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Be a learn-it-all: The 8 keys to staying relevant and reinventing yourself (review of Never Stop Learning)

This review first ran in the Nov. 24 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself and Thrive

By Bradley Staats

Harvard Business Review Press

$39

never stop learningI’m university bound after 13 years at college.

One thing will stay the same and another will change in a big way when I join Canada’s most research-intensive college on Monday. While I’ll continue working with outstanding faculty and staff, I’ll be climbing a new and steep learning curve.

And here’s why I’m excited to make that climb. In a world of continual change, it’s far better to be a learn-it-all than a know-it-all.

“Learning is so vital today that we can think of ourselves as living in a learning economy,” says Bradley Staats, an engineer, investment banker, associate professor with the University of North Carolina and author of Never Stop Learning. “We can’t just be knowledge workers; we must also be learning workers.”

But most of us are bad at learning, says Staats. “Supremely bad. In fact, we’re our own worst enemies. Instead of doing the things that will help us learn, we often do just the opposite. If we fail to learn, we risk becoming irrelevant. We end up solving yesterday’s problems too late instead of tackling tomorrow’s problems before someone else does.”

So if you too are making or mulling a move that’ll bring you to the base of a new learning curve, Staats has identified eight keys for successfully climbing the curve as a dynamic learner.

Value failure. If you’re not trying new things and making mistakes then you’re not learning.

Focus on the process rather than the outcome. “At its core, learning involves understanding what (and how) inputs affect important outputs – building a model of the way things work.”

Ask questions rather than rush to answers.

Reflect and relax. “Dynamic learners fight the urge to act for the sake of acting and recognize that when the going gets tough, the tough are rested, take time to recharge and stop to think.”

Be yourself. Instead of conforming, find the courage to stand out. “When we are truly ourselves, we are more likely to expend the necessary effort. We do things for both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons.”

Play to your strengths and quit trying to fix irrelevant weaknesses.

Combine specialization and variety so you have a T-shaped portfolio of experiences where you’re deep in one or a few areas and broad in many others.

Learn from others. Learning is not a solo exercise. “The people with whom we interact are integral to our eventual success or failure.”

In a constantly changing world, we can’t afford to put our careers on cruise control and coast on muscle memory and institutional knowledge. Staats shows why becoming a dynamic learner is the best way to stay relevant, reinvent ourselves and thrive.

“Yes, learning requires constant vigilance. When it comes to learning, you can be your own worst enemy. But if you recognize the challenge and seek to overcome it, with determination, you can.”

So regardless of whether you’re changing jobs or staying put, keep looking for new learning curves to climb – the steeper, the better.

@jayrobb lives and works in Hamilton and has reviewed and learned from business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. Reviews are archived at http://www.jayrobb.me.

How leaders can engage employees (review of Alive at Work)

alive at workThis review first ran in the Nov. 10 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do

By Daniel Cable

Harvard Business Review Press

$39

Here’s a lesson for any leader who’s looking to leave a legacy.

Write down the names of your maternal and paternal grandparents. No checking Ancestry.com or calling your family’s resident genealogist.

Now write the names of your great-grandparents.

Don’t feel bad if you can’t name everyone. Lots of us draw blanks as we work our way down the family tree.

“And that’s the legacy for us: our own family isn’t going to remember our names in two generations,” says Daniel Cable, author of Alive at Work.

“Lots of leaders spend time thinking about their legacy but really all we have are the positive effects that we can have on each other today. As leaders, we have a chance to make life more meaningful, and more worth living, for the people we lead.”

engageSo how exactly do you make that happen? Focus on firing up the seeker system that’s hardwired into our brains, says Cable.  “Our seeking systems create the natural impulse to explore our worlds, learn about our environments, and extract meaning from our circumstances. When we follow the urges of our seeking system, it releases dopamine – a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and pleasure – and that makes us want to explore more.”

When our seeker system’s up and running, we’re excited. We’re learning new things. Our world feels like a better place to live. We’re more creative and productive. We perform better, we’re happier overall and we’re alive at work.

“Our evolutionary tendency to disengage from tedious activities isn’t a bug in our mental makeup – it’s a feature,” says Cable. “It’s our body’s way of telling us that were designed to do better things, to keep exploring and learning.”

Bad things happen when we’re locked into tedious work and unable to explore and learn. Our seeker system shuts down. Work turns into a grinding and frustrating commute to the weekend. As neuroscience pioneer Jaak Panksepp puts it, “when the seeking systems are not active, human aspirations remain frozen in an endless winter of discontent.”

That discontent is reflected in ugly Gallup poll results that show the majority of us are disengaged and not contributing to our fullest potential at work. The lack of employee engagement isn’t a motivational problem, says Cable. It’s biological.

Organizations are failing employees by smothering their seeker systems with policies, procedures and processes. The rituals of SMART goals (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant and time-bound) and the fixed distribution of performance ratings fire up our fear systems and distract us from learning, taking risks and solving problems with new approaches.  Fear is kryptonite to our seeking systems, says Cable.

“Even though we may say we want employee creativity and innovation, we place even greater value on exploiting existing ideas and processes that are tried and true.”

It takes humble leaders to restart our seeker systems, says Cable. We need more leaders who’ll express feelings of uncertainty and humility, share their own developmental journeys and spend more time observing, listening and actively encouraging their teams to play to their strengths, experiment, explore and rediscover a sense of purpose with their work.

Being humble won’t just benefit the people you lead. “Finding ways to trigger employees’ seeking systems will do more than increase the enthusiasm, motivation, and innovation capabilities of your team,”says Cable. “By improving people’s lives, your own work as a leader will become more meaningful, activating your own seeking system.”

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.