Proactive Learning Journeys

If you are willing to learn, you can also achieve. Learning can happen reactively or proactively.

Reactive learning occurs immediately because of some sort of discomfort, such as pain or danger. I learned about reactive learning when I tripped over my shoelace in a netball game at school and broke my arm. Ever since, I have never had an undone shoelace. My shoelaces are double-knotted, and I can’t help letting people know when I see their shoelaces are undone - even random strangers.

Proactive learning is a deliberate action. In his 2008 bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell, claims that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve world-class expertise in a task or skill. While others have disputed this claim, mastering a task or skill often requires deliberate practice.

Everyone can learn, but for all of us - even the smartest - it takes willingness.

I believe that if you do not learn, it’s because you have chosen not to, or because you have been heavily conditioned to have no belief in yourself or your abilities. If this is you, there are plenty of stories about highly successful people - actors, entrepreneurs and business-people - who were told they were not good enough or couldn’t learn easily. Look them up - let’s see how curious you are! You don’t have to regard yourself as ‘naturally smart’ or ‘sharp’ in order to learn. If you are using this as an excuse, you are self-sabotaging. Learning is how you become smart! Yes, some people are gifted and others possess a great capacity to learn, but the ability to learn is a skill that can be practised - effort plus time plus repetition. ‘Curiouser and curiouser’, a phrase from Alice in Wonderland, embodies my thinking about learning. The more you inquire, the more there is to know. The more you understand, the less you realise you know. So, you keep digging and delving! The opposite of doing this is remaining in ignorance. ‘Ignorance is bliss’ is wide off the mark if you want to be employable!

Think of the human body as a receptor. You are feeling, seeing, hearing and sensing all around you - every day, every minute - and you choose what to take in, what to question and what to ignore.

Technology can make it easy to access information, but it can dumb you down, too. If you are not careful, you can find yourself with a surface-level knowledge about a range of things but an in-depth knowledge of nothing. You need to become curiouser and curiouser!

When you are curious, you will investigate further. You are engaged and interested, and you keep going because you are motivated to do so. You put in the effort required to find out more, and from sources other than Wikipedia!

Being curious is critical, whether it’s about a hobby or a work-related issue. The good news is that, metaphorically, curiosity is a muscle that you can stretch and grow. The more you inquire, the greater your understanding, and the closer you come to being an expert. The endorphins kick in and you become more excited, engaged, intrigued and motivated. You retain information without even trying! Because you’re interested, you understand suddenly why X and Y occurred... because it was linked to Z. Have you ever been to a trivia night and wondered how some people know stuff that seems so obscure? It’s because they are curious.

Curiosity keeps your brain functioning. Think of it as the necessary daily exercise for your cognitive health. The more you exercise it, the better it becomes. Your confidence levels will increase as will your self-esteem, both important attributes to being employable. The reason people do puzzles or crosswords, especially in retirement, is to keep the brain ticking over and prevent rapid cognitive regression. Research suggests these brain games may help sharpen your processing speed, planning skills, reaction time, decision-making skills and short-term memory.

Consider a sports star - a basketball, football or netball player. When they are on the court or field, they are alert to their team-mates, the ball and their opponents. It is the same when you are at work. Think of yourself as a work athlete with your brain on alert. When you are developing and building your curiosity muscle, your brain will open up to new ideas and innovative ways of working, problem-solving and seeking out solutions. If you are not curious, new ideas may go straight past you, like the ball on a basketball court. Be alert! How many times has a colleague fixed a problem, identified an issue or come up with a new idea that crossed your mind or seems so obvious, yet you didn’t explore it?

Consider athletes when they stop playing the game. How quickly does their body change when it’s not being used to the same capacity? It is the same at work - stop being curious and you lose your curiosity.

The biggest benefit of being curious at work is that it will help you to enjoy, even love, your job. Many people I meet leave their jobs because they are bored. Their referees often comment that they started off well, they were conscientious and interested, and then their performance tapered off. Being curious helps you maintain your engagement, motivation, stamina and enjoyment at work. You’ll be excited to go to work. Who does not want to feel like that? Being happy takes effort. If you think people are born happy, that is a fallacy that can cost you your own happiness! You have to work at being happy, and having curiosity will assist.