The most fundamental skill: Intentional learning and the career advantage.
Learning itself is a skill. Unlocking the mindsets and skills to develop it can boost personal and professional lives and deliver a competitive edge.
The call for individuals and organizations alike to invest in learning and development has never been more insistent. The World Economic Forum recently declared a reskilling emergency as the world faces more than one billion jobs transformed by technology. Even before COVID-19 emerged, the world of stable lifetime employment had faded in the rearview mirror, replaced by the expectation that both executives and employees must continually refresh their skills. The pandemic has only heightened the urgency of doubling down on skill building, either to keep up with the speed of transformation now underway or to manage the particulars of working in new ways.
Despite this context—and the nearly constant refrain for people to adapt to it by becoming lifelong learners—many companies struggle to meet their reskilling goals, and many individuals struggle to learn new and unfamiliar topics effectively. We believe that an underlying cause is the fact that so few adults have been trained in the core skills and mindsets of effective learners. Learning itself is a skill, and developing it is a critical driver of long-term career success. People who have mastered the mindsets and skills of effective learning can grow faster than their peers and gain more of the benefits from all the learning opportunities that come their way.
This article, supported by research and our decades of experience working as talent and learning professionals, explores the core mindsets and skills of effective learners. People who master these mindsets and skills become what we call intentional learners: possessors of what we believe might be the most fundamental skill for professionals to cultivate in the coming decades. In the process they will unlock tremendous value both for themselves and for those they manage in the organizations where they work.
Formal learning opportunities account for only a small percentage of the learning a professional needs over the course of a career. Everyday experiences and interactions offer tremendous learning opportunities, but only if you intentionally treat every moment as a learning opportunity. While intentional learners embrace their need to learn, for them learning is not a separate stream of work or an extra effort. Instead, it is an almost unconscious, reflexive form of behavior. Learning is the mode and mindset in which intentional learners operate all the time. Although they are experiencing all the same daily moments anyone else might, they get more out of those opportunities because everything—every experience, conversation, meeting, and deliverable—carries with it an opportunity to develop and grow.
Each of us can become an intentional learner. There are two critical mindsets (or things you need to believe) and five core practices (or behavior that collectively reorients you toward learning in everything you do). It’s not as hard as it sounds; in fact, you’re probably doing some of these already.
Foster learning by adjusting two critical mindsets
Mindsets are powerful, often exerting tremendous influence on behavior, sometimes unconsciously. When built on a foundation of self-efficacy—the belief that your actions can help you achieve desired outcomes1 —two mindsets serve as especially powerful fuel for intentional learners: a growth mindset and a curiosity mindset. While some people may have a natural proclivity to these mindsets, the important thing is that they are neither fixed nor immovable. In fact, part of their power is that they can be developed.
Adopt a growth mindset
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s popular work on growth suggests that people hold one of two sets of beliefs about their own abilities: either a fixed or a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is the belief that personality characteristics, talents, and abilities are finite or fixed resources; they can’t be altered, changed, or improved. You simply are the way you are. People with this mindset tend to take a polar view of themselves—they consider themselves either intelligent or average, talented or untalented, a success or a failure. A fixed mindset stunts learning because it eliminates permission not to know something, to fail, or to struggle. Writes Dweck: “The fixed mindset doesn’t allow people the luxury of becoming. They have to already be.”2
In contrast, a growth mindset suggests that you can grow, expand, evolve, and change. Intelligence and capability are not fixed points but instead traits you cultivate. A growth mindset releases you from the expectation of being perfect. Failures and mistakes are not indicative of the limits of your intellect but rather tools that inform how you develop. A growth mindset is liberating, allowing you to find value, joy, and success in the process, regardless of the outcome.
Cultivating a growth mindset can begin with shifting your inner dialogue from beliefs about your ability (a fixed mindset) to beliefs about your opportunities and needs (a growth mindset)—for example, from “I’m terrible at giving presentations” to “I need more practice presenting in front of others.” Similarly, “I’m not good enough to be promoted to supervisor” might become “I need some additional experience before I’ll be ready for promotion.” Simple restatements have a dramatic impact on what you believe about your own abilities. A fixed mindset often runs deep; it may take constant practice to reframe your default thoughts.
Feed your curiosity
Curiosity, the engine of intentional learning, can be cultivated, even in those who don’t consider themselves naturally curious. Think of curiosity as priming the pump. It’s what gets your learning started. Curiosity is awareness, an openness to ideas, and an ability to make connections between disparate concepts.
The research tells us that curiosity matters for three primary reasons. First, inspiration is strongly correlated with an intrinsic desire to learn. Curiosity sparks inspiration. You learn more and more frequently because you are curious. Second, curiosity marks the beginning of a virtuous cycle that feeds your ability as a self-directed learner. Finally, research suggests that curiosity doesn’t diminish with age, so it can serve you at any point in your career. Although your learning methods will change over time, curiosity will keep the spark of motivation alive.3
Consider a few practices to strengthen your curiosity muscle:
- Face your fears. Fear is a significant barrier to curiosity; confronting those fears can be an important way to unlock learning skills. Spend a bit of time reflecting. What prevents you from asking questions in meetings? What keeps you from trying new things? What makes you reluctant to accept new assignments? Once you name what you are afraid of, you can decide how to address it.
- Seek novel experiences and ideas. New environments, new experiences, and exposure to new groups of people can all spark curiosity. Your search for the new can be as dramatic as moving to a new country or as simple as watching a documentary on a topic you don’t know anything about. The key is to avoid stagnation by feeding your mind with something new.
- Focus on what you love. Your curiosity doesn’t have to be confined to your career—cultivating the muscle in anything you do will serve all parts of your life. Consider collecting skills and interests outside your day job. Maybe you love podcasts, build engines, coach a sports team, or play an instrument in your spare time. Whatever you love to do, do more of it.
Whatever form curiosity takes, it helps you stay open and aware, broadens your perspective, and readies you to learn. Because it looks different in every person, the best advice is to just start. Get curious. Ask questions. Find something you are interested in and try it. When you become tired, try something else, but don’t stop trying things.
Practice, practice, practice: The five core skills of intentional learners
A growth mindset and active curiosity are the fuel of intentional learning. But when you develop your learning muscles, it’s also important to modulate these forces and direct their energy effectively. Five best-practice behaviors help intentional learners get the most out of their experiences: setting goals, protecting time for learning, actively seeking feedback, conducting deliberate practice, and reflecting to evaluate yourself and determine your progress.
Set small, clear goals
Intentional learners are anchored in tangible goals, so they can use curiosity as an effective tool instead of a source of distraction. Learning-science scholars draw a bright line between a learner’s goal and the ultimate “stickiness” of learning. Learning takes hold when you can retain and use what you have learned. The stickiest kind of learning happens when you are trying to accomplish something you care about.
Consider these best practices for goal setting:
Courtesy McKinsey & Co., Lisa Christense SF, Jake Bittleson Chicago and Matt Smith Paris.