Building a workforce of such lifelong learners is critical for organizations to respond to a changing business environment. To ensure they have the required skills and talent, companies must create a learning-for-all culture in which people are encouraged and inspired to continue learning new skills.
But the burden does not fall exclusively on businesses; it’s also up to the individual to seize the opportunity to get ahead. Seven distinctive practices can help employees become lifelong learners and remain relevant in today’s business environment (Exhibit 1).
[Here are the first two of the seven practices.]
1. Focus on growth
Learning starts and ends with the individual. But is there a limit to how much a person can learn? Is intelligence fixed at birth or can it be developed? In 2008, researchers asked the ten best chess players in the world—people who had spent 10,000 to 50,000 hours mastering the game—to take an IQ test.3 They discovered that three out of ten had a below-average IQ. Since playing chess at the top level in the world is associated with extreme intelligence, they wondered how this result was possible.
Many studies have confirmed that it is not intelligence that creates expertise but effort and practice—that is, hard work.4 The most successful people devote the most hours to deliberate practice, tackling tasks beyond their current level of competence and comfort, observing the results, and making adjustments.5 Such studies show that intelligence can be developed and that there are no limitations on what we can learn throughout our lives. Indeed, the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use, and learning prompts neurons in the brain to make new connections.6
Over the past 30 years, Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, has intensively studied learners.7 She has determined that people generally fall into one of two categories when it comes to how they view their ability to learn: a fixed mind-set or a growth mind-set. And she has concluded that mind-set has a significant impact on the effort put forward, perception of criticism, willingness to accept failure, and, ultimately, how much will be learned.
People with a fixed mind-set believe that their learning potential is predetermined by their genes, their socioeconomic background, or the opportunities available to them. They might have thoughts like, “I’m not good at public speaking, so I should avoid it.”
Those with a growth mind-set, however, believe that their true potential is unknown because it is impossible to foresee what might happen as a result of passion, effort, and practice. They appreciate challenges because they see them as opportunities for personal growth. Ultimately, they may achieve more of their potential than someone with a fixed mind-set.
Organizations can encourage employees to tackle new challenges and learn new skills by assigning them new and different tasks. But individuals need to believe that they have unlimited capacity to learn and grow. People can take the following actions to develop a growth mind-set8 :
- Determine if you have a fixed mind-set and, if you do, establish why.
- Recognize that you have a choice in how you approach and interpret new tasks, ideas, or situations.
- Learn to hear and observe the fixed mind-set voice without judgment while continuing to embrace challenges.
- Refocus with a growth mind-set.
2. Become a serial master
Traditionally, workers developed deep expertise in one discipline early in their career and supplemented this knowledge over the years with on-the-job development of integrative competencies. This kind of knowledge can be represented by a T-shape or profile (Exhibit 2).
Longevity has made this approach obsolete. Since 1840, life expectancy has increased three months for every year, meaning that people are staying, and will continue to stay, in the workforce longer.9 Because of this trend, they need depth in different areas of expertise, supplemented with targeted on-the-job development, to stay relevant. Today, knowledge should resemble an M-shape or profile (Exhibit 3).
Imagine someone has her master’s degree in journalism and begins her career working at a publication. During her 30s, she finds herself specializing in financial journalism, so she decides to pursue a master’s degree in business economics. As she proceeds into their 40s and 50s, she might continue to grow by taking in-depth master classes on related topics, such as digitization.
Relevant skills have become currency in the workplace. Using the M-profile as a guide and achieving mastery in a few topics will set professionals apart. Organizations, for their part, can support workers in their development by offering stipends for coursework and suggesting master classes and professional development sessions.
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Jacqueline Brassey is director of Enduring Priorities Learning in McKinsey’s Amsterdam office, where Nick van Dam is an alumnus and senior adviser to the firm as well as professor and chief of the IE University (Madrid) Center for Learning Innovation; Katie Coates is a senior learning manager in the Philadelphia office.