Biz 101: Learning Skills to Master Now

Maybe you graduated at the top of your class. Maybe you have an MBA. Maybe you even complete The New York Times crossword every weekend in one sitting—and in ink. Unfortunately, none of that matters much as we move into an increasingly tech-driven world, says Edward D. Hess, author of Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization (Columbia Business School Publishing, $29.95). “What will matter is being an adaptive learner—someone who learns by asking the right questions, thinking critically and listening with an open mind.”

Hess maintains that it’s time to upgrade your capabilities by embracing these 21st-century learning skills in order to stay competitive in the retail marketplace and a tech-driven world.

1. Get comfortable with “not knowing.” None of us is really as smart as we think we are. To learn, we need to understand what we don’t know and not get defensive about it. “Humans are not optimal learners,” Hess says. “It’s important to learn how to make your thinking more intentional and deliberate.”

2. Quiet your ego to embrace open-mindedness. “It takes courage to learn something new the first time,” Hess notes. “To make that process easier, people have to learn to separate their ideas from their self-worth. Changing a previously held belief doesn’t mean you are stupid. It simply means you’ve learned to adapt your thinking based on the new information you’ve received.”

3. Be an “inner-directed” learner. In a business world where human contributions will come primarily through innovation—a process in which failure is a given—those motivated to avoid failures will not be successful. “Develop a learning mindset,” Hess writes. “Then, whenever you are learning, you’re successful. The speed and quality of your learning is what will keep you relevant and competitive.”

4. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Rather than looking at mistakes as things you’ve done wrong, start looking at them as learning opportunities. “As long as you aren’t making the same mistakes over and over again, mistakes can be good,” Hess explains. “The key is to make sure you’re learning from them.”

5. Be willing to try. People who are confident in their own ability to meet challenges are more likely to try new things. “This confidence is called ‘self-efficacy’,” notes Hess, “and you can build it by putting yourself in challenging situations you believe you can handle well. As your confidence grows, you’ll be more willing and capable of taking on even more challenging tasks.”

6. Develop your emotional intelligence (EI). Emotional intelligence plays an important role in your ability to recognize and appraise verbal and nonverbal information, to process your own feelings and assess those of others, and to regulate your emotions and manage those of others. “Why is developing your EI so important?” asks Hess. “Because whether you’re working with individual clients or as part of a team, the ability to collaborate effectively will be an essential skill in years to come. If you can’t manage your own emotions, read those of others or connect with the people around you on more than just a superficial level, then you won’t be a successful collaborator.”

“We’re entering a world in which businesses can no longer rely on traditional competitive advantages like location, capital and limited choices for customers,” Hess concludes. “They’ll have to rely on their ability to learn and innovate in order to compete. To really succeed today, businesses need to be good at thinking critically and innovatively, and listening, collaborating and emotionally engaging with others.”

Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and the author of 11 books, including Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization (Columbia Business School Publishing, $29.95).

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