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Learning How to Learn

A new era of business demands new strategies for keeping yourself in the game.

When you walk into almost any company in any industry anywhere in the world, you can tell a few things about it almost immediately: How much energy is there in the outfit? How well do people there work together? How does the organization treat its customers? And, maybe most importantly, how quickly and how well does the organization learn?

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Here’s the simple deal: We’re living in a period of dramatic, sometimes even drastic, change. People change jobs. Jobs change. Technology changes whole industries. Old answers that once explained perfectly well what was going on in the world may — or may not — fit the facts and experiences of the day, or the trajectory of events that create the next day. How does anyone cope with all of this stuff?

There are a couple of options. One is old and familiar: You don’t. You declare that this too shall pass, and you go on doing what you’ve always done. If you leave it alone, maybe it will leave you alone. You take the approach that says that there must be some value in all of the old answers and the conventional formulations — and let it go at that. (And sometimes, in fact, that’s good enough to get by. Because there is always a measure of truth and value to the old answers. Nothing becomes totally worthless or obsolete overnight.)

Or you can become a learner — a student of these times, a learning sponge looking to sop up as much new experience, knowledge, and practical tools as you can possibly absorb. If you take this second approach, you won’t automatically win. But you can be sure that you’ll always be in the game, that you’ll be part of the moment — and that, every day, you’ll be getting smarter, sharper, and a little more in touch with the swirling opportunities of the new economy. So what’s it take to be one of these learners?

You have to take the times we live in seriously and yourself not too seriously. You’ve got to be willing to ask lots of questions and to listen genuinely to the answers. You’ve got to throw out everything you’ve ever heard about how you’re “supposed” to learn and be willing to get new ideas, new answers, and new lessons from everyone and everything you come across. You’ve got to open your eyes, ears, and mind to the amazing stimuli that the new economy bombards us all with and create your own filters to bundle the new information into useful lessons that you can test every day in your own work life. And you’ve got to find ways to make learning fun, fresh, personal, and relevant and have enough discipline and sense of craft that, as you learn, you also grow, stretch, and hone your own skills.

In other words, you make yourself both student and teacher, participant and observer in your own ongoing education. How do you get started? Try answering these questions on a regular (if not daily) basis:

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  • What’s the most interesting/unexpected idea that’s hit me today?
  • Who’s the most interesting/unusual person I’ve met and talked with today?
  • What’s the most useful/surprising piece of writing I’ve read today?
  • What’s the one thing that I’ve seen/heard today that made me think/laugh/smile/react?
  • What am I going to do differently tomorrow?

Try it — it works! (And by the way, it’s the same thing as creating your own learning curriculum — maybe even better.)

Alan M. Webber (awebber@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company founding editor.

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