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If You Aren’t Learning You Are Getting Stale

Remember how you felt as an incoming college freshman? Not the “I just got out of the jail my parents call home and now I’m ready to cut loose” part of it. And not the “Oh my gosh, everyone here is so much smarter than I am even though I was number 3 in my high school graduating class”. Instead, do you remember the thrill of taking classes on subjects that you knew nothing about or more advanced classes on things you already had some experience with? Can you recall those moments of discovery that opened your mind to new ways of thinking that didn’t require the assistance of drugs?

Curiosity, exploration, making brain space for new topics or ideas, having more questions than answers and a sense of fascination are traits we don’t usually discuss when we think about leadership. We focus more on grown up characteristics like results oriented, decisive, team developer and accountability. We no longer look for or value more childlike or adolescent wonder that accompanies discovery. But we should.

As leaders (and colleagues) we could all use a heavy dose of that freshman feeling of a kid in the candy shop of learning. Or even less sophisticated, the four year’s relentless “why, why, why”. That insatiable quest to understand so many mysteries fades as we age and acquire experience with the world and our chosen professions. We are focused on mastery so we hone skills and thinking in specific areas which can limit our curiosity. This is a normal developmental stage and it is quite useful. But I believe that if we could keep some part of our brains supple enough to remain curious then we would be better leaders, more inventive, greater collaborators and our organizations would benefit.

When was the last time that you:

  • Asked someone from another department to explain in detail some aspect of his/her work?
  • Spoke with someone at length who comes from a completely different walk of life than you do?
  • Invited someone with a point of view that is the exact opposite of yours to describe how he/she arrived at this idea?
  • Wandered into an operational space of your company and asked for a tour or explanation of the services?
  • Spent time being trained by a staff person many levels below you?
  • Admitted to a colleague that you don’t fully understand some aspect of the work you share?
  • Raised a question in a team setting that you feared might make you sound stupid?

We all arrive at a point in our careers, roles or organizations when we believe we always must demonstrate mastery and that to do otherwise is a sign of weakness or ignorance. It is true that the most experienced among us are amazing resources. But it is also true that we envy people who are excited about something new they have learned about or uncovered. In that case, I recommend that we all try to develop both aspects. We will, in fact, keep accumulating experiences that will lead to excellence in our work. At the same time we can remain open to new: topics, ways of thinking, adventures and people.

Re-engage yourself as a learner and try some of these things:

  • Read books that are not the usual suspects; outside your discipline, recommended by an outlier, just because
  • Visit parts of your organization that you don’t know much about or that you always think of as the slow down in the system and ask for a walk through and explanation of the processes
  • Ask only questions in some meetings to gain a deeper understanding of people’s thought processes and assumptions
  • Have a conversation with someone you struggle with. Just try to get to know him/her as a person
  • Take a class on a more right-brain topic
  • Probe your own assumptions more deeply. Ask yourself if something you believe is too rigid or out of date. Explore the latest thinking on the topic and then give yourself permission to change your mind
  • Take the role of devil’s advocate to challenge the team’s business-as-usual solutions
  • Use art forms (visual, music, writing etc) to switch brain gears to shake up well-grooved thought patterns
  • Find a worthy contrarian in your sphere who you can spar with routinely

I never liked that Bible passage about “when I was a child I thought as a child but when I became a man I put all those childish ways behind me”. It always struck me as terribly sad and unfortunate. We need to preserve and nurture aspects of childish thinking. We need to remain curious, to ask why, to see wonder all around and to greet new things and people with enthusiasm. Without that sense of awe we lull ourselves into thinking there is nothing left to learn. Once we stop learning we become rusty or arrogant or predictable or boring. Those traits make us less valuable to our colleagues and the organizations we serve.

So think back to your best college professor or class. Remember how exciting it was to have your mind blown. Remember that learning is exhilarating. I hope you were as lucky as I was in college to find a professor or two who taught me how to learn. In retrospect I realize that was the most valuable subject I encountered.


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