Learning How to Learn Advances Careers

Even early in your career, it can be tempting to focus solely on areas where you already excel and avoid those you have not yet mastered. Big mistake. Because expanding your knowledge and skills opens new doors for personal development and career advancement. Perhaps even better, learning how to learn can set you and your organization up for competitive advantage in dynamic environments where what you are good at today may not serve you as well tomorrow.

Learning How to Learn Advances Careers
Maybe you’ve had the experience of sitting through a class, attending a seminar or working through a self-paced course to learn something new and found the process quickly became tedious and the information just wouldn’t “stick.” The problem could be how you’re going about it and the attitude you bring to it.
Author of Be Bad First: Get Good at Things Fast to Stay Ready for the Future, Erika Andersen,
says the best way to start is by opening your mind to the idea of learning. This can include:
  • Resisting bias against doing new things
  • Scanning the horizon for growth opportunities
  • Pushing yourself to acquire radically different capabilities
  • Being willing to become a novice again
In an article published in Harvard Business Review, Andersen and her colleagues identified four attributes people who excel at learning new things quickly tend to possess. And, they say all four can be intentionally developed and expanded.
When something appeals to us, say learning to cook or taking up golf, we see the positives and what we are likely to gain from the learning. When something doesn’t appeal (perhaps mastering that new accounting software) we focus on the negatives. These might include how much time it will take to learn, whether it’s really better than the old way or the downtime involved in making the transition.
Shifting your focus to the benefits of learning something new can increase your aspiration to master it. Another powerful exercise is to imagine yourself a year later having mastered the skill and where that might put you in your career at that time.
In a 2018 U.S.-based nationally representative survey, 65 percent of people rated themselves as more intelligent than average. In another study conducted by researchers at Cornell University, 94 percent of college professors reported they were doing “above average work.” Of course, by definition, those numbers don’t work, suggesting a lack of self-awareness and understanding of our own capabilities.
Unrealistic views of your current abilities are a bad place to start new learning. Thinking you are much more skilled than you are can make you resistant to new information. And thinking you are far worse than you are can stop you from even trying to improve.
Step back for a moment and try to look at yourself objectively. Ask the tough questions and answer them honestly. If you can develop a more realistic view of your current skills, you will be more open to feedback from others and to learning something new.  
Being curious about people, how things work and new information is a powerful way to reframe intimidating situations and even boring projects and trick your brain into getting engaged. Instead of asking, “Why do I even have to learn this?” or “Could this be any more boring?” try posing more curious questions. Better questions tend to elicit better answers.
For example, you might ask, “How would knowing this set me up for success now and advancement in the future?” or “What do others find exciting about this topic?” Find the angle that works to spark your initial curiosity about learning something new.
You are an accomplished professional so you are already good at lots of things. Competence feels great. Starting something from scratch that you will not be good at for some time may not feel as great. But embracing the idea of being a novice again (and again and again) is an incredibly powerful tool to boost learning.
Check out what BrenĂ© Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, a 2019 WFF Leadership Conference keynote speaker, says about vulnerability or what Carol Dweck, Ph.D.,  says about a growth mindset. Their insights can help you spark a healthier conversation with yourself about expecting mistakes and persevering anyway. Even just acknowledging that you’re a beginner in a particular situation can be a huge relief and relax your mind enough to engage in real learning.
Knowing how to set yourself up for learning is a key ingredient to setting yourself up for success. You can accomplish both goals at WFF’s 2020 Leadership Conference. Register today for this event March 29-April 1 in Dallas and accelerate your learning.

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