Why Active Learners Own the Future of Work
Accelerating change is impacting virtually every worker, employer, and business owner.
Accelerating change is making many highly educated individuals functionally illiterate.
For example, in the last few years, thousands of associate attorneys didn’t envision that Legal Zoom, a cheap digital platform with a simple interface would eliminate big portions of the task work that turned law firms into paper factories. The creative and adaptive associates were reading and learning about how technology was going to turn their jobs upside down. Some took sales and business development training. They became partners or opened their own first firms. A few became content designers at Legal Zoom.
Advancing technology is redefining how we work, live, and behave. One of the single greatest changes in our behavior is giving up the notion that education was a task that led to a diploma which gave us the license to join a profession. Come on! We paid fortunes to get the degree that told the world we knew what we are doing! But now, that education is obsolete by the time that we graduate. The speed of change is getting so fast that Kevin Kelly, one of our most admired technology journalists tells us we have entered the era of “becoming.”
Sounds awful? It isn’t for those of us who embrace becoming. This is the state where we learn and devour information like high-quality cuisine. We are constantly engaged in defining education that is no longer true. Come on! Without hitting the delete button we don’t really have the room for the new truth. For those of us who love learning, the new world is breathtakingly great, because we grow into people we could have never envisioned.
We don’t become obsolete! For those of us with any moral integrity, we try to help others learn how to fall in love with learning. It is the great dividing line between those who thrive and those of us getting stuck in perpetual underemployment.
Active learners have already taken over the world of work. Our most savvy employers are looking for them. The rest will become obsolete. They will be laid off. Many will become part of a great wailing, “But, I worked so hard. I came in early and went home late.” They were too busy to study, engage, and in some cases, look up. On the other hand, active learners often become overwhelmed with the experience of growth, insight, empowerment, and interest.
Our most savvy employers no longer hire credentials, they hire potential. They look for a love of learning and evidence the candidate will not only meet the needs of the job at hand, they will also grow into the organization’s future.
This is demonstrated in many of the questions insightful hiring managers ask:
- What is the most important thing you learned in the past year?
- How have you stayed abreast of change within our industry? Please describe what you do.
- Tell me about your most important mentor.
- Where do you go to learn?
These are not trick questions, they are necessary questions of the time.
When organizations hire active learners, collective intelligence grows. These are the first people to walk in the door with a new solution, an innovation, and a fresh way to solve a problem.
When we launched Inspired Work in 1990, people came to our programs to define and find the work they would most love, that fit them like a glove. That outlook was deeply ambitious. The emerging world of work demands that we love our work. Ambivalence is the single most deadly germ that infects and destroys our willingness to change.
Because doing what we love is the only dependable way to get us to grow and to change. Personal change can be deeply uncomfortable, perhaps even irritating. For example, to thrive in this new world requires that we develop the very life skills we used to run away from developing. An idiot or deeply contemptuous individual named this category “soft skills.” There is nothing soft about them. We call them “courage skills.” One of the many reasons we need to love what we are doing is because that love will push us to learn how to sell, present, ask others for help, and build customized support systems. These skills are now required for sustainable success in any profession.
I’ve spent almost 3 decades helping people define and succeed within the work they love. People who love their work will do whatever it takes to succeed. When we haven’t taken the time or the interest to define what we most want to do with our lives, there just isn’t enough juice to change. In the worst cases, we aimlessly clock-in and clock out. In some cases, the trance is so deep, we don’t know where we are walking, bathed in the glow of our smartphones, checked-out. I know this because I have to jump out of their way.
Active learning is not the purview of the young. It is the lifeblood for vitality, no matter our age.
One of my great friends and role models was the late Dr. Howard House. Howard founded the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles. It is the world’s most influential medical organization devoted to the restoration of hearing. Howard’s father founded the Deener Institute, which developed much of what is modern dentistry today.
When Howard graduated from USC’s medical school, his father took him out to celebrate. He asked, “What does that medical degree provide to you?”
Howard responded, “It gives me the license to practice medicine.”
His father replied, “No it doesn’t. It gives you a license to learn.”
His father went on to offer his son a life- and world-changing graduation gift. It began by handing him a large check. He told Howard, “I want you to spend this money by traveling around the world. I want you to meet with the best otologists who specialize in hearing restoration. Ask them to let you watch and learn. Develop as much insight into this emerging science from studying world leaders.”
The accumulated knowledge from that journey became the foundation of the House Ear Institute, which to date, has helped over 300,000 people hear, many of them for the first time. Well into his 90s, Howard continued to take great joy in learning advanced into all aspects of his life. He could instantly develop a magical expression as he talked with me about jazz and ships and art and human behavior.
Today’s educational system is woefully behind in teaching the life skills that can make all of us successful. It doesn’t teach sales, influence, wealth, presentation skills, or building customized support systems. In a world where jobs and businesses change more quickly every day, these are the skills that ought to be built into everyone’s tool kit. Because these are the skills that allow us to drive forward rather than getting kicked to the curb by change.
When someone asks me where to begin an active learning journey, I respond, “Study what you love.”
When we love our work, the drive to succeed grows. When we study what we love, we become far more capable of doing the work that we love. This, for many, is yet another change in the mindset of succeeding in the new world of work.
We can find just how out-of-sync the world is with active learning when we see young bright college students not attending classes, getting what they need online and acing their tests. More and more young people are hacking their education online, grabbing the bits and pieces of what they need to learn until there is a cohesive whole. I’ve talked to some that have learned more in one day then they learned in classrooms for over a year.
Our politicians on both sides of the fence are not talking about active learning. Far more time is given to galvanizing anger around issues such as student debt than even mentioning the need for all of us to learn, unlearn, reinvent, learn again, let go, relearn, and shift gears. It is particularly corrupt when we cannot find one politician talking about the rapidly approaching impact of high-quality and cost-free higher education. Science fiction? Nope. Google and other tech giants are investing billions to do just that.
Most of our coaching and consultative work with clients happens after they have taken our program. It is far better to work with clients who know exactly what they want. It is far easier to design an effective support system when someone has a clear mission, vision, and purpose. For clients who are looking for jobs, one of our first instructions is to not rely on want ads. While most everyone looks, relying on want ads for joy is a bit like having a mediocre buffet on a cheap cruise ship. There’s lots to wade through and little nutrition.
When we become clear on what we want, our probability of success is far greater by defining the organizations and hiring managers that best fit our purpose, outlook, mission, and vision. By identifying where we most want to work and who we most want to work for, we raise the probability of a very happy outcome.
In closing, the most effective learning mindset embraces the following characteristics:
- Pursue the work that you love. If you don’t know what that is, take the time to define it. Invest the time to learn what is best for you.
- Center your learning efforts also on what you love. Become an expert at that. The more knowledge you accumulate, the more attractive you become to others.
- Practice curiosity. Buy at least two books a month. Download interesting articles. Ask others for suggestions.
- Don’t become isolated in your journey. Find mentors who are succeeding in the areas in which you want to be successful. They can shave years off of a learning experience by directing you to rich resources.
- Employers would do well to ask strong active learners to mentor others.
- Don’t wait for employers to help you become an active learner. Do it for yourself, your loved ones, and for the love of your work.
- Instead of focusing educational efforts to getting credentialed, treat these opportunities to learn more about learning.
Here is what I find so exciting about modern life:
As technology advances, it is offering us new freedoms. For those of us who don’t define what to do with that freedom, work will continue to provide diminishing returns. Active learning breeds greater confidence, insight, and guidance on how to fit into this new world.
For those of us who commit to ongoing learning, here is what I promise:
You will find yourself regularly growing into better and better versions of the person you used to be. You will approach work, romance, fitness, and meaning with new glasses, the ones that give you focus on where to move next.
As active learners, we become more humble. Albert Einstein used to stand in front of a classroom with a chalkboard. He drew a circle on the board. Inside the circle, he wrote, “Known.” Outside the circle, he added, “Unknown.” He went on to describe the example as our awareness of the universe. Then, he drew a much bigger circle and added both words. He told his students, “When we grow our knowledge, what happens to our awareness of what we don’t know?” It also grows.
True active learning hasn’t turned me into the smartest guy in the room. Einstein pointed out that the more we know, the more aware we are of what we don’t know. The pursuit of knowledge humbles me. It has made me a far more open human being.
That, my friends, makes active learning worthy of my every effort.
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