Learning on the job is probably the single most important factor driving your performance at work. You won’t know everything you need to about your job when you’re hired, no matter how good your education is or how much experience you had in previous positions. The road to learning starts with a willingness to admit what you don’t know and an interest in learning new things.
Learning as gap filling
Your cognitive brain is the repository for the knowledge you need to do your job well. Three crucial types of knowledge allow you to answer the questions, Who? How? and Why?
Who? refers to the people you must connect with to get the resources, information, assistance, and approval to do your work. How? refers to the procedures that let you get things done at work. Why? involves having good causal knowledge about the way the world works within your domain of expertise. With causal knowledge you can solve new problems in new ways rather than just executing a procedure you’ve learned.
For an example of causal knowledge in action, think about different modes of customer service. Many tech firms have a first line of customer-service representatives at call centers who don’t really understand the domain. They work from a script. Because they don’t know how the system they’re assisting with actually works, they cannot deviate from the script. That’s fine if the caller’s problem was foreseen in the script, but otherwise, it can lead to a long interaction that fails to resolve the problem. In contrast, a trained expert can diagnose and fix a variety of problems, including those that haven’t been encountered before. That’s the power of causal understanding.
To improve your expertise, you must first identify gaps in your knowledge. You aren’t likely to be motivated to learn new things–nor can you be strategic about learning–if you’re not aware of what you do and don’t know. Without a good map of the existing state of your knowledge, you’ll bump into crucial new knowledge only by chance.
Here I’ll explore barriers to finding the gaps in your knowledge. Some of them reside in your cognitive brain–you don’t always know what you don’t know. Some of them are a facet of your social brain–you aren’t always willing to admit what you don’t know. I also examine what motivates people to improve their knowledge.
What don’t you know?
The ability to know what you know and what you don’t know is called metacognition—that is, the process of thinking about your thinking. Your cognitive brain has a sophisticated ability to assess what you do and don’t know. You use several sources of information to make this judgment.
Research by Roddy Roediger and Kathleen McDermott identified two significant sources of your judgments about whether you know something: memory and familiarity. If I ask you whether you’ve heard of Stephen Hawking, you start by trying to pull information about him from your memory. If you recall explicitly that he was a famous physicist or that he worked on black holes and had ALS, then you can judge that you’ve heard of him.
Of course, you don’t always make judgments about what you know by retrieving information. Sometimes you do it according to whether the information feels familiar. If I ask you whether you’ve heard of Grace Hopper, you may be unable to retrieve any information about her, but her name sounds familiar, so you say you’ve heard of her.
Grace Hopper was a pioneer in computer science who is credited with inventing the term “bug” to refer to errors in a program, but you may judge that you have heard of her even if you don’t explicitly remember hearing any information about her. These aspects of metacognition are fine for many types of knowledge. You’re pretty good at judging whether you’ve heard of a particular person or a simple fact. You have a reasonably accurate sense of whether you can perform various procedures. If someone asks you whether you know how to play the piano, your answer is likely to be accurate.
Although your metacognition is good, it isn’t perfect. Most people are at least a little overconfident in some areas—particularly when it comes to assessing their proficiency at a task. This overconfidence has sometimes been called the “Lake Wobegon effect,” after the fictional town created by Garrison Keillor for the radio show Prairie Home Companion. In Lake Wobegon, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
Research on this topic by David Dunning and Justin Kruger has found that the least skilled people in many domains tend to be the most overconfident in their abilities. One big reason for this is that they don’t really understand what expert performance looks like, so they overestimate their own abilities relative to other people’s. As you gain expertise, you not only learn new things, but also learn a lot about what you don’t yet know.
One important social aspect of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that it often leads to tension between younger employees and the firms they work for. People who don’t really understand what skills are required for success in a particular domain may overestimate their own abilities and minimize their perception of the gap between themselves and more senior members of a firm. As a result, they won’t understand why they aren’t being promoted faster and will quickly get frustrated in the early stages of their career. The more you appreciate everything involved in expert performance, the more patient you can be with your own development.
A second limitation in your metacognitive abilities is demonstrated in research by Leonid Rosenblit and Frank Keil showing that people overestimate the quality of their causal knowledge. They believe they understand how the world works better than they actually do. The researchers call this miscalibration the illusion of explanatory depth.
This illusion has many sources. First, people often use words–particularly in business contexts–whose meaning they don’t really understand. When I was writing this book, I heard a lot of people talking about the importance of concepts such as “deep learning” and “blockchain” for the future of business. It wasn’t clear that the people using these terms knew much about them. But as a term becomes more familiar, you may feel you understand it even though you don’t really.
Causal knowledge has an interesting structure. Unlike stories, which are typically linear, it is nested like Russian dolls. For example, I write frequently is about applying psychology in the workplace, so I use terms drawn from cognitive, social, and motivational psychology. Beneath the level of psychology is neuroscience, which examines brain mechanisms. I don’t typically delve deeply into how the brain does what it does, but an understanding of psychology requires some knowledge of the brain. And of course, the nesting continues: unpacking how brain cells work requires a lot of neurochemistry to understand how they generate the electrical signals that carry information.
When you decide whether you understand how something works, you do the mental equivalent of checking whether you have the largest of the Russian dolls–the beginning of a causal explanation. You don’t necessarily unpack the explanation completely, though, so you may not realize that after a certain point, one of your dolls is empty. That keeps you from recognizing when you lack key causal knowledge.
You cannot work to fill gaps in your knowledge if you don’t know they exist. Research by Michelene Chi and Kurt VanLehn demonstrates that the best way to find such gaps is to explain things to yourself. That is, whenever you encounter a description of how something works, you should explain it back to yourself to determine what you’ve actually learned. That is the mental equivalent of opening the Russian dolls in your mind to make sure that you have the complete set.
This process can help you learn what you do and don’t know. Whether you choose to fill the gaps is up to you.
Admitting gaps and mistakes
There are many ways to fill gaps in your knowledge. A common one is to search the internet. You’ve probably visited a number of websites that suggest sources of information about a variety of topics. Even a cursory search will turn up a lot of videos that show you how to carry out particular tasks.
The most powerful source of knowledge is the people around you. Your colleagues–and particularly your supervisor–should be helping you develop your career. They know how things work at your company. They have developed expertise in solving many of the problems you’ll face on a daily basis. They are also likely to have suggestions for how to learn relevant information about your job.
To engage your colleagues to help you learn, you need to overcome a few barriers erected by your social brain.
The first is that if you’re like most other people, you resist admitting ignorance to save face in social situations. It’s potentially embarrassing to own up that you don’t know something. This effect is so powerful that it occurs even in anonymous surveys–people will select a middle option in a range to communicate that they don’t know enough to have an opinion.
Sometimes people don’t want to admit ignorance because they suffer from imposter syndrome. That is, they believe that they are frauds who have risen to a position they don’t deserve. Women are more likely than men to hold this attitude. Imposter syndrome makes people less likely either to admit what they don’t know or to own mistakes they’ve made. After all, if you fear that you don’t actually deserve to be in a position, you expect that a lack of knowledge or an error will be taken as confirming evidence. As a result, you won’t reach out to others to get the help you need, and your work performance will suffer, reinforcing your belief that you’re in over your head. Imposter syndrome becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Many people are reluctant to admit mistakes in the workplace. You’ve probably been socialized to think mistakes are bad. Your success in school, from kindergarten to the end of your education, depended largely on finding ways to minimize the number of your mistakes. Getting good grades on tests required making as few errors as possible. If you believe that mistakes are bad, you won’t want to advertise them—or the gaps in your knowledge—to others.
Furthermore, because people fear they will be punished for making mistakes, they want to keep them secret. It’s a common cultural norm that “someone must be held accountable” for a mistake. And people should certainly be punished for negligent actions. But legitimate errors are learning experiences, even when they have significant consequences.
As it happens, admitting a mistake is one of the best ways to gain the trust of your boss. If you admit mistakes, your managers will learn that you’ll come to them when you don’t know something or when a problem arises. As a result, they’ll be more likely to trust you with new assignments.
The key lesson here is that you must overcome the many forces in your social brain that want you to keep secret your mistakes and the gaps in your knowledge. Only when you reveal what you need to learn can you be taught by your more knowledgeable colleagues.
Motivation to learn and the expert generalist
Once you’ve identified gaps in your knowledge, you must decide what you actually need to learn. People typically focus on acquiring information that is most directly relevant to the job they’ve taken on. That’s a good strategy at first. Chances are, your new job requires you to do a number of things you’ve never done before or to do them faster, more efficiently, and more effectively than in the past. You want to focus on excelling at your new responsibilities.
After you get the hang of a new position, be strategic about what you learn. You probably need a wider range of expertise than you think. Solving hard problems at work requires drawing not just on expertise from within the domain of your work, but also on knowledge about other areas that may not have seemed relevant at first.
The history of invention is filled with examples of people who drew on unexpected sources of knowledge. George de Mestral invented Velcro after examining the cockleburs that stuck so persistently to his dog’s fur. James Dyson’s insight for his vacuum came from knowledge of sawmills and industrial cyclones. Fiona Fairhurst led a team at Speedo that used the structure of sharkskin to design the material for a swimsuit.
The trade-off is that every day you probably have a long list of jobs you’re expected to complete. Where can you find the time to learn things that aren’t directly related to them? And without learning about a variety of new things, how can you help your organization find new solutions to problems?
One group of people has resolved this trade-off in an interesting way: expert generalists. As I wrote in my book Habits of Leadership, expert generalists have a lot of knowledge on a wide variety of topics. As a result, they are often involved in innovative projects. Indeed, I first identified the characteristics of expert generalists by studying Victor Mills Society Fellows at Procter & Gamble. Individuals at P&G are given this designation (named after the man behind Pampers) because they are good serial innovators.
Expert generalists have several motivational personality traits. They are very open to experience (interested in new things). They are high in need for cognition (not one of the big five personality traits, but important for the workplace), which reflects how much someone likes to think deeply about things. People high in this quality often continue to research new topics they encounter. The combination of high openness to experience and high need for cognition ensures that expert generalists learn deeply about a number of topics.
At the same time, they are often moderate to low in conscientiousness (which is a big five trait). Conscientiousness leads people to finish the tasks they start–and also to follow the rules. Individuals with low conscientiousness are willing to put aside some of their assigned work to pursue knowledge by reading articles, watching videos, and talking with other people.
Unfortunately, people are often rewarded for conscientiousness early in their careers. That’s why many of the innovators I encountered talked about succeeding “despite the system, not because of it.” Their supervisors would often call them out for not completing their assigned work without recognizing that what they did instead may have been time well spent. As a result, these supervisors were unwittingly putting pressure on their team to constrain how much they learned.
Regardless of your level of conscientiousness, you almost always have some latitude to craft aspects of your job that are important to you. You should ask for time on a regular basis to pursue interesting ideas, even if you aren’t immediately sure how they relate to your job. Any employer that is serious about innovation should be willing to free you to improve the breadth and quality of your knowledge.
This article is adapted from Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do It Well, and Advance Your Career by Art Markman. It is reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review Press.