By Indranil Sarkar
In an independent study conducted in 2012, researchers found that an average user of Duolingo, one of the most successful language learning apps with 100 million + users, learnt the equivalent of one college semester’s worth of content in just 34 hours. In comparison, Rossetta Stone which uses more traditional learning methods reached the same learning outcomes in 55 hours, scientifically establishing that Duolingo’s game-based adaptive learning approach was more effective.
Is this result really surprising? Is it just pure co-incidence that a platform that fits into an adult’s life, facilitates bite-sized learning on the go and makes the experience fun and practical has better learning outcomes? At nhance, we believe that this is the future of adult learning and Duolingo has taught us some important lessons that can be applied not just in language training, but also in learning business skills.
1. Understanding the barriers to adult learning
What are the barriers to adult learning? Knowles (1980) in an often-cited publication has identified five characteristics of adult learners. Adults: (a) Are autonomous and self-directed (b) Have accumulated prior education, experiences and knowledge (c) Are relevancy-oriented (d) Are more problem-centered than subject-centered (e) Are motivated to learn by internal, rather than external factors
2. How does Duolingo overcome each of the above barriers while teaching languages?
(a) Autonomous and self-directed asynchronous learning anytime, anywhere – Proponents of online learning have often discussed the incredible value of learning at your own pace. Whether you use Coursera, Udacity, Edx or any other learning platforms, you can learn when it suits you best. However, the delivery formats adopted by these platforms do not truly facilitate ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning. The videos are long (try streaming an hour long video on 2G in an Emerging market), the assessments require pen and paper to complete calculations and you need a significant block of focused time and attention to make progress. In comparison, Duolingo’s games are bite-sized, fun and allow people to use their ‘dead time’ (long commutes, breaks at work) to ‘feel productive’. The genius of the platform is that it doesn’t ask the user to alter their schedule to learn, it fits into their daily schedule and makes them feel good about learning.
(b) Platform is responsive to prior education, experiences and knowledge -As adults, we are terribly opinionated about what we know and how well we know it. The power of adaptive learning is that it gives users the freedom to skip lessons, test the knowledge that they may have acquired before and apply it to move ahead faster. The beauty of languages is that even knowing a few words and some context can help you tackle some advanced exercises. You may struggle and have to go back and revise the lessons but at least youfeel like your prior knowledge / education helped you in your journey.
(c) Learn what is relevant and useful – With languages, relevancy is much easier to tackle. A friend of mine took some Duolingo lessons in French before his trip to Paris and while he was far from being able to have a conversation, he knew enough to ask for directions, order food etc. Since everyone isn't lucky enough to test your knowledge with a native speaker or visit a country where a foreign language is spoken (we wish!), its easy enough to find online articles, audio or video clips which give users comfort that what they are learning is ‘relevant’.
(d) Problem-solving approach to learning – Duolingo’s game based platform structures learning as a series of problems or situations that users have to tackle / navigate. This application-based focus makes learning more real, prepares users to not just know a word, but be competent in its application in a real sentence or situation.
(e) Safe place to practice and learn – Duolingo provides a safe learning environment where mature adults want to learn and get better for intrinsic reasons. Their focus is primarily on improvement and competence, not on external factors such as the need to get credentials / certifications.
3. Can we overcome the barriers to learning business?
At nhance, we think of the fundamentals of business as a language. Business skills are a set of tools that prepare you to take optimal decisions both in your personal and professional life. In today’s world, knowing the basics of business can help you manage your money better, market yourself more effectively to potential employers or on a first date(!), and even streamline your daily routine and improve productivity by identifying and removing bottlenecks. Can we break down the barriers to learning business, just as Duolingo did with languages?
(a) Automonous and self-directed – Our approach to self-directed asynchronous learning is to view business skills through the lens of practical decision-making. Launching your own company? We can take you on a modular journey where you encounter a series of situations, digest bite-sized lessons and train yourself through application-based interactive games. A possible journey is one where you understand sources of capital, how to setup a business, generate profits, scale your business, evaluate performance and potentially sell your business. Similar to Duolingo, we fit into the business daily schedules of most professionals and make learning fun.
(b) We acknowledge that every adult knows something about business –Our game-based learning approach is meant to give users an opportunity to demonstrate what you know and apply business skills by solving real life problems you will encounter. Whether its starting your own company, or trying to market a new product as an employee of a large company, you will have the opportunity to utilize your existing knowledge and experiences to make better decisions.
(c) Making business learning relevant / useful – Business learners often have a variety of short-term / long-term objectives of learning business skills. Whether you want to succeed in an interview, start a new business, or get ahead in your business career, it is important to personalize these skills to cater to the user’s particular needs and end goals. At nhance, we personalize your learning journey by adding a combination of mini-business situations, interview tips career tips etc. delivered to optimize relevance and usefulness of these skills towards your desired end-goal. We give you a customized learning experience that has been created with your end-objectives in mind.
(d) Problem-solving approach to learning – This is an area where the potential opportunities in business are incredible. Everyday, there are new and exciting applications of business skills reported in the news around the world. As adults, we encounter opportunities to apply business skills throughout the day both personally and professionally and learn from individuals and institutions who are using these skills to make business decisions. How do we make users view their own worlds through the business lens?
(e) Learn for competency, not for credentials – Business education has moved from a credentials focus to competency focus over the past decade. With this continuing shift, it is even more essential for learners to be provided with a platform that can continuously track progress and learning, boost wavering motivation in the form of quick wins and achievements and arm users with practical business skills that can help them be more effective in their professional and personal lives everyday.
By Anant Gupta
Here in New Delhi, my co-founder, Neal, and I have very different Uber experiences. For context, Uber does a poor job of training its drivers in India. Still, his drivers get lost more often, take longer to find the pickup spot, miss more turns, and generally give him more trouble.
The only difference between us is language. I don’t speak Hindi.
I can barely communicate with the drivers, while he can speak fluently. It didn’t make sense, until we looked closer.
When Neal hails a car, the driver assumes he will receive directions. He mentally prepares for someone else to guide his path, shifting his focus from navigating to following directions. The driver is on autopilot — putting the responsibility on the passenger. If Neal doesn’t know exactly where he’s going, that ride is doomed.
Still, I’m an even less capable passenger. I shouldn’t have better rides. I can’t even explain that I don’t know where we’re going. And that’s the point. When I get into an Uber, the driver cannot rely on me. I’m not a passenger, I’m cargo. With nobody else to hold responsible, the driver becomes a problem solver and figures it out. He enters a proactive mind-state. He uses the GPS. He plans the route. He asks people for directions to navigate the last mile. And I get where I’m going faster and with fewer issues.
In Neal’s case, the driver is waiting for the next direction. In my case, the driver is planning the entire journey.
What’s the lesson here? We already know we need to be proactive to succeed in life and especially in our careers. It seems like every job description asks for “self-starters” who “take initiative” and possess an “entrepreneurial spirit.” It’s even Stephen R. Covey’s first habit of successful people.
The importance of being proactive is not the lesson. To me, this is a daily reminder of something more actionable:
You can design your environment to trigger proactive and reactive mind-states and behaviors.
We are not inherently proactive or reactive; rather, we can be swayed in either direction. Think about your morning routine. Checking email when you wake up is a reactive trigger — it’s a stream of things you have to respond to. Visualizing the day is proactive — it helps you focus and fosters your sense of self-control.
Environment unlocks proactive behavior. And yet, even though everyone wants proactive employees, many workplaces don’t make it easy. They are full of reactive triggers. Micro-managers, endless meetings, lack of planning, constant interruptions, and lots of busywork turn people into firefighters. They don’t have opportunity to look beyond the immediate obstacle to the bigger picture because they’re just trying to keep everything under control
We all have the capacity to be “self-starters.” But if we truly want people working with us to be more proactive, it’s our job to encourage the right environment.
To encourage proactive behavior for yourself and your team, here are a few replicable tactics we’ve found useful at nhance
Making a daily to-achieve list
What we do: Everyone at nhance is responsible for planning their day and publicly commits to the things they will accomplish.
What you can do: The night before, prepare a short list of the 3 or 4 things you will accomplish the next day before you go to sleep.
What we do: We don’t have meetings in the morning or evening. This creates time dedicated to uninterrupted work. Importantly, it allows people to start their day from a place of self-control, so they can plan and get a productive start to the day.
What you can do: Find parts of your day that are in your control and guard them. Try blocking out chunks of time on your work calendar, or waking up early to visualize the day and ease into work.
What we do: We want everyone to understand their ability to impact the company and their own career. To that end, each of us are owners of specific outcomes and are empowered to manage the rest of the team for assistance and advice to achieve them. We’re an education company, so every person is also responsible for planning their learning and development at nhance. Our job is to provide opportunity and support to help them reach those outcomes.
What you can do: You may not have much control over your immediate assignments and projects, but you do have control over your development. By being mindful of your objectives, you can identify parts of your current job that serve your goals, seek out projects at work that might serve them better, and find opportunities outside of work to learn and develop additional skills and experience to help you progress.
Whether we do this consciously or not, our environment, habits and systems of behavior affect our ability to think and act proactively.
What helps you foster a proactive mindset? What triggers reactivity for you?
By Anant Gupta
As an American living abroad, Donald Trump comes up often in conversation. Certainly more than I ever wanted him to. At the same time, I spend my days trying to help people take the next step in their careers. You know who else is trying to take the next step in his career? Trump. And he’s doing a surprisingly good job of it.
When Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign last summer, hardly anyone expected it would last this long. Even fewer expected that he would, as of today, be the presumptive Republican nominee.
There are many reasons why we didn’t take him seriously, mostly due to the fact that he is not traditionally qualified for the job. Since 1900, every president had previously held public office or a cabinet position. The exception was General Eisenhower, and Trump is no Eisenhower.
In this context, it is amazing that Trump has managed to come so close to one of the most important jobs in the world. If this was a job application, his resume never would’ve gotten past the first screen. Yet somehow, he’s convinced thousands of voters that he can do the job.
Many of us will attempt similar, albeit lower profile career changes. Whether it’s a new industry or function or just a big promotion, we will aim for a job that is a bit beyond our qualifications.
Anyone who’s attempted a major career change knows it’s hard — why should someone pick us over a more traditionally “attractive” candidate? Without perfect qualifications pulled directly from the job description, how do we explain to an employer what we know to be true — that we will excel in this job if given a chance?
Luckily (or not), we have an extremely public job interview to learn from this year. If there is any silver lining to Trump’s presidential bid, comedy fodder aside, it is insight into how we can overcome barriers to our own career change
Here are a few inadvertent lessons from the Donald.
Many of us make this mistake too — we use cover letters and interviews to recite our resumes like we’re reading a checklist. But while your accomplishments and skills are important, they won’t help an interviewer remember or like you.
Qualifications are commodities. Necessary, but insufficient. Lots of job candidates have similar skills, education, and experience. It is uncommon to have a clearly “best qualified” candidate — or else hiring would be easy. In a world full of good candidates, the person who wins is the one who connects with decision-makers to foster confidence in their choices. He or she transcends their resume by showcasing themselves memorably — engaging stories, creative demonstrations, or sheer enthusiasm. Whether we call it culture fit or just good vibes, it is often these intangible connections that separate winners from the rest.
Trump knows this all too well. Trump plays on voters’ fears — fear of foreign threats, fear of changing demographics, fear of economic loss. His ideas are light on details and realism, but they are relatable and emotionally resonant. They are simplistic and uncompromising, which makes them feel strong. Trump knows his voters feel threatened and afraid. So unlike his competition, Trump isn’t selling a smarter plan or a shinier resume. He’s selling the feeling of power.
Trump does a lot of things that nobody should ever imitate, but he has gone farther with his campaign than we expected. Trump — the career switcher — is an example of how someone can do a lot with a little. And if you’re thinking of leaving the US in the event of a President Trump, you’ll need a new job. The least we can do is learn from him to make our careers great again.
PS: We’re hiring in India and Singapore.
By Anant Gupta
In a few weeks, we’ll be launching the beta version of our app. This is the first app we've built, and as a non-technical person I’m amazed that we even got this far.
When we started a few weeks ago, we had two founders, one goal, and zero clues. I spent a lot of time learning from everyone who would take my call about building apps like ours, and came away even more freaked out about how little we knew, how far we had to go, and how little time we had. Every conversation made our goal feel that much more out of reach.
There’s nothing special about the way I felt about this situation. Think of any ambition, any goal you’ve never followed through on. Training for a marathon, learning a language, quitting your job. Change is a scary road to travel: the path is murky, the end feels distant. It’s easy to nestle ourselves in the familiar comforts of Plan B - the status quo.
In this case, I had no Plan B. I, literally, couldn't afford to not follow through. So I had to figure it out. And the most important thing I did to figure it out was also, perhaps, the simplest.
I gave up on our goal.
Instead of pursuing the outcome, I focused on the process. Instead of one big, vague objective, I defined 34 specific, discrete, actionable steps. While a big goal felt paralyzingly difficult, every little step felt achievable, tangible. And it gave me the confidence to act. Behavioral science tells us a couple of reasons why this worked:
1. Start With One Tooth: As Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg explained - and your frustrated dentist will corroborate - it’s hard to commit to something like flossing every day. It feels like such a hassle. On other other hand, flossing just one tooth trivially easy. When you see how easy one tooth is, you’ll probably floss one more - just for fun. You might even go crazy and finish a few more. Before you know it, you’re flossing every tooth. Even those pesky back molars.
In other words, little steps are easier to commit to. People are much more likely to start and execute a task if it feels accessible, even easy. A task that’s big and abstract is hard to visualize, requires too much imagination to feel realistic. A small and specific task is a (relative) piece of cake. Just make sure to floss after.
2. Green Smoothie vs. Pancake Decisions*: If you start your day with a positive step forward - e.g. a green smoothie, you’ll make “green smoothie decisions" all day. You’ll take the stairs and order a salad. You’ll stand straighter, dress better, call your mother.
Start with pancakes, though, and you’re doomed to "pancake decisions." You’ll probably take that leftover blueberry muffin from the office kitchen, forget your mom’s birthday, and fall asleep wiping Cheetos powder onto your ketchup-stained sweatshirt.
This is because, as the late Dr. Richard Hackman put more eloquently in his research on workplace teams, we tend to enter "self-fueling spirals.” Progress, even small progress, proves to ourselves that change is possible. Incremental steps create opportunities for quick wins. In sum, momentum matters.
Transformation doesn’t happen in big leaps. It is the sum of small parts: discrete steps and cumulative wins. From this single lesson, I've had to reconsider what I thought I was capable of, and change how I approached a bunch of other projects I’ve shunted aside. My dentist is thrilled. Yours might be too.
*Credit to author Kevin Gianni for coining the term
By Anant Gupta
I’m fortunate to have surrounded myself with a lot of high performing people over the years. As I’ve learned to navigate school and career, these people have been my role models, my mentors, and my teachers. Through them, I've tried to understand what it takes to grow and succeed, at work and in life.
It’s a common trope that successful people are lifelong learners. That they never stop being students. That they continuously seek new experiences and push the boundaries of their comfort zones.
This is certainly true in my experience. But that’s not the whole story. Anyone can receive new information, but not everyone truly learns from that information. Think about any class you took in school, or any group trip, challenge or activity. Invariably, some people learned very little, and others extracted tremendous value. In order to be an effective lifelong learner, two things have to be true:
1. We know all of ourselves: Growth starts from a place of healthy self-awareness. Self-awareness requires honest assessment of strengths andweaknesses. Successful people are justifiably confident with their strengths, but they also acknowledge their weaknesses. Before you can improve, we have to identify where there is room to improve.
2. We believe in “yet”: In addition to knowing that we have room to improve, we have to believe we have the capacity to improve. Weaknesses aren’t immutable character flaws; they are strengths that just haven’t been developed…yet. This isn’t as simple as it might sound. As Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck describes in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, many of us are raised to believe that intelligence and talent are fixed, based on innate ability. These people avoid challenges and stress about looking smart, because failure is a slight on their value as people. The most successful people I know don’t subscribe to this idea – they believe they can improve through effort. People who believe they can grow are willing to be wrong, to look dumb. Embarrassment is simply the first step on the path to competence.
We know it’s important to be a lifelong learner. To do this, we must adopt a growth mindset, borne out of awareness and acceptance of our strengths and limitations. It’s a bit of a Catch 22, of course, but the best way to adopt a growth mindset is to practice. Be mindful of every time you say "I can't..." Pick one thing you're not good at and set aside time for deliberate practice. Track your improvement. It won't all work out right away. But through small, incremental challenges and experiences, we’ll get better.
By Indranil Sarkar
At 9am on a weekday, the New Delhi metro, which transports more than 2.5 million passengers daily, is bustling with white-collar professionals going to work. Most of them are glued to their sparkling new smartphones with ferocious intensity and focus – if an alien from Mars were to be observing this, they would be confused by the ‘magic’ in these palm sized devices that can captivate an audience so effectively for hours at a time. Little do they know that many of these respectably attired folks are busy ‘crushing candies’ or ‘flinging birds’.
Almost every white collar professional today in India has access to a smartphone – but how many of them use these powerful devices to acquire new knowledge and new professional capabilities everyday? The world of business is evolving daily rendering skills and capabilities obsolete within a few years. Is it that professionals are just not interested in becoming more competent and advancing in their career? Doesn’t sound likely - so what is the problem then?