two – over-ambitious goal-setting, ergo “I’m going to work out every day for the rest of my life”, and impatience for results: “I’ve been learning the guitar for one whole month. Where are my results? I demand results!”

Let’s not judge too much. Intensive learning can be a fast track to improvement, and from time to time some crunching can push our projects forward. But as an overall life strategy, The Obsessive is a disatrous template to follow.

Type 3: The Hacker

George Leonard’s Hacker is the most tempting of the learner types.

This is a curious avatar. You see, The Hacker is a potential Master. The Hacker goes through months and years of learning and reaches a certain level of competency. They build up experience, good habits, and a positive mindset. They’ve even navigated several plateaus.

But at some point, The Hacker stops looking to improve and decides to rest on their laurels. They stop buying books, pushing their boundaries and targeting weak areas. They think: “I’m good enough. Fine, I’m no expert, but I’ve reached a decent level. I know what I’m doing.”

With no thirst for improvement, the Hacker’s deliberate practice falls away, and they’re left stranded forever in proficiency purgatory.

Source: Deposit Photos

We’re overcome by the Dabbler mindset if we practice an instrument for ten years, then stick with the same old songs, scales and techniques for the next 30. We see it in the professional who is cushy in their current position, produces mediocre work, and no longer goes to training courses.

The vast majority of us are Hackers in skills like driving, speaking our native language, and walking. When did you last dedicate serious time to improving these areas? Do you willingly identify weaknesses and strive to iron them out, or do you just bob along on autopilot? I imagine it’s the latter – bobbing along is the Hacker’s specialty.

There is some wisdom to The Hacker. We could learn a lot from its detachment from results and ability to savour what has come before. But if we want to be inspired learners and reach true competence, it just won’t do.

Watch this video to learn more about the three dysfunctional learner types.

George Leonard’s Type 4: The Master

Now we come to the avatar Leonard considers the ideal: The Master. This avatar has three defining features: a focus on practice over results, dedication to lifelong learning, and a love for plateaus.

The Master is untroubled by The Dabbler’s insatiable thirst for newness, The Obsessive’s hyperfocus on quick results, and The Hacker’s indifference to improvement. They have realised that long-term competency requires patience, perseverance and tonnes of practice.

This avatar takes the middle ground. While dedicated to improvement, The Master is practice-oriented. And while they resist becoming overly attached to the craft, they love it as they would love a brother.

The Master persits through the plateaus, using them as opportunities to deepen their knowledge and perform thousands of repetitions. They regularly push their boundaries but realise that effort is a long-term investment, not a one-day lottery ticket. They see talent as a myth – practice is what counts.

It’s safe to say that the greats in the fields of sport, science, music, writing and design have all adopted the Master mindset. Only by embodying this mindset can we stay on the path long enough to reach world-class levels in any pursuit.

Your Path To Excellence: Become The Master

From my experience, there are three keys to maintaining the Master’s approach over the long run. Those are deliberate practice, patience and commitment.

Deliberate practice is a technical term that gives us a framework for improvement in any venture It means splitting our goals into manageable chunks and working hard on each until we master them. We identify our weak areas and make a concerted effort to improve them. We continually expand our zone of competence.

Patience is an ointment for those challenging plateaus. And though committing to a field seems ominous at the outset, we later coast on all the early momentum we build up, and we begin to love the practice for its own sake.

So ditch The Dabbler, The Obsessive and The Hacker, and adopt the Master’s mindset. It may well be the key to success in your pursuits.

Keen to adopt The Master mindset? Check out my article on five strategies for mastering any subject.

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