A college degree used to be the gold standard for finding a job, but increasing numbers of companies are eliminating or reducing their requirements for a degree as a condition for hiring. According to Glassdoor, graduating from an impressive college name is now less critical for landing a position you love—from jobs in tech (on Glassdoor this includes Google and Apple) and retail (Costco and Nordstrom) to banking (Bank of America) and publishing (Penguin Random House).
But great skills will always be critical, and perhaps even more important is a learning mindset which keeps your capabilities fresh and makes your potential evident. In fact, a 2021 study found the characteristic of curiosity and an orientation for learning were the hottest new skills, with 72% of leaders reporting they believe it’s a valuable trait and 51% who believe it has become more important over time. Leaders also believe it drives business impact (59%) and performance (51%).
A learning mindset is in demand
A learning orientation—and curiosity—are the desires to seek new information, inquire, explore and discover novel possibilities and experiences. According to the same study, LinkedIn posts mentioning curiosity are up 71% and job postings mentioning the need for curiosity are up 90% in the last couple years.
And managers want people with a learning orientation, no matter the role. Respondents in the SAS study thought it was important for success as a c-suite executive (58%), as a director or department leader (56%), as a mid-level manager (51%), or as an entry-level employee (53%).
The bottom line: A learning mindset will set you apart as you seek a new job or pursue a promotion in your current company.
Set yourself apart
With a learning orientation, you can build your skills to make yourself more attractive to employers, but your curiosity can also be differentiating by itself. Here’s how to put yourself in a positive light for potential employers, based on your mindset for learning.
Highlight your self-confidence: People appreciate working with those who have a strong point of view and self-confidence, because they typically speak up and contribute to the work with vigor. Learning new things is a boost to self-confidence because it tends to remind you of what you already know, build additional capabilities, and provide you with new skills which contribute to your current and future success.
Highlight your team orientation: Hiring managers want people who can collaborate and communicate well—of course. And your learning orientation makes a difference here. A study by Oxford University found when people studied in a formal program, they tended to boost their agreeableness and likeability, both of which are a boon to forming positive relationships and getting ahead.
Highlight your desire to grow in your career: Employers value and appreciate those who are seeking to advance their careers, and they tend to reward this effort through promotions and pay. They hire people who are ambitious and want to do well—because these are the people who contribute most significantly to the business. In a study of Cigna by the Lumina Foundation, employees who took advantage of educational reimbursement programs saw a 43% increase in wages. Essentially, your learning orientation proves your commitment to continuous improvement.
Highlight your high-quality decision making: A study by Cornell University found when people participated in formal educational programs, they tended to be more rationale and make better decisions, especially decisions regarding finances. Overall, your learning orientation turns into better choices which payoff in positive financial impacts. So, you can position yourself as a strong candidate for any role which includes budgeting, forecasting, or making day-to-day choices which have financial impact (read: most roles).
Highlight your resilience: With the pace of change and the constant shifts in markets, employers are looking for people who are adaptable. Learning demonstrates your desire and ability to pick up new skills which will be necessary along the way, but in addition, it keeps your brain open to ongoing learning. This was demonstrated in a study at University of California Davis which found curiosity and learning help you stay open, remember new information, and cement memories.
Cultivate a learning mindset
So, if curiosity and a learning orientation are so important, how do you cultivate them?
- Go deep and go broad. Many people have broad curiosity—where you’re interested at a superficial level in lots of topics. But also, be sure you go deep on some things, really exploring the concept and why it’s important. If you’re interested in finance, stay on top of market fluctuations, currency shifts, and business cycles, but also hone your deeper knowledge of investment strategies, for example. Having a broad interest in many things will help you connect new ideas with old ideas—a hallmark of creativity–but having deeper knowledge will give you the more nuanced knowledge, which can help you solve problems more effectively.
- Build your network. One of the best ways to learn is from other people, so seek out relationships with people who are in your field, but also those who have different competencies and talents. Don’t rely solely on online sources for your knowledge, because these are filtered with algorithms which select information you already know or agree with. Instead, seek out people who can bring you new perspectives and from whom you can learn diverse viewpoints.
- Make it a habit. Wonder about things, ask questions, and seek answers in the moment. Perhaps your favorite restaurant it out of guacamole, and you can do a quick search about the avocado shortage and talk about it with your friends at dinner. Or, perhaps you’re considering a boat ride, but the weather has changed rapidly: You can do a quick search on the unique weather patterns of the Great Lakes. Regularly explore the ordinary details of life around you, in order to foster a sense of curiosity and learning.
- Take a class. Take advantage of the numerous learning opportunities available online or though your employer. Structured learning, either with synchronous or asynchronous interaction with others, can be a terrific boost for your knowledge in key areas which can benefit your career.
It’s a new day and more than a degree, a learning orientation will be the path to success—because it keeps your skills fresh and makes you adaptable—and because it can differentiate you among all the rest who are competing for jobs today. Focus on questioning, exploring, and building your knowledge, and these will surely translate into great success in your career, regardless of whether you have a traditional degree.
Tracy Brower is a sociologist focused on work-life happiness and fulfillment. She works at Steelcase, and is the author of two books, The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.