The world of work, being both dynamic and demanding, expects employees to continually learn. Be it upskilling, reskilling or acquiring new content, we need to extend and expand our horizons. Though you may have been an indifferent student in your school years or actively disliked your program at college, it doesn’t imply that you can’t enjoy learning in the workplace. On the contrary, you are more likely to cherish your working life only if you grow in new and sometimes, unexpected, ways.
In an article in Harvard Business Review, author and founding partner of Proteus, a consulting firm, Erika Anderson pinpoints four features of active learners—they have high levels of aspiration, are self-aware, curious and are comfortable with being vulnerable. Reassuringly, we can all raise the levels of these attributes in ourselves, thereby laying a firm foundation for lifelong learning.
Suppose what’s keeping you back from a coveted promotion is a lack of coding skills. You enrol for an online Python course but feel intimidated by the curriculum. Just the thought of toiling over the assignments makes your spine tingle. But Anderson cites research that may help you overcome your diffidence.
Instead of zeroing in on the challenges, write down all the benefits that would accrue if you succeeded in the course. You would get the promotion that will then let you play a more pivotal and interesting role. By imagining the positives, you may motivate yourself to persist with the difficult online course.
Learning and assessment also go hand-in-hand. Though we may not rely on formal grades or ranks, as learners we need to gauge what we know or how good we are at a particular skill. However, Anderson finds that people are not necessarily accurate at rating themselves. She cites a study in which “94% of college professors” believed their work was “above average.”
To get a more valid idea of how we measure up, Anderson urges us to examine our self-talk. Instead of simply believing the messages we tell ourselves, we need to evaluate them critically. If your inner voice tells you, “You are really good at making presentations,” ask yourself, “Am I really? How do I know this? How do I compare with others?”
Likewise, if you believe that you are lousy at marketing, don’t take your negative thoughts at face value either. Instead, ask, “What evidence do I have that shows that I’m terrible at marketing?” Further, find out if there is any way you can improve them. Becoming more self-aware can thus help you glean a more clear-cut image of your strengths and drawbacks.
Curiosity, another hallmark of lifelong learning, needs to be actively cultivated and sustained. Even mundane tasks can become more stimulating if you consider how you might approach them differently. Be open to new experiences instead of pre-judging them as ‘boring’ or “not my type.” And get into the habit of asking questions. If a colleague tells you he found a particular workshop useful or useless, try to find out more. What did he find most useful? Or, why did they think it was useless?
Finally, to learn anything, we need to allow ourselves to feel vulnerable. If you simply want to remain in your comfort zone, doing only things you are good at, you will not broaden your perspective or help you gain new skills. To feel like an unskilled novice takes courage. But only by putting yourself in that position of discomfort, can you widen the envelope of your knowledge and skills. Anderson cites research that demonstrates that when people expect to make mistakes in the learning process, they exhibit “heightened interest, persistence, and better performance.”
As industrialist Henry Ford famously said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” The choice is yours.
(The author is a psychologist)