Learning to Learn

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Erika Andersen for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:Tamara Shopsin

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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.”

I’m not talking about relaxed armchair or even structured classroom learning. I’m talking 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.

Over decades of coaching and consulting to thousands of executives in a variety of industries, however, my colleagues and I have come across people who succeed at this kind of learning. We’ve identified four attributes 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. But, drawing on research in psychology and management as well as our work with clients, we have identified some fairly simple mental tools anyone can develop to boost all four attributes—even those that are often considered fixed (aspiration, curiosity, and vulnerability).

[Here is the first mental tool.]


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.

A few years ago I coached a CMO who was hesitant to learn about big data. Even though most of his peers were becoming converts, he’d convinced himself that he didn’t have the time to get into it and that it wouldn’t be that important to his industry. I finally realized that this was an aspiration problem and encouraged him to think of ways that getting up to speed on data-driven marketing could help him personally. He acknowledged that it would be useful to know more about how various segments of his customer base were responding to his team’s online advertising and in-store marketing campaigns. I then invited him to imagine the situation he’d be in a year later if he was getting that data. He started to show some excitement, saying, “We would be testing different approaches simultaneously, both in-store and online; we’d have good, solid information about which ones were working and for whom; and we could save a lot of time and money by jettisoning the less effective approaches faster.” I could almost feel his aspiration rising. Within a few months he’d hired a data analytics expert, made a point of learning from her on a daily basis, and begun to rethink key campaigns in light of his new perspective and skills.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Erika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus International and the author of Growing Great Employees, Being Strategic, Leading So People Will Follow, and the forthcoming Be Bad First.


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