The Career Advantage of Being an Intentional Learner

This article explores the core mindsets and skills of effective learners, those who master that capability are referred to as Intentional Learners – possessors of a fundamental skill for professionals to cultivate in coming years. The process of unlocking that capability will create tremendous value for themselves and for those they lead and manage.

Learning itself is a skill. Unlocking the mindsets and skills to develop it can boost personal and professional lives and deliver a competitive edge.

McKinsey Quarterly

Unlocking Intentionality

Formal learning only accounts for a tiny percentage of the learning every professional requires during the course of their career. Intentional learners treat every moment as a learning opportunity, embracing the need to learn not as a seperate task or type of work but as an almost unconscious, reflexive way of working.

Every experience, conversation, meeting and deliverable carries with it an opportunity to develop and grow and start Intentional Learning.

The McKinsey authors state that we can all become intentional learners by adopting two critical mindsets and adopting five core practices.

Critical Mindsets

Adopt a growth mindset

There is a good chance you have read Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset which proposes that people hold one of two sets of beliefs about their own abilities: either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. The fixed mindset believes that personality characteristics, talents and abilities are finite (fixed resources). These people tend to believe you simply are the way you are.

“The fixed mindset doesn’t allow people the luxury of becoming. They have to already be.”

Carol Dweck

The growth mindset believes you can grow, expand, evolve and change. That intelligence and capability are not fixed, rather they are traits that you can develop. Failures and mistakes are not limitations of intellect rather opportunities and tools to learn from, grow and develop. The growth mindset is liberating in that it enables you to find joy, value and success in the process regardless of the outcome.

Feed your curiosity

You can cultivate curiosity to be the opportunity to start learning, it becomes the engine of intentional learning. Curiosity is awareness, an openness to ideas and an ability to make connections between disparate concepts.

Inspiration is correlated with an intrinsic desire to learn, curiosity sparks inspiration. Curiosity feeds your ability as a self directed learner, you learn more because you are curious. Three ways to build the curiosity muscle:

  • Face your fears – Fear is a significant barrier to curiosity, so by confronting and dealing with fear you are unlocking new learning skills. Reflect on what you don’t like doing and why. Once you know what you are afraid of you can plan how to deal with it.
  • Seek novel experiences and ideas – Your search for new and different will expose you to different and spark your curiosity.
  • Focus on what you love – By focusing on all parts of your life you build skills, knowledge and interests outside your job that again expand your thinking.
Intentional Learning
Image Credit: Pexels

Five core skills of intentional learners

  1. Set small, clear goals – by having clear and tangible goals, curiosity is focused as an effective tool for intentional learning instead of a source of distraction. Learning happens when you retain and use what you have learned.
    • Set a goal that matters to you – It is important that you really care about accomplishing the goal. Consider what it is about this goal that excites or challenges you.
    • Make the goal concrete – Be specific and explicit use this framing to be really clear about why you are seeking this goal.
    • Adopt a ‘once in a career mindset’ – Is this the moment in your career that you can do something new? Don’t let unique opportunities go to waste, set goals to take advantage of even the most challenging situations.
  2. Remove distractions – Protect the time in your busy day
    • Carefully evaluate yourself and make a plan. What choice are you making about your daily priorities, roles, time and energy?
    • Be mindful in the moment. Minimise distractions to deeply focus during periods of learning.
    • Conduct experiments and be flexible. It may take you some time to establish what works best for you.
  3. Actively seek actionable feedback
    • Prime others. If you are looking for feedback on how you are performing consider establishing the request before the meeting, don’t ask how was that? Instead ask them to monitor you during a meeting and to give you more informed feedback about a specific way you are behaving or performing.
    • Press for details. Look for details of the feedback so that you can action it. For example if seeking feedback on a meeting you might ask ‘ Did my tone of voice change’ or ‘did my defensiveness show up on my face or body language’.
    • Decide how to treat feedback. You can choose not to act on all feedback you receive, it is data you collect to help you improve but ultimately you decide what to do with it.
    • Seek experts. Look for the leaders that have the role you aspire to and get a better understanding of what good looks like.
  4. Practice deliberately in areas you want to grow in
    • The pattern of learning through trying, failing, refining and trying again is central to all behavioural skills. Effective practice is aimed at the skill gap just beyond your current set of skills. Not too hard, not too easy and and just the right level of challenge.
  5. Practice regular reflection
    • Reflection is a diagnostic capability that helps you evaluate yourself and understand your learning needs. Reflection that promotes learning happens before, during and after the task, the process of planning or forecasting primes just to learn, during the event we learn when we reflect on what we changed or adjusted. After the event we reflect on learnings of how effective we were and what we should change if repeating the task.

Expertise is made up of nuanced skills, an expert can give you insights that a peer simply cannot.

As with all article from McKinsey there is a wealth of additional information in the original article so please do check it out if this was interesting.

Synopsis of an article from McKinsey Quarterly
The most fundamental skill: Intentional learning and the career advantage
by Lisa Christensen, Jake Gittleson, and Matt Smith
Published 7th August 2020

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