Hot Water


I was recently presenting a workshop and during a break one of the participants said to me “You must spend a lot of time learning important things every day.” I smiled. He asked what did I learn the evening before the workshop.

I said “Hot water.”

Here’s the story. I was washing the soap off my hands and the water was cold. The soap left a soapy residue. So I turned on the hot and Presto it was nice and clean. My quest for knowledge as always started with a “Why? … why does hot water remove the soap better than cold?”

The answer is complex and wonderful thanks to @chris at StackExchange on physics:

“The other answers are correct, but I think that you might benefit from a more “microscopic” view of what is happening here.

Whenever one substance (a solute) dissolves in another (a solvent), what happens on the molecular scale is that the solute molecules are surrounded by the solvent molecules.

What causes that to happen? As @Chris described, there are two principles at work – thermodynamics, and kinetics.

In plain terms, you could think of thermodynamics as an answer to the question “how much will dissolve if I wait for an infinite amount of time,” whereas kinetics answers the question “how long do I have to wait before X amount dissolves.” Both questions are not usually easy to answer on the macroscopic scale (our world), but they are both governed by two very easy to understand principles on the microscopic scale (the world of molecules): potential and kinetic energy.

Potential Energy

On the macroscopic scale, we typically only think about gravitational potential energy – the field responsible for the force of gravity. We are used to thinking about objects that are high above the earth’s surface falling towards the earth when given the opportunity. If I show you a picture of a rock sitting on the surface of the earth:

Example of a potential energy surface

And then ask “Where is the rock going to go?” you have a pretty good idea: it’s going to go to the lowest point (we are including friction here).

On the microscopic scale, gravitational fields are extremely weak, but in their place, we have electrostatic potential energy fields. These are similar in the sense that things try to move to get from high potential energy to lower potential energies, but with one key difference: you can have negative and positive charges, and when charges have the opposite sign they attract each other, and when they have the same sign, they repel each other.

Now, the details of how each individual molecule gets to have a particular charge are fairly complicated, but we can get away with understanding just one thing:

All molecules have some attractive potential energy between them, but the magnitude of that potential energy varies by a lot. For example, the force between the hydrogen atom on one water molecule (H2OH2O) and the oxygen atom on another water molecule is roughly 100 times stronger than the force between two oxygen molecules (O2O2). This is because the charge difference on water molecules is much greater (about 100 times) than the charge difference on oxygen molecules.

What this means is we can always think of the potential energy between two atoms as looking something like this:

enter image description here

The “ghost” particle represents a stationary atom, and the line represents the potential energy “surface” that another atom would see. From this graph, hopefully, you can see that the moving atom would tend to fall towards the stationary atom until it just touches it, at which point it would stop. Since all atoms have some attractive force between them, and only the magnitude varies, we can keep this picture in our minds and just change the depth of the potential energy “well” to make the forces stronger or weaker.

Kinetic Energy

Let’s modify the first potential energy surface just a little bit:

Kinetically trapped rock

Now if I ask “where is the rock going to go?,” It’s a little bit tougher to answer. The reason is that you can tell the rock is “trapped” in the first little valley. Intuitively, you probably can see that if it had some velocity or some kinetic energy, it could escape the first valley and would wind up in the second. Thinking about it this way, you can also see that even in the first picture, it would need a little bit of kinetic energy to get moving. You can also see that if either rock has a lot of kinetic energy, it will actually go past the deeper valley and wind up somewhere past the right side of the image.

What we can take away from this is that potential energy surfaces tell use where things want (I use the term very loosely) to go, while kinetic energy tells us whether they are able to get there.

Let’s look at another microscopic picture:

enter image description here

Now the atoms from before are at their lowest potential energy. In order for them to come apart, you will need to give them some kinetic energy.

How do we give atoms kinetic energy? By increasing the temperature. Temperature is directly related to kinetic energy – as the temperature goes up, so does the average kinetic energy of every atom and molecule in a system.

By now you might be able to guess how increasing the temperature of water helps it to clean more effectively, but let’s look at some details to be sure.


We can take the microscopic picture of potential and kinetic energies and extract two important guidelines from it:

  1. All atoms are “sticky,” although some are stickier than others
  2. Higher temperatures mean that atoms have larger kinetic energies

Going back to the coffee cup question, all we need to do now is think about how these will play out with the particular molecules you are looking at.

Coffee is a mixture of lots of different stuff – oils, water-soluble compounds, burnt hydrocarbons (for an old coffee cup), etc. Each of these things has a different “stickiness.” Oils are not very sticky at all – the attractive forces between them are fairly weak. Water-soluble compounds are very “sticky” – they attract each other strongly because they have large charges. Since water molecules also have large charges, this is what makes water-soluble compounds water-soluble – they stick to water easily. Burnt hydrocarbons are not very sticky, sort of like oils.

Since molecules with large charges tend to stick to water molecules, we call them hydrophilic – meaning that they “love” water. Molecules that don’t have large charges are called hydrophobic – they “fear” water. Although the name suggests they are repelled by water, it’s important to know that there aren’t actually any repelling forces between water and hydrophobic compounds – it’s just that water likes itself so much, the hydrophobic compounds are excluded and wind up sticking to each other.

Going back to the dirty coffee cup, when we add water and start scrubbing, a bunch of stuff happens:

Hydrophilic Compounds

Hydrophilic compounds dissolve quickly in water because they stick to water pretty well compared to how well they stick to each other and to the cup. In the case where they stick to each other or the cup better than water, the difference isn’t huge, so it doesn’t take much kinetic energy to get them into the water. So, warm water makes them dissolve more easily.

Hydrophobic Compounds

Hydrophobic compounds (oils, burnt stuff, most stains) don’t stick to the water. They stick to each other a little bit (remember that the forces are much weaker compared to water since the charges are very small), but water sticks to itself so well that the oils don’t have a chance to get between the water molecules. We can scrub them, which will provide enough energy to knock them loose and allow the water to carry them away, but if we were to increase the kinetic energy as well by increasing the water temperature, we could overcome both the weaker forces holding the hydrophobic compounds together, while simultaneously giving the water molecules more mobility so they can move apart and let the hydrophobic compounds in. And so, warmer water makes it easier to wash away hydrophobic compounds as well.

Macroscopic View

We can tie this back to the original thermodynamics vs. kinetics discussion. If you increase the temperature of the water, the answer to the question “How much will dissolve” is “more.” (That was the thermodynamics part). The answer to “How long will it take” is “not as long” (kinetics).

And as @anna said, there are other things you can do to make it even easier. Soap, for example, is made of long-chain molecules with one charged end and one uncharged end. This means one end is hydrophilic, while the other end is hydrophobic. When you add soap to the picture, the hydrophilic end goes into the water while the hydrophobic end tries to surround the oils and burnt stuff. The net result is little “bubbles” (called micelles) made up of soap molecules surrounding hydrophobic molecules that are in turn surrounded by water.”

…and that’s what I learned by asking about hot water.

So there’s a point here about learning. Learning is curiosity fueled by a solid dose of “whyness” supported by an open mind. Learning is always on if you are endlessly curious and it has nothing to do with what you are told to learn, supposed to learn, need to learn, or are forced to learn. It’s the innate response to the curiosity that has driven knowledge and know-how for 100,000 years of human thinking. It is I believe the thing that separates us from all other creatures and the major reason our brains grew to where we are today. Why and how we learn has been the focus of years of my study and conversations, writing and research.

Next question ….

Keynote at Learning Technologies France

I gave this keynote in Paris focusing on the research that went into my book Minds at Work: Managing for Success in the Knowledge Economy.  It’s become the central theme in the work I’m doing and underpins what I believe is forcing so many changes in work and learning around the world. Let me know what you think.


eLearning Learning Award


Kudos to my co-author and friend Steve Gill

Learning in a Managing Minds Company

Following is an excerpt from our new book, Minds at Work: Managing for Success in the Knowledge Economy (Chapter Two).


The future of how we learn in our organizations is a popular topic. But unless you are responsible for developing, delivering, managing, and measuring training and learning, keeping up with the latest learning technologies can be overwhelming. It’s also irrelevant to the discussion of managing minds.

The training and learning technology discussions miss the point. Unless a company is making a basic change in the way it manages people, the tools will never have an impact on the way people think, act, and grow every day, and they won’t boost performance or drive business results. A company managing hands can buy and use every tool in the training and learning toolbox, but if the use is not mandated or pushed by the organization, if sharing knowledge is not a basic tenet for working, if the knowledge isn’t available anytime and anywhere, if collaboration and communication are absent, if there is no feedback, then the new tools and technologies will not make the company any smarter.

Our approach is to suggest new ways of facilitating learning that fit into managing minds. All L&D tools and technology can be utilized in this context. The three keys to successfully managing minds are essentially the competencies needed to move forward and succeed in the knowledge economy.

  1. Learning independently. In a company that manages minds, people need to take responsibility for learning what they need to know and do. This means that they need to be aware of what they’re doing now and what they may be called upon to do in the future. They need to know what is relevant for them to learn and be empowered to learn what is necessary today and in preparation for tomorrow. They need to understand that what they learn will help the company meet its business goals. They must be able to develop and maintain their own learning plans and portfolios, and be prepared to act as teachers and mentors for other people in the company. Independent learners are capable of successfully meeting the requirements of learning projects they choose, whether it’s the completion and a passing grade, measures of competency, or an actual project deliverable.
  2. Learning interactively. Technology is and will continue to be an integral part of managing; people need to use the tools available today, and look for and be willing to adopt any tools developed in the future. This includes knowing the most efficient and effective way to use the technology to communicate and collaborate, as well as being confident enough to interact with the technology in ways that actively provide input to help others learn. For example, smartphones can provide workers with just-in-time information to solve a problem, operate a machine, or collaborate more effectively with an employee.
  3. Learning socially. Being part of the collective group, acting as a dynamic node in an interconnected web of people learning continuously, is also important. To be a successful social learner means being able to empathize and relate to others, communicate effectively, collaborate cooperatively, resolve conflicts, and balance different perspectives and opinions. Much of learning in organizations is social; therefore, it makes sense to be intentional about creating opportunities for people to connect.

These three competencies are how people learn in a company that is successfully managing minds. They differ dramatically from the ways people learned when they were in organizations that managed hands.

Differences Between Managing Hands and Minds:

Managing Hands Managing Minds
Passive Active
Dependent Independent
Fearful Fearless
Obeying Challenging
Closed-Minded Open-Minded
Rigid Roles Fluid Roles
Conforming Nonconforming
Not Curious Curious
Thoughtless Thoughtful
Unmotivated Motivated
Following Leading
Stupid Smart

This last distinction is not unsupported. André Spicer, professor of organizational behavior at the Cass Business School at City, University of London, has spent years talking with hundreds of the best and brightest minds to graduate from some of the most prestigious universities. The eye-opening discovery in his 2017 book, The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity, co-authored with Mats Alvesson, was that when people with impressive educational credentials go to work for the most well-known companies in the world, they are asked to turn off their brains. Many of the companies surveyed in the book should be managing minds.

Yet the predominant environment supports—promotes, even—the traits listed on the left side of the list. This is perhaps a result of short-term thinking, in which following the rules, adding regulations without reason, not asking for justification for decisions (especially from self-appointed leaders), not asking questions, and essentially, not thinking for yourself. These managing hands traits can be found in an organization that is obedient, nice, agreeable, harmonious, and seemingly successful in the short term. The problem is the long term. Asking people not to use their minds is simply asking them to ignore personal growth and satisfaction; not pay attention to long-term organizational competitiveness, innovation, and success; and not participate in the improvement and development of society.

48 Books Every Aspiring Chief Learning Officer Should Read


From the talented folks at Talent LMS:

I might be biased, but being part of the learning and development community is not only fascinating but rewarding. As a multidisciplinary field that spans the entire employee lifecycle (from recruitment to retirement), it often feels like you’re wearing more hats than you even own.

This is the precise reason it remains such a compelling subject. But it’s also the reason that to be the best trainer/ training manager/ chief learning officer, you have to keep your learning and development top of mind too.

This is why my team and I put together this list of forty-eight books. We hope that you’ll find at least one (or maybe a few more than that) that aren’t in your training bookshelf already. Use them to get better at this thing you care about so much.

And here’s the great link, with a useful list of books to read for anyone involved or interested in the business of learning.

Great Books for the Business of Learning


The Short Definition of Learning


Real learning is the ability to adopt what you know and know-how to do and adapt it under an everchanging variety of circumstances.

No point beating around the pedagogical bush. I’ve been asked by a number of people at my workshops and presentations, “How would you define real learning?”

Real learning is the ability to adopt what you know and know-how to do and adapt it under an everchanging variety of circumstances. Learning is an ongoing process. 

That’s my definition and I’m sticking to it.

Real Learning Versus Rote Learning

Learning in a classroom, actual or online, involves the use of short-term memory. It is all about remembering – regurgitating – then forgetting. It is rote learning, the encumbered and inhibited kind we are mostly used to doing. You remember the lesson and show that you remember through a variety of tests and then move on. Moving on is all about forgetting. With two interesting and notable exceptions. Art. Science. The reason is simple. Art and Science require an evolving degree of knowledge from basic to advanced. Think learning to play the tuba or building a car. It’s the kind of subject matter that was always learned by apprenticing or being tutored by a master. You need basic math to get to algebraic equations and then onto experimental astrophysics. If you don’t master the fingering you cannot play a decent scale let alone get to a Bach sonata.

By contrast, real learning is somewhat like sleeping. (Not the sleeping you do when a sage-on-the-stage drone on in that sonorous monotone and lulls you into dreamland.) You do not “fall” to sleep, you go through a process of sleeping, through stages. If you’re constantly interrupted you wake up the next morning feeling like you had a bad night sleep. Real learning requires stages as well, and you cannot skip over any of them.

Playing Golf: Spaghetti on the Putting Green

Even though I do not play the game, I use golf as an example to explain the process of real learning. Interestingly a recent number of neuroscience researchers have been doing the same. They talk about reaching a point during the adoption phase where you peak at the physical learning part of the game, and you move on to the strategic or mental part. Your body has practiced so much it has really learned what to do, and now it’s on to the rest of you to learn to find the spot where you want the ball to go. Feel the wind. Sense the way the green curves. Before you get to that stage you spend a lot of time looking all over the place. They followed the eye patterns of novice golfers on a green, lining up a putt, and when they illustrated their eye movements it looked like someone had thrown a plate of spaghetti on the green. Lines and loops going every which way. With the top golfers, the eye patterns were only a few lines, most of them moving directly towards the cup.

When you have learned to play well enough, the body part of the learning to play golf is done, and your mind is free to focus focus focus. You reached the point where you are in the zone. It’s like sleep where you managed to avoid being interrupted until you reach Phase 5 – dreaming.

Why Do We Continue to Fake It?

Rote learning is an incredible waste of time and money. So much of what we learn in school, and in companies that have copied the schoolplace model into the workplace, is forgotten. It does not build on itself from experience. Not just experience in the sense of doing but even experience of knowing more. Even though history, for example, should take you from the Year One up until Today, and then deeper into every era, most of what you learn about history you quickly test and rapidly excrete. That’s just the way the system measures and rewards the student. It has nothing to do with truly learning about history. Or any other subject as well. And it certainly fails miserably at providing the 21st century skills we need for the emerging Knowledge Economy.

My Story About History and Herstory

Side note: An alternative example of real learning. I had the advantage of going to a school – at the time it was called “experimental” – where we spent two years moving through time. Going to school was like being in a time machine. For example, when we were learning about the period called the 16th century, we did not have just one short history lesson but learned everything 16th century. We were taught about their language, words, maps, arts, crafts, clothes, sciences, cultures, politics, music, poetry, literature, plays, travels, trade, religions, wars, weapons, you name it. We were immersed in the 16th century. It felt like we were in the 16th century. It’s just another model that while not perfect, teaches you more about history than the 3 weeks you get in most schools before jumping ahead from the 16th to the 17th century.

Back to real learning versus rote learning. There are two very surprising elements to real, uninhibited learning that the fake pale excuse of rote learning excludes, disables, and even prohibits.

The Critical Importance of Forgetting

The first is that real learning starts with forgetting – making room for the new. If you have a hard time forgetting the old you will have a difficult time starting to learn the new. If you had a hard time learning what you know, then you will also try and hold on to the old and not learn the new. And be honest we’ve all experienced it. That moment when they upgrade or change a process or procedure or tool you know how to use and you exclaim “Hey, I just learned how to use it, and they’re already changing it!” So you need to be able to clear the mental cache to use a materialistic model of the brain.

It’s Not Failure if You Learn Something

The second big part – really big part – of real learning is failure. Failure happens. When you are adapting what you learned from the last time you did it or thought it or spoke it or argued it or whatever, you will experience failure. Smart people, who are real learners, go “Oh I failed, okay what did I do wrong and how can I fix it so next time I do it right?” Einstein. Edison. Dyson. My Uncle Karl. Long list. So you need to accept and enable failure for the process of real learning to work. And if “failure is not an option” then you will not fail and not learn anything.

If you are involved in any kind of learning, and forgetting and failure are not emphasized as part of the learning … leave. You will not really learn a thing. If forgetting what you know at the start (I love that movie scene where the Sargent – Captain – Leader says “Okay you idiots for starters I want you to forget everything you ever learned!”) then real learning will not happen. By the way, forgetting is a brain function as carefully studied by neuroscience as remembering. Imagine what your life would be like if you could not forget what you learned the first (and last) time you learned it …

The “High Wire Training” Exception

Now there is what I call “High Wire Training” where failure leads to your or someone else’s death. Walking across the Grand Canyon. Going into battle in Afghanistan. Responding to a 911 emergency involving a mass shooting or horrible car accident. Let’s be honest. Most of what we learn is not in the High Wire Training category. If it was, this would be a very different blog with a focus on practice, practice and more practice. Repetition. Simulation. VR headsets and more … hmmm … maybe next time.

To sum it up. Learning is a natural brain process that occurs in stages. Real learning enables all the stages. Rote learning disables the stages and focuses on a small part of the process. I’m not sure what value rote learning has in today’s world. Then again I’m not sure it ever had any real value. What’s the point of spending time and energy learning something only to forget it almost immediately after the test?

To review: Real learning is the ability to adopt what you know and know-how to do and adapt it under an everchanging variety of circumstances. 

It is one of the reasons my new book Minds at Work harps on the need for continuous learning in the Knowledge Economy where every day – using what you know and know-how to do – is more than ever under the pressure of constantly changing circumstances.