Learning itself is a skill. Unlocking the mindsets and skills to develop it can boost personal and professional lives and deliver a competitive edge
The call for individuals and organizations
Foster learning by adjusting two critical mindsets
Each of us can become an intentional learner. It’s not as hard as it sounds.
Adopt a growth mindset
Feed your curiosity
- Face your fears. Fear is a significant barrier to curiosity; confronting those fears can be an important way to unlock learning skills. Spend a bit of time reflecting. What prevents you from asking questions in meetings? What keeps you from trying new things? What makes you reluctant to accept new assignments? Once you name what you are afraid of, you can decide how to address it.
- Seek novel experiences and ideas. New environments, new experiences, and exposure to new groups of people can all spark curiosity. Your search for the new can be as dramatic as moving to a new country or as simple as watching a documentary on a topic you don’t know anything about. The key is to avoid stagnation by feeding your mind with something new.
- Focus on what you love. Your curiosity doesn’t have to be confined to your career—cultivating the muscle in anything you do will serve all parts of your life. Consider collecting skills and interests outside your day job. Maybe you love podcasts, build engines, coach a sports team, or play an instrument in your spare time. Whatever you love to do, do more of it.
Practice, practice, practice: The five core skills of intentional learners
Set small, clear goals
Set a goal that matters to you. Goals are a source of energy and motivation. Yours may be a career goal (for example, becoming a chief technology officer) or something more skill specific—say, improving your presentation skills. Either is fine if you really care about accomplishing that goal. You might also consider your goals through the lens of what is important to your organization: what of the emerging opportunities or challenges it faces excite you, and how you can shape a goal for yourself that allows you to embrace them (see sidebar “Creating a culture of intentional learning”).
Make the goal concrete. Be specific and explicit about what you will accomplish, but also take time to articulate why this goal matters to you. It can be fun to learn for learning’s sake (what researchers call epistemic curiosity), but for many people this doesn’t provide the same kind of anchor for learning as a goal directed at solving a problem or facing a challenge. “I’d like to learn more about technology,” for example, won’t give you the same kind of focused direction as “I’d like to be a great thought partner for digital experts and be able to solve problems with them.”
Adopt a ‘once in a career’ mindset. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said no one “ever steps in the same river twice,” for neither the river nor the person remains unchanged by the passage of time. Perhaps you weren’t excited about helping your entire team to work remotely or optimizing all your customer-service processes for digital, but this also might be the only moment in your career when you have that opportunity. A once-in-a-career mindset that both enjoys and learns from every opportunity (because it may be the only such opportunity in your career) is a powerful reframing technique. Rather than letting unique opportunities go to waste, setting goals with this mindset helps you squeeze every drop of learning from even the most challenging circumstances.
Be mindful in the moment. Even with the best intentions, things will get in the way of learning. Ready yourself for the deeper work of learning by minimizing distractions in your environment and managing your energy. Separate yourself from your devices. Take a walk before you start a long period of focus. Set an alarm reminding you to stretch every hour. Set up your workspace to eliminate distractions.
Conduct experiments and be flexible. It may take time and iteration to find what works for you. Consider small experiments and reflect on how successfully they help you reinvest some of your time. Nothing works perfectly but, perhaps more important, nothing works forever. Commit yourself to being intentional about learning and protecting time, but be open to flexing specific strategies as your circumstances change.
Actively seek actionable feedback
Prime others. Focus people on what you are working on. After an important meeting, many of us have probably asked a colleague, “What did you think?” It’s very different to say to someone before a meeting, “I’m working on managing my reactions when my ideas are challenged. I’d love for you to watch for that and give me feedback after the meeting.” Broadcasting what you are working on increases your chances of receiving tailored, actionable feedback.
Press for details. Feedback is most helpful when it’s actionable, and actionable feedback most often comes from details and examples. If someone comments that you seemed defensive during a meeting, probe for more information. Did my defensiveness show up in my facial expressions or body language? Did my tone of voice change? What did I say that suggested this reaction?
Decide how to treat feedback. This might seem surprising, but how you judge your ability to handle and act on feedback plays a critical role in the way an intentional learner responds to it. You may actively seek feedback, but you do not have to act on (or even believe) every comment. Feedback is data you collect to help you improve, but in the end you are in control of what to do with it.
Seek experts. It is difficult to grow when you don’t know what good looks like. By seeking out someone who already has expertise—say, an executive who has achieved the role you aspire to rise to or someone who is deeply skilled in the area in which you are interested—you have a pattern for how to advance. Expertise is made up of nuanced skills. An expert can give you insights that a peer simply cannot.