Learn Better

Why Walt Whitman’s Secret Writings on Training Are More Relevant than Ever

Written by Grovo


While Walt Whitman was writing Leaves of Grass—perhaps the most important book of poetry in American history—he was producing an advice column on the side under the pen name Mose Velser. Whitman’s long-lost essays on “Manly Health and Training,” which ran weekly in the New York Atlas newspaper in 1858, were discovered by a graduate student digging through microfilm at the University of Houston in 2016.

The essays have now been cut up, curated, and published in a short, stylish volume by Ten Cent Press.

It was this edition that I found myself perusing in the bookstore this weekend. Thumbing through, I was amazed that a 19th century poet was giving essentially the same advice on training as you are likely to encounter in the latest issue of HR Magazine—only with more eloquence and lyricism than most writers today can muster.

Although they are couched in the vocabulary of “manly health,” here are six pieces of advice from Walt Whitman that every talent, HR, and learning leader should apply to their organization:

On learning more

“For he who once gets started, fully awakened to the precious endowment he has in his own body, beyond all other wealth that can be acquired by man, will not cease his interest in the subject, but will go on toward a greater and greater degree of inquiry, knowledge, and perfection.”

Whitman’s insight is that the more you learn, the better you get at learning more.

This is true for two reasons. First, learning builds self-efficacy; the belief that you can succeed. As people see themselves making progress, they acquire more motivation to help them get over the next hump.

Second, learning leads to neurological effects that make it easier—and less painful—to keep getting better. As psychologist Anders Ericsson writes in the book Peak, “We know that any sort of extended practice—playing chess or a musical instrument, learning mathematics, and so on— produces changes in the brain that lead to increased abilities in the skill being practiced.”

So, however important it is to learn entirely new things at work, encourage your people to deliberately practice what they’re already good at. They will have the requisite self-efficacy and the neurological foundation to continue to improve.

A young Walt Whitman, before he got into L&D

On the benefits of L&D

“The observance of the laws of manly training, duly followed, can utterly rout and do away with the curse of a depressed mind, melancholy, ‘ennui,’ which now, in more than half the men of America, blights a large portion of the days of their existence.”

This sure sounds like the 1850s version of an employee engagement problem.

Whitman’s description of depressed minds, melancholy, and ennui among half the population foreshadows the latest Gallup report, which finds that 70% of American workers are not engaged at work.

And now, as then, the solution is training and development.

Companies that invest in formal training and development see less turnover and higher productivity than industry peers, both signs of engaged workers. And millennials now list learning and development opportunities as the benefit they most desire from employers – even more than a competitive salary.

On the learning environment

“Training, however, it is always to be borne in mind, does not consist in mere exercise. Equally important with that are the diet, drink, habits, sleep, etc.”

We often forget about the factors that surround training that will truly determine its impact. Not diet and drink exactly, but other environmental ingredients that can make or break the effectiveness of a learning experience.

Do employees have a space to focus on what they’re learning without being distracted?

Do they have a support group of other learners whom they can lean on for encouragement or advice?

Do employees have good learning habits—a consistent time each day to learn, or the wherewithal to immediately apply to the real world what they have just learned?

And to Whitman’s point, are you taking advantage of the learning powers of sleep? Employees running on a sleep deficit often lack the focus and concentration required to learn effectively. Sleep also helps integrate and consolidate memories, so make sure to schedule training events across multiple days, rather than all at once.

Walt Whitman gazes into the future, dismayed by some of the corporate learning practices he sees in 2017

On lifelong learning

“[Training should be] a regular and systematic thing through life. Not only in young manhood, but in middle age, and in advanced age, also, modified to suit its appropriate requirements, should the course of training be persevered in, without intermission.”

We can take Whitman’s idea and apply it to the organization: training should happen “without intermission” throughout the employee lifecycle. Consider, do you provide training to your employees at each of these moments of need?

  • Joining the organization
  • Joining a new team
  • Using new technology
  • Becoming a manager
  • Interviewing someone for the first time
  • Leading a project for the first time
  • Giving a big presentation for the first time
  • Etc.

And how long after or before each of these moments do people receive training—is it delivered “without intermission” or weeks/months from when someone truly needs it?

If at some moment or other there seems to be no point of need for training, you can create one. Assign a new project, give someone a new responsibility, or declare a new company initiative to create motivation and keep people in the habit of learning continuously.

A statue of Whitman with a butterfly, a symbol of transformation

On how to train

“Daily training should be done systematically, and gradually increased upon, making the exertion harder and harder.”

The idea of daily training in the workplace is beginning to catch on. Grovo’s philosophy is 5 minutes of microlearning a day, starting with a review of what was learned the previous day.

To Whitman’s point, this daily training should not be linear. It should become increasingly more difficult, staying in what is called the zone of proximal development. Pushing outside of one’s comfort zone is really the only way to continue to improve. As soon as learning stops being hard, it stops altogether.

Does what your people learn continue to challenge them?

On training results

“The results of properly chosen and well-continued courses of training are so valuable and so numerous that in mentioning them we would seem to be mentioning most of the precious treasures of character.”

Yeah yeah, but what’s the business impact?

Looking to create a culture of continuous learning in your organization? Download our book on microlearning to learn how.