Learning to Learn

Organizations today are in constant flux. Industries are consolidating, new business models are emerging, new technologies are being developed, and consumer behaviors are evolving. For executives, the ever-increasing pace of change can be especially demanding. It forces them to understand and quickly respond to big shifts in the way companies operate and how work must get done. In the words of Arie de Geus, a business theorist, “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”

This isn’t relaxed armchair or even structured classroom learning. It’s about resisting the bias against doing new things, scanning the horizon for growth opportunities, and pushing yourself to acquire radically different capabilities—while still performing your job. That requires a willingness to experiment and become a novice again and again: an extremely discomforting notion for most of us. The people who succeed at this kind of learning have four attributes that they have in spades:

aspiration, self-awareness, curiosity and vulnerability.

They truly want to understand and master new skills; they see themselves very clearly;

they constantly think of and ask good questions and they tolerate their own mistakes as they move up the learning curve.

Of course, these things come more naturally to some people than to others. However, here some fairly simple mental tools anyone can develop to boost all four attributes—even those that are often considered fixed (aspiration, curiosity, and vulnerability).


 It’s easy to see aspiration as either there or not: You want to learn a

new skill or you don’t; you have ambition and motivation or you lack

them. But great learners can raise their aspiration level—and that’s key because everyone is guilty of sometimes resisting development that is critical to success.

Think about the last time your company adopted a new approach— overhauled a reporting system, replaced a CRM platform, revamped the supply chain. Were you eager to go along? I doubt it. Your initial response was probably to justify not learning. (It will take too long. The old way works just fine for me. I bet it’s just a flash in the pan.) When confronted with new learning, this is often our first roadblock: We focus on the negative and unconsciously reinforce our lack of aspiration.

When we do want to learn something, we focus on the positive— what we’ll gain from learning it— and envision a happy future in which we’re reaping those rewards. That

propels us into action. Researchers have found that shifting your focus from challenges to benefits is a good way to increase your aspiration to

do initially unappealing things.

For example, when Nicole Detling, a psychologist at the University

of Utah, encouraged aerialists and speed skaters to picture themselves benefiting from a particular skill, they were much more motivated to practice it.


Over the past decade or so, most leaders have grown familiar with

the concept of self-awareness. They understand that they need to solicit

feedback and recognize how others see them. But when it comes to the

need for learning, our assessments of ourselves—what we know and don’t know, skills we have and don’t have—can still be woefully inaccurate. In one study conducted by David Dunning, a Cornell University psychologist, 94% of college professors reported that they were doing “above average work.” Clearly, almost half were wrong— many extremely so—and their self-deception surely diminished any appetite for development. Only 6% of respondents saw themselves as having a lot to learn about being an effective teacher.

The people who evaluate themselves most accurately start the process inside their own heads: They accept that their perspective is often biased

or flawed and then strive for greater objectivity, which leaves them much

more open to hearing and acting on others’ opinions. The trick is to pay attention to how you talk to yourself about yourself and then question the validity of that “self-talk.”

Let’s say your boss has told you that your team isn’t strong enough and that you need to get better at assessing and developing talent. Your initial reaction might be something like “What? She’s wrong. My team is strong.” Most of us respond defensively to that sort of criticism. But as soon as you recognize what you’re thinking, ask yourself, Is that accurate? What facts do I have to support it? In the process of reflection, you may discover that you’re wrong and your boss is right, or that the truth lies somewhere in between— you cover for some of your reports by doing things yourself, and one of them is inconsistent in meeting deadlines; however, two others are stars. Your inner voice is most useful when it reports the facts of a situation in this balanced way. It should serve as a “fair witness” so that you’re open to seeing the areas in which you could improve and how to do so.


 Kids are relentless in their urge to learn and master. As John Medina writes in Brain Rules, “This need for explanation is so powerfully stitched into their experience that some scientists describe it as a drive, just as hunger and thirst are drives.” Curiosity is what makes us try something until we can do it, or think about something until we understand it. Great learners retain this childhood drive or regain it through another application of self-talk. Instead of focusing on and reinforcing initial disinterest in a new subject, they learn to ask themselves “curious questions” about it and follow those questions up with actions. Carol Sansone, a psychology researcher, has found, for example, that people can increase their willingness to tackle necessary tasks by thinking about how they could do the work differently to make it more interesting. In other words, they change their self-talk from This is boring to I wonder if I could…?

You can employ the same strategy in your working life by noticing the language you use in thinking about things that already interest you:

How…? Why…? I wonder…?

—and drawing on it when you need to become curious. Then take just one step to answer a question you’ve asked yourself: Read an article, query an expert, find a teacher, join a group—whatever feels easiest.

The next time you’re asked to learn something at the office, or sense

that you should because colleagues are doing so, encourage yourself to ask and answer a few curious questions about it—Why are others so excited about this? How might this make my job easier? —and then seek out the answers. You’ll need to find

just one thing about a “boring” topic that sparks your curiosity.


Once we become good or even excellent at some things, we rarely

want to go back to being not good at other things. Yes, we’re now taught to embrace experimentation and “fast failure” at work. But we’re also taught to play to our strengths. So the idea of being bad at something for weeks or months; feeling awkward and slow; having to ask “dumb,” “I-don’t know- what-you’re-talking-about”

questions; and needing step-by-step guidance, again and again is extremely scary.

Great learners allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to accept that beginner state. In fact, they become reasonably comfortable in it—by managing their self-talk.

Generally, when we’re trying something new and doing badly at it, we think terrible thoughts: I hate this. I’m such an idiot. I’ll never get this right. This is so frustrating! That static in our brains leaves little bandwidth for learning. The ideal mindset for a beginner is both vulnerable and balanced: I’m going to be bad at this to start with  because I’ve never done it before. AND I know I can learn to do it over time. In fact, the researchers Robert Wood and Albert Bandura found in the late 1980s that when people are encouraged to expect mistakes and learn from them early in the process of

acquiring new skills, the result is “heightened interest, persistence, and better performance.”

THE ABILITY to acquire new skills and knowledge quickly and continually is crucial to success in a world of rapid change. If you don’t currently have the aspiration, self-awareness, curiosity, and vulnerability to be an effective learner, these simple tools can help you get there.

– Mental tools to help you master new skills by Erika Andersen


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