Here is an excerpt from an article written by Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis 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.
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Our capacity for learning is becoming the currency we trade on in our careers. Where we once went to work to learn to do a job, learning now is the job. Adaptive and proactive learners are highly prized assets for organizations, and when we invest in our learning, we create long-term dividends for our career development.
Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, shared that when assessing founders of potential investments, he looks for individuals who have an “infinite learning curve”: someone who is constantly learning, and quickly. Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, echoed the importance of learning when he said, “The learn-it-all will always do better than the know-it all.”
However, it’s not as simple as acquiring new knowledge. In our increasingly “squiggly” careers, where people change roles more frequently and fluidly and develop in different directions, the ability to unlearn, learn, and relearn is vital for long-term success. Based on our experience designing and delivering career development training for over 50,000 people worldwide, working with organizations including Virgin, Unilever, and Microsoft, we’ve identified several techniques and tools to help you make learning part of your day-to-day development.
Since we spend so much of our time, energy, and efforts at our day jobs, they provide the most significant opportunities for learning. The challenge is that we don’t invest intentionally in everyday development — we’re so busy with tasks and getting the job done that there’s no space left for anything else. Deprioritizing our development is a risky career strategy because it reduces our resilience and ability to respond to the changes happening around us. Here are three ways to take ownership of your learning at work.
Learn from others
The people you spend time with are a significant source of knowledge. Creating a diverse learning community will offer you new perspectives and reduce the risk that you’ll end up in an echo chamber. Set a goal of having one curiosity coffee each month, virtually or in person, with someone you haven’t met before. This could be someone in a different department who could help you view your organization through a new lens or someone in your profession at another company who could broaden your knowledge. You can extend your curiosity even further by ending each conversation with the question: “Is there anyone else you think it would be useful for me to connect with?” Not only does this create the chance for new connections, but you might also benefit from a direct introduction.
Experiments help you test, learn, and adapt along the way. There are endless ways you can experiment at work — for example, using different tools to increase the interactivity of your virtual presentations, exploring the impact of camera-on versus camera-off meetings, switching from video to phone calls, or even trying out new negotiation tactics.
For an experiment to be effective, it needs to be a conscious choice and labeled as an opportunity for learning. Keep a learn-it-all log where you track the experiments you’re running and what you’re learning along the way. It’s important to remember that you should expect some experiments to fail, as that’s the nature of exploring the unknown.
Create a collective curriculum
In a squiggly career, everyone’s a learner and everyone’s a teacher. As a team, consider how you can create a collective curriculum where you’re learning from and with each other. We’ve seen organizations effectively use skills swaps where individuals share one skill they’re happy to help other people learn. This could look like a creative problem-solver offering to share the processes and tools they find most helpful, or someone who has expertise in coding running beginner lunch-and-learn sessions. Skills swaps are a good example of democratized development where everyone has something to contribute and is learning continually.
Unlearning means letting go of the safe and familiar and replacing it with something new and unknown. Skills and behaviors that helped you get to where you are can actually hold you back from getting to where you want to be. For example, a leader might need to unlearn their default of always being the person who speaks first in meetings. Or a new manager might need to unlearn always saying “yes” as their workload increases.
During the pandemic, we were all forced to unlearn some aspects of our lives, like how we collaborated on work or what school looked like for our kids. Unlearning feels uncomfortable, but the past couple of years have reminded us how adaptable we can be. Here are three ways to make unlearning an active part of how you work.
Connect with challengers
We unlearn when we look at a problem or opportunity through a new lens. This is more likely to happen if we’re spending time with people who challenge us and think differently than we do. The purpose of connecting with challengers is not to agree or debate but to listen and consider: What can I learn from this person?
Seek out people who have an opposite experience from you in some way. For example, if you’re in a large organization, find someone who has only ever worked for themselves. If you have 25 years of experience, find someone just starting out. People who have made different choices and have different areas of expertise than you are a good place to discover a new source of challenge. Asking people, “How would you approach this challenge?” or “What has your experience of this situation been?” is a good way to explore an alternative point of view.
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We can’t predict how our careers will develop or what the world of work will look like in the future. Investing in our ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn helps us increase our readiness for the opportunities that change presents and our resilience to the inevitable challenges we’ll experience along the way.
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.