4 Habits of People Who Are Always Learning New Skills

Working in online learning, I’ve found that every year around this time there’s a burst of sign-ups from workers seeking new skills. Perhaps it’s a matter of New Year’s resolutions, or a reaction to seeing their friends and colleagues make big career changes each January.

Unfortunately, the initial commitment to learning all too often fizzles out. Studies have found that 40% to 80% of students drop out of online classes.

Those who give up miss out. In one survey of more than 50,000 learners who completed MOOCs on Coursera, 72% reported career benefits such as doing their current job more effectively, finding a new job, or receiving a raise.

Having worked in HR at a large banking corporation and in strategic HR consulting, I’ve seen the effects of learning and development on career mobility — and what leads people to let it fall by the wayside. Over time, working with users as well as learning experts, I’ve found that four crucial habits can make a tremendous difference.

Focus on emerging skills. With so many learning options available these days, people are often tempted to simply go to Google, type in some general search terms, and start one of the first courses that pops up. That’s a waste of time.

Job requirements are quickly evolving. To ensure relevance, you need to focus on learning the latest emerging skills. You can do this in a couple of ways.

First, track what skills the leaders in your industry are hiring for. Look at recent job postings from the top companies, and see which qualifications keep popping up. Second, reach out to people in your network or on LinkedIn who have the job you want. If you want to know what sales skills and technologies are becoming most important, talk to some high-level salespeople. Ask them what they’re having to learn to keep succeeding at their work and what skills they think someone needs to acquire in order to become a viable candidate.

You may feel intimidated about reaching out. But I’ve found that most of the time, people are happy to share this information. They want to see more and more capable candidates filling jobs and staying on top of trends.

As you get a sense of the most important skills to learn, ask these experts whether they can recommend specific online courses with practical value. Also take a close look at course descriptions to find content that will be useful on the job rather than provide mostly academic insight. For instance, you might seek out instructors who are leading experts in your industry or content created in conjunction with companies that you admire.

Get synchronous. In this era, micro-learning — engaging with online learning tools when and where it’s convenient — is becoming a much larger part of the training and development scene. This has its benefits, including freedom, convenience, and digestible content.

But there’s also a downside. These asynchronous experiences are often solitary. And without at least some real-time interaction, whether in person or online, many students lose motivation. Researchers have found that “the sense of isolation” for some online learners “may make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful online learning environment.” They call for more synchronous experiences. Others have also identified interaction and collaboration as critical factors in fruitful learning.

Building Good Habits

In my work, I’ve consistently seen that when online students sign up for a live course, in which they interact with a professor and one another at a set time at least once a week, they stick with it longer and learn more. Often, these kinds of programs offer materials you can work on individually. But the camaraderie can serve as a huge motivator, as can the desire not to fall behind the group.

When a live course isn’t available, I encourage learners to find a “synchronous cohort” — a friend or acquaintance with similar learning goals. Make a pact to do online learning together weekly. You can learn a lot from hearing each other’s questions and explaining things to each other as you come to understand them, since the act of teaching can improve content understanding, recall, and application.

Implement learning immediately. Research shows that performing the tasks you’ve learned is crucial, because “enactment enhances memory by serving as an elaborative encoding strategy.”

This is part of the problem many engineers face when looking for jobs straight out of college: They’ve been stuck in “theory land,” with little experience putting what they’ve learned into practice. You can run into the same issue with online learning. For example, I could spend weeks watching videos on how to set up a distributed computing system. But if I don’t go to Amazon Web Services and deploy it — soon — I’ll forget much of what I learned.

So whatever field you’re studying, find opportunities to use your new skills. (In addition to increasing “stickiness,” this also gives you a chance to discover unforeseen challenges.) Depending on the skill, you might participate in a collaborative project at work, for instance, or set up your own project on a small scale at home. Or you could find an online simulation that is similar to the real experience.

Set a golden benchmark. Just like runners in a marathon, online learners need to have a clear goal in order to stay focused. A return on investment (in terms of time and money spent) is hard to gauge in the near term. But those who persevere generally have their eye on a larger prize — a new job, a promotion, or the chance to lead a project. I encourage people to determine a specific career objective and keep it front of mind as they learn.

Of course, that benchmark will change as you develop. Learning is a career-long process. After you achieve one big goal, set your sights on the next one. That’s how you make learning a part of your normal routine. The more you do that, the less likely you are to stop.

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If You’re Not Outside Your Comfort Zone, You Won’t Learn Anything

Harvard Business Review

JULY 29, 2016
You need to speak in public, but your knees buckle even before you reach the podium. You want to expand your network, but you’d rather swallow nails than make small talk with strangers. Speaking up in meetings would further your reputation at work, but you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Situations like these — ones that are important professionally, but personally terrifying — are, unfortunately, ubiquitous. An easy response to these situations is avoidance. Who wants to feel anxious when you don’t have to?

But the problem, of course, is that these tasks aren’t just unpleasant; they’re also necessary. As we grow and learn in our jobs and in our careers, we’re constantly faced with situations where we need to adapt our behavior. It’s simply a reality of the world we work in today. And without the skill and courage to take the leap, we can miss out on important opportunities for advancement. How can we as professionals stop building our lives around avoiding these unpleasant, but professionally beneficial, tasks?

First, be honest with yourself. When you turned down that opportunity to speak at a big industry conference, was it really because you didn’t have the time, or were you scared to step on a stage and present? And when you didn’t confront that coworker who had been undermining you, was it really because you felt he would eventually stop, or was it because you were terrified of conflict? Take an inventory of the excuses you tend to make about avoiding situations outside your comfort zone and ask yourself if they are truly legitimate. If someone else offered you those same excuses about their behavior, would you see these as excuses or legitimate reasons to decline? The answer isn’t always clear, but you’ll never be able to overcome inaction without being honest about your motives in the first place.

Then, make the behavior your own. Very few people struggle in every single version of a formidable work situation. You might have a hard time making small talk generally, but find it easier if the topic is something you know a lot about. Or you may have a hard time networking, except when it’s in a really small setting.

Recognize these opportunities and take advantage — don’t chalk this variability up to randomness. For many years, I’ve worked with people struggling to step outside their comfort zones at work and in everyday life, and what I’ve found is that we often have much more leeway than we believe to make these tasks feel less loathsome. We can often find a way to tweak what we have to do to make it palatable enough to perform by sculpting situations in a way that minimizes discomfort. For example, if you’re like me and get queasy talking with big groups during large, noisy settings, find a quiet corner of that setting to talk, or step outside into the hallway or just outside the building. If you hate public speaking and networking events, but feel slightly more comfortable in small groups, look for opportunities to speak with smaller groups or set up intimate coffee meetings with those you want to network with.

Finally, take the plunge. In order to step outside your comfort zone, you have to do it, even if it’s uncomfortable. Put mechanisms in place that will force you to dive in, and you might discover that what you initially feared isn’t as bad as you thought.

For example, I have a history of being uncomfortable with public speaking. In graduate school I took a public speaking class and the professor had us deliver speeches — using notes — every class. Then, after the third or fourth class, we were told to hand over our notes and to speak extemporaneously. I was terrified, as was everyone else in the course, but you know what? It actually worked. I did just fine, and so did everyone else. In fact, speaking without notes ended up being much more effective, making my speaking more natural and authentic. But without this mechanism of forcing me into action, I might never have taken the plunge.

Start with small steps. Instead of jumping right into speaking at an industry event, sign up for a public speaking class. Instead of speaking up in the boardroom, in front of your most senior colleagues, start by speaking up in smaller meetings with peers to see how it feels. And while you’re at it, see if you can recruit a close friend or colleague to offer advice and encouragement in advance of a challenging situation.

You may stumble, but that’s OK. In fact, it’s the only way you’ll learn, especially if you can appreciate that missteps are an inevitable — and in fact essential — part of the learning process. In the end, even though we might feel powerless in situations outside our comfort zone, we have more power than we think. So, give it a go. Be honest with yourself, make the behavior your own, and take the plunge. My guess is you’ll be pleased at having given yourself the opportunity to grow, learn, and expand your professional repertoire.


Andy Molinsky is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. His forthcoming book, Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence is to be published by Penguin Random House in January 2017. For more information visit andymolinsky.com and follow Andy on Twitter @andymolinsky.