Simple strategies for becoming a lifelong student

Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck is perhaps best known for her research on mindsets. She distinguishes between the “growth mindset” — the idea that we can improve our brain’s capacity to learn and solve problems — and the “fixed mindset,” or the belief that our intelligence is static or fixed.

For a long time, you could get along fine in the business world with a fixed mindset. After the initial learning curve, a reserve of knowledge, intelligence and experience could support a successful career trajectory.

Not anymore.

In today’s fast-changing economy, as technology and AI develop faster than a TikTok video goes viral, entrepreneurs must cultivate a growth mindset and a commitment to continuous learning. All professionals, from interns to CEOs, need to prepare for the future of work, including new business models, expanded markets and new skills.

Consider this finding from a recent World Economic Forum report: more than half (54 percent) of all employees will require significant reskilling and upskilling in just three years.

Yet, despite its ballooning importance, learning remains a challenge for organizations and their employees. In fact, Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends report found that learning was the top-rated challenge for companies.

To face this challenge and remain competitive, it falls on leaders to promote a culture of learning, through both formal opportunities for instruction and ongoing self-study.

Writing for Harvard Business Review, Kenneth Mikkelsen and Harold Jarche sum it up well:

“In a time where the half-life of any skill is about five years, leaders bear a responsibility to renew their perspective in order to secure the relevance of their organizations.”

What’s more, with the novel coronavirus pandemic, many of us are working remotely and spending extended periods of time at home. Carving out space for learning is one way to make the best of this difficult global situation.

Here, a few simple strategies for cultivating a growth mindset and facilitating your continued education efforts.

1. Seek out new knowledge

There’s a reason why companies are developing new AI tools to identify knowledge gaps: you don’t always know what you don’t know.

Even without the help of AI, it’s crucial to be proactive about staying up to date: read relevant publications, follow industry leaders and discussion boards; attend conferences and events (otherwise known as networking — which if done strategically, doesn’t have to be painful!). Also, regularly evaluate your information sources.

As Mikkelsen and Jarche write: “What matters today is being connected to a wise network of trusted individuals who can help us filter useful information, expose blind spots and open our eyes.”

Once you identify new subjects or concepts you want to master, it’s time to switch your focus to learning them. Unlike cramming for an exam, the goal should be to learn them so you can recall them beyond just a few days or weeks.

2. Teach recently acquired knowledge

Recently, I learned firsthand what many experts already know:

“The best way to learn something truly is to teach it — not just because explaining it helps you understand it, but also because retrieving it helps you remember it,” explains Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton.

Writing for the New York Times, Grant describes an experiment in which people learned about sound waves and later, had to deliver a lesson on the material — either with or without their notes. One week later, they were tested on their recall. Those who had taught the lesson without notes performed better — because in order to teach with no references on-hand, they were forced to really learn.

Grant writes: “Having to describe the Doppler effect in their own words made it stick.”

When my wife was pregnant with our second child, I decided to take a three-month parental leave. To prepare, I had to delegate responsibilities to JotForm colleagues, which entailed refreshing my knowledge and teaching it to someone else. Afterward, I had a grasp of various parts of my job like never before. For example, as CEO, I used to handle all hiring, but once I delegated the task to our COO, I reinforced my own understanding of what we’re looking for in new hires.

Likewise, the Feynman technique, a widely-cited learning tool developed by Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, is centered on teaching new material to someone else. Specifically, to act as if you’re teaching it to a child. The process of distilling information for easier understanding cements new knowledge in your brain.

As Farnam Street explains:

“When you write out an idea from start to finish in simple language that a child can understand, you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level and simplify relationships and connections between ideas.”

3. Collaborate with your network

If you ever worked in a study group, you can vouch: studying together not only allows you to pool information and resources, but it also fosters the exchange of perspectives and a more profound understanding for everyone in the group. On a professional level, sharing ideas and collaborating with colleagues in your network has the same compound-learning effect.

Write Mikkelsen and Jarche:

“Sharing is a contributing process where we pass our knowledge forward, work alongside others, go through iterations and collectively learn from important insights and reflections.”

So seek out colleagues in your network, those with a growth mindset (just like you!), and create something together: a new venture, a passion project or even just a standing lunch chat. You’ll charge your own learning efforts and slingshot theirs, too.

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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