How to manage being a learner again


Advancements in knowledge and technology have influenced changes in the way we work and live. It means we have to put the L-plates on again and learn new things – willing or not. Sometimes we resist change. Research shows four attributes that people who succeed in learning possess – and how you can develop them.

When I acquired my first smart phone, I struggled with some of its functions. I asked a colleague (15 years my junior) how to do a couple of things. He showed me, while making the comment that it was liking showing his old dad how to use new technology. I had always prided myself with keeping up with developments especially technology, so I was a little indignant at his comment. It struck a chord though.

This was a learning experience that made me feel awkward and slow. I felt like I had fat fingers, unable to do the things I wanted with the phone, and asking dumb questions. I was experiencing a resistance to this change, something that I helped others with all the time. I was firmly back in the learning seat!

Change is everywhere, and only going to increase
With so much upheaval in the world, the one certainty is that there is going to continue to be lots of change. Learning to learn the new skills and develop the capabilities required for new situations evolving, is critical. I am a champion for ongoing learning, but what about when you have to learn something that you don’t really want to. That is, what about when you are required to change but you don’t want to?

A recent article in HBR magazine, Managing Yourself: Learning to Learn reports on research that identifies the attributes of great learners. These attributes are identified from studying the habits of executives who have been forced to lead and learn how to change, for business survival. Regardless of their status, these attributes are like success factors that anyone can aspire to and embrace.

What are the attributes?

Aspiration Self-awareness Curiosity Vulnerability


How can you “learn” the attributes?

Aspiration = your “want” to learn, your motivation and ambition that may result.

Research shows and everyone knows, if you are interested in something it is easier to learn. We all bump up against things we are obliged to learn though. The trick is to foster your interest. If you are reluctant to learn something, you tend to frame it negatively. This reinforces negative aspirations. So – do the opposite. Instead of framing the learning in terms of the challenges it throws up, frame it in terms of the benefits and reinforce a positive aspiration.

Example: Change from “The old way works fine for me” to “The new way will take less of my time

Self-awareness = how well you know yourself, from experience but also from feedback provided by others. It requires an openness to hear and consider, as well as act on it.

We think we know ourselves, but we also need to know how others know us. Being open to getting feedback about the way we work, relate to others and our attitudes can provide great insights. It helps to identify blind spots. This increased awareness is only useful if we are open to hearing it, considering and understanding it – important processes that lead to acceptance (or otherwise) of it as valid.

Example: My reaction of indignation at my i-phone lesson, was a warning sign about rejection of the feedback my colleague was offering me. I had to remind myself that this was new territory and I was going to be uncomfortable until I started to get familiar with the phone’s functions.

Curiosity = an interest in learning and actively making enquiry to explore and understand things.

Curiosity, like aspiration, is easily fostered in areas of interest to you. Increasing your willingness to tackle tasks of lesser interest, means working out a way to make them more interesting. Ask yourself how you think about tasks that do interest you. What is the language that shapes those thoughts? Use the same language to get curious about new things you need to learn. Ask questions of others who are interested and excited about the area, read an article about it or join a discussion group on the topic. Below are the kinds of questions that may raise your curiosity.

Example: I wonder how anyone could find [insert topic] interesting?
How could knowing more about this make me a better [insert role]?

Vulnerability = a willingness to place yourself in awkwardness, where you may ask dumb questions and make mistakes, relying on step-by-step guidance at times.

Being vulnerable means being ready to be a beginner at something. According to Andersen (2016, p.101), what needs to go hand-in-hand with this is well-managed “self talk”. An ideal mindset for this is to be both vulnerable and balanced. That means expecting you are going to make mistakes because something is new AND knowing you can learn to do it over time. A positive expectation of learning from mistakes and a “growth mindset” can increase your interest, result in greater persistence and ultimately better performance.

Example: Give yourself permission to make mistakes. When you do, notice what the mistake was and how to correct it. Periodically, remind yourself of the progress you have made from the outset.

It’s a mindset
While each attribute is described separately here, they overlap. Bringing the four together really results in adopting a learning mindset. The suggested approaches will help develop habits that will enhance the attributes described, as long as you have the presence of mind to adopt them!

The thing with change is that it is often imposed. It happens when your plate is already full. It can be the last thing you think you need. Establishing these attributes in a less critical period would be better than having to adopt them later. The attributes reflect an ability to be flexible in dealing with change – which is key to managing yourself in times of upheaval. They seem like good capabilities to draw on at any time. What are your thoughts?

Source: Andersen, Erika. 2016. Managing Yourself: Learning to Learn. Harvard Business Review. March 2016, pp.98-101.

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