Learning itself is a skill. Unlocking the mindsets and skills to develop it can boost personal and professional lives and deliver a competitive edge.
The call for individuals and organizations alike to invest in learning and development has never been more insistent. The World Economic Forum recently declared a reskilling emergency as the world faces more than one billion jobs transformed by technology. Even before COVID-19 emerged, the world of stable lifetime employment had faded in the rearview mirror, replaced by the expectation that both executives and employees must continually refresh their skills. The pandemic has only heightened the urgency of doubling down on skill-building, either to keep up with the speed of transformation now underway or to manage the particulars of working in new ways.
Despite this context—and the nearly constant refrain for people to adapt to it by becoming lifelong learners—many companies struggle to meet their reskilling goals, and many individuals struggle to learn new and unfamiliar topics effectively. We believe that an underlying cause is the fact that so few adults have been trained in the core skills and mindsets of effective learners. Learning itself is a skill, and developing it is a critical driver of long-term career success. People who have mastered the mindsets and skills of effective learning can grow faster than their peers and gain more of the benefits from all the learning opportunities that come their way.
This article, supported by research and our decades of experience working as talent and learning professionals, explores the core mindsets and skills of effective learners. People who master these mindsets and skills become what we call intentional learners: possessors of what we believe might be the most fundamental skill for professionals to cultivate in the coming decades. In the process, they will unlock tremendous value both for themselves and for those they manage in the organizations where they work.
Formal learning opportunities account for only a small percentage of the learning a professional needs over the course of a career. Everyday experiences and interactions offer tremendous learning opportunities, but only if you intentionally treat every moment as a learning opportunity. While intentional learners embrace their need to learn, for them learning is not a separate stream of work or an extra effort. Instead, it is an almost unconscious, reflexive form of behaviour. Learning is the mode and mindset in which intentional learners operate all the time. Although they are experiencing all the same daily moments anyone else might, they get more out of those opportunities because everything—every experience, conversation, meeting, and deliverable—carries with it an opportunity to develop and grow.
Each of us can become an intentional learner. There are two critical mindsets (or things you need to believe) and five core practices (or behaviour that collectively reorients you toward learning in everything you do). It’s not as hard as it sounds; in fact, you’re probably doing some of these already.
Mindsets are powerful, often exerting tremendous influence on behaviour, sometimes unconsciously. When built on a foundation of self-efficacy—the belief that your actions can help you achieve the desired outcomes —two mindsets serve as especially powerful fuel for intentional learners: a growth mindset and a curiosity mindset. While some people may have a natural proclivity to these mindsets, the important thing is that they are neither fixed nor immovable. In fact, part of their power is that they can be developed.
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s popular work on growth suggests that people hold one of two sets of beliefs about their own abilities: either a fixed or a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is the belief that personality characteristics, talents, and abilities are finite or fixed resources; they can’t be altered, changed, or improved. You simply are the way you are. People with this mindset tend to take a polar view of themselves—they consider themselves either intelligent or average, talented or untalented, a success or a failure. A fixed mindset stunts learning because it eliminates permission not to know something, to fail, or to struggle. Writes Dweck: “The fixed mindset doesn’t allow people the luxury of becoming. They have to already be.”
In contrast, a growth mindset suggests that you can grow, expand, evolve, and change. Intelligence and capability are not fixed points but instead traits you cultivate. A growth mindset releases you from the expectation of being perfect. Failures and mistakes are not indicative of the limits of your intellect but rather tools that inform how you develop. A growth mindset is liberating, allowing you to find value, joy, and success in the process, regardless of the outcome.
Cultivating a growth mindset can begin with shifting your inner dialogue from beliefs about your ability (a fixed mindset) to beliefs about your opportunities and needs (a growth mindset)—for example, from “I’m terrible at giving presentations” to “I need more practice presenting in front of others.” Similarly, “I’m not good enough to be promoted to supervisor” might become “I need some additional experience before I’ll be ready for promotion.” Simple restatements have a dramatic impact on what you believe about your own abilities. A fixed mindset often runs deep; it may take constant practice to reframe your default thoughts.
Curiosity, the engine of intentional learning, can be cultivated, even in those who don’t consider themselves naturally curious. Think of curiosity as priming the pump. It’s what gets your learning started. Curiosity is awareness, an openness to ideas, and an ability to make connections between disparate concepts.
The research tells us that curiosity matters for three primary reasons. First, inspiration is strongly correlated with an intrinsic desire to learn. Curiosity sparks inspiration. You learn more and more frequently because you are curious. Second, curiosity marks the beginning of a virtuous cycle that feeds your ability as a self-directed learner. Finally, research suggests that curiosity doesn’t diminish with age, so it can serve you at any point in your career. Although your learning methods will change over time, curiosity will keep the spark of motivation alive.
Consider a few practices to strengthen your curiosity muscle:
Whatever form curiosity takes, it helps you stay open and aware, broadens your perspective, and readies you to learn. Because it looks different in every person, the best advice is to just start. Get curious. Ask questions. Find something you are interested in and try it. When you become tired, try something else, but don’t stop trying things.
A growth mindset and active curiosity are the fuel of intentional learning. But when you develop your learning muscles, it’s also important to modulate these forces and direct their energy effectively. Five best-practice behaviours help intentional learners get the most out of their experiences: setting goals, protecting time for learning, actively seeking feedback, conducting deliberate practice, and reflecting to evaluate yourself and determine your progress.
Intentional learners are anchored in tangible goals, so they can use curiosity as an effective tool instead of a source of distraction. Learning-science scholars draw a bright line between a learner’s goal and the ultimate “stickiness” of learning. Learning takes hold when you can retain and use what you have learned. The stickiest kind of learning happens when you are trying to accomplish something you care about.
Consider these best practices for goal setting:
Feedback is a familiar principle to most professionals; even when we don’t love receiving it, we understand its benefits. Intentional learners are different because they not only seek feedback but also pursue it voraciously. Without it, they recognize, they may have blind spots that halt their progress. As you seek feedback, do these things:
Practice, especially practice in context, is absolutely critical to learning. The pattern of trying, failing, refining your approach, and trying again is at the heart of building all behavioural skills. After studying the development of expertise across varied domains, such as athletics, aviation, medicine, and music, psychologist K. Anders Ericsson determined that there is a “scientific approach to developing expertise” and that “consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.”
Many of us believe that practice makes perfect, but that classic proverb isn’t specific enough. Doing things over and over does little to build your skills. Instead, Ericsson suggests, “deliberate practice” creates expertise. Deliberate practice is “focused activity aimed at just the right level of challenge to extend expertise.” In other words, effective practice is aimed at the skill gaps just beyond your current set of skills. It is a practice that Goldilocks would appreciate—not too hard, not too easy, and not too repetitive of what you can already do, but at just the right level of challenge, focused on precisely the skill you need. When it comes to being deliberate, we believe that this quality is not only a critical differentiator for intentional learners but also, in application, usually markedly different from what most of us do (exhibit).
Metacognition, or reflecting on and directing your own thinking, plays a critical role in all cognitive tasks, including your ability to reflect on and learn from situations. Reflection is a diagnostic skill that helps you evaluate yourself and determine your learning needs, both in light of your own past performance and in comparison with recognized experts. Reflection helps you unpack your actions, to refine the component pieces, and then to put those pieces back together in a way that improves your performance.
Reflection, that promotes learning, happens in three primary moments—before, during, and after a task. Forecasting a cognitive task simply means looking ahead. In these moments, we are thinking ahead about how we might tackle a task, how we will approach a problem, or what we will say during a difficult conversation. We’re reflecting on what’s coming. This process of forecasting or planning primes us to learn. When we reflect during an event, we can correct our course and make adjustments. We notice what is happening even as we are “in the arena” and can learn and experiment in the moment. Finally, retrospective reflection lets us look at a past situation, consider how effective our actions were, and then project forward to how we would approach a similar event in the future.
Among reflection’s many benefits two stand out. First is the correlation between reflection and self-efficacy. At the core of learning is your belief that you can learn, that you can improve, and that you can take the steps necessary to achieve desired levels of performance. Reflection begins a virtuous cycle of building confidence, which reinforces the feeling that we are capable, which primes us to become more capable. Confidence builds resolve to take on increasingly hard challenges, which strengthen existing skills and build new ones. Reflecting on those challenges, in turn, breeds additional confidence—and on and on and on.
Equally important, reflection lowers a person’s barrier to change. The best problem solvers try new strategies when old ones are no longer working. We work in a fast-paced world, and unfamiliarity, particularly in the face of time pressures, can be a major obstacle. Reflection builds cognitive familiarity with new processes. Because you have thought about something before and are always thinking about how to refine and improve, concerns about making changes become less powerful.
Our ability to reflect is threatened on many fronts. Being overscheduled, overworked, and overloaded affects our ability to pause and assess our circumstances and performance. But the noisier the world around us, the greater the need for dedicated reflection time. Intentional learners not only engage in reflection but also, in many cases, ritualize it. They create consistent and predictable patterns, both for when they will reflect and what they will think about. They establish strategies for capturing these thoughts and referring back to them often. By relying on ritual, learners reduce the number of decisions associated with reflection (for example, when, what, and how), so it becomes easier to return to the practice repeatedly.
The level of intention we bring to improving our performance readies us for challenges, prepares us to raise our skills when needed, and ultimately keeps us inspired and engaged. Intentional learning is an investment we make in ourselves, but it is equally an investment we make in our professions, our families, our communities, our organizations, and the world at large. In that way, it just might be the most fundamental skill for professionals to cultivate.
This article was originally written by Lisa Christensen, Jake Gittleson and Matt Smith. Lisa is director of learning design in McKinsey’s San Francisco office, Jake is an expert in the Chicago office, and Matt is a partner and chief learning officer in the Paris office. Full credit goes to McKinsey & Company, who published this article earlier this year. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.