Learning and learning fast is imperative today. Your ability to push past your comfort zone, acquire new skills, explore different ways of thinking, willingness to learn from the old and move on to the new will define your success today.
But how does one do that? Today I’ll share five strategies you can use to increase your learning agility.
1. Stretch yourself
2. Be OK with less than perfect
3. Get feedback
4. Reflect frequently
5. Shed what is getting in the way
Let’s look at each of them in a bit more detail.
1. Stretch yourself — and in a number of situations. Learning agility goes well beyond mental or intellectual horsepower. Consider stretching yourself socially by joining new groups or relating to folks that are NOT like you. Travel somewhere very different and stretch yourself culturally. Try being more vulnerable and stretch your emotional comfort zone. Read something outside your normal fare. Go to a lecture, a movie or a festival that pushes your comfort boundaries. Create something — anything. Take on a project at work or in the community that stretches your leadership or management abilities. The possibilities are endless. Pick one and only one to start with, so that you don’t become overwhelmed. But stretching is a muscle — and the more you exercise it — the stronger you become and the easier it is.
2. Be OK with less than perfect — Remember that our comfort zone is defined in our head. And that the boundaries we have drawn are designed to either keep us looking good or at least not to look foolish. Remind yourself often that all first attempts at something new are awkward, less than elegant and only first steps to proficiency. Notice that you are really the only person fixated on you — most everyone else is fixated on themselves. Tally up the true consequences of a misstep or flawed attempt — and weight that against the cost of being stuck in only doing what you do well. I think you’ll discover the risks are much less than you imagined, that you’ll stumble and recover. You may also find that the risk of stagnation if far more dire than any risk associated with growth.
3. Get feedback — The surest path to improving your proficiency quickly is to get immediate and constructive feedback from a trusted and knowledgeable source. Seek out coaches, teachers, mentors, friends, co-workers, bosses, and peers that can both share what you are doing well and not so well and how to do things differently. If it is a technical skill — find an experienced instructor. If it is an interpersonal skill — look to a trusted friend or peer. Then ask for feedback, listen carefully and non-defensively, and thank them for their gift.
4. Reflect frequently — Pausing to reflect, think, and readjust is the one of the most powerful things we can do to improve our performance, our mood, and our self-awareness. It costs nothing other than time, yet we rarely take advantage of this strategy. It doesn’t take much time (try 10 minutes), but it does take intention and practice. There are many ways to do this. It might be quiet time in a comfortable space, it might be reflecting in writing, it might be yoga or meditation, it might be a quiet walk or run, it might be any number of other ways that enables your mind to settle and think. Find what works for you and repeat daily!
5. Shed what is getting in the way — Too often it is not the act of learning sometime new, but holding on to something old that is the biggest thing that holds us back. At times this old stuff just precludes us from trying something new; at other times it cements us in unproductive thoughts and actions that sabotage us. A quick example –we had a good friend who lost a very specialized job that paid quite well. He clung to the notion that with new opportunities he should be paid equally well, in spite of the fact that his technical skills were not transferrable. He turned down many opportunities at a slightly lower pay rate, but with upward potential. He was so stuck in his belief about pay that he never did take another job, missing out on the opportunity to earn more over the long haul. Today he is bitter and struggling on a partial retirement — all for the sake of failing to shed his belief about what he “should” be paid. So — when you find yourself resisting or defensive or stalling — ask yourself if there is something else at work. Are there ideas, attitudes or beliefs that you must give up to move forward?
If you do a quick tally of the five strategies to be an agile and quick learner, you will find that we are the ones most standing in our way. It is not access to resources. The amount of free or low-cost information on the web is astounding and growing exponentially. Libraries are free for all. Your employer may well have on-line courses and your local community colleges and community centers have accessible learning opportunities for all.
It is likely not our natural abilities that box us in. Granted each of us are great at some things and terrible at others. Yet I know of no one, myself included, that is anywhere near reaching the peak of our potential.
It is not others standing in our way. Learning, growth, and knowledge is equal to all. Indeed, people are generous with their time and willingness to share. Finding a mentor often is as easy as asking. Learning from someone you admire may only require following them on social media and reading their posts, books and accessing their free content.
What does get in the way is our egos. It is our inability to get over ourselves, to try something new, being willing to make a measured risk and with that the willingness to fail. When our ego tells us to play it safe to avoid looking foolish, it does us a disservice. While our ego convinces us that we are OK as is, it is protecting the status quo and ignoring the fact that learning and learning quickly is becoming the differentiator for those that thrive today and those that fall behind.