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Essential traits of a successful self-learner
Books, online courses, MOOCs, professional development programs, podcasts, and other resources have never been more abundant or accessible, making it easier than ever to make a habit of lifelong learning. Every day, each of us is offered the opportunity to pursue intellectual development in ways that are tailored to our learning style.
Anyone can be a self-learner. In fact, everyone is a self-learner to one degree or another. Each of us engages in self-learning activities as we go about our daily lives.
“Just being alive and adapting to the world forces us to learn constantly,” JotForm’s Aytekin Tank observes.
However, Tank adds, to reap the real benefits of self-learning requires more than learning through happenstance. Effective self-learners are those who learn with intentionality and embrace a learning lifestyle. These lifelong learners actively seek opportunities to build their knowledge and explore new ideas.
Lifelong learners have a growth mindset and they don’t turn away from tough challenges.
They are self-motivated and they commit time and effort to build their knowledge.
Self-learners have a growth mindset
Life is a learning curve. Every experience is a lesson. A growth mindset is no longer an advantage — it’s a necessity.
What does it mean to have a growth mindset?
Cornerstone OnDemand’s Jeff Miller explains that “a growth mindset means you view intelligence as endless: You’re always able to learn new skills.” When you have this type of mindset, one that isn’t deterred by setbacks or struggles, Miller adds, you are prepared to constantly gather new information. You become an “extreme learner.”
Professionals who embrace this growth mindset are able to adapt to new situations and remain relevant, says Miller in the article, Why Your Organization Needs to Adopt a Learning Mindset.
Maintaining a growth mindset requires us to be vulnerable and self-aware, Erika Andersen explains in her article, Learning to Learn. We can’t accept that learning is possible if we deny that learning may sometimes be difficult.
The willingness of those with a growth mindset to forge ahead despite setbacks is what distinguishes them from those who have a fixed mindset.
This belief that learning is possible despite any obstacles we may encounter is also the secret to overcoming the distractions that may otherwise block us from achieving our goals, writes Nir Eyal in his new book Indistractable. He counsels readers to “remind yourself that obstacles are part of the process of growth. We don’t get better without practice, which can be difficult at times.”
What are some other secrets to maintaining a growth mindset?
The fastest way to learn is to act like you know nothing.
Learners with a growth mindset are both inquisitive and bold. Having a growth mindset requires you to be open to new possibilities and a willingness to take risks. Follow these steps to develop your growth mindset.
Nurture your innate curiosity.
All of us are born curious, writes Dani Grant citing the famous observation by Picasso. But we don’t always maintain that curiosity as we mature. Opening ourselves to new, self-directed learning opportunities, she advises, can help us release our thirst for knowledge. Grant encourages professionals to expand their horizons by becoming free learners: pursuing their passions, asking questions, and joining the broader community of self-learners.
Curiosity also helps self-learners overcome their desire to turn back when they encounter a difficult or uninteresting concept, explains Anderson. “Instead of focusing on and reinforcing initial disinterest in a new subject, they learn to ask themselves “curious questions” about it and follow up those questions with actions.
Keep an open mind.
So many people think that by some age...18, 22, 30, that they have to have their lives "figured out." Makes no sense. Figuring it out is a forever game - it never ends and it constantly changes depending on the circumstances at hand!
In an interview with The CEO Library, Blinkist CEO Holger Seim says both curiosity and flexibility are crucial characteristics for lifelong learners.
Individuals who fix their minds on a single solution or believe that their past experiences and capabilities define their future miss the opportunities that allow self-learners to thrive.
Get comfortable with discomfort.
Over the past few years, I began to realize that if I wanted something in life that I don’t currently have (job, health, financials, relationships, etc.) then I would have to do something that I have never done before. And that something would most likely make me uncomfortable.
Learning a new skill isn’t always easy. Sometimes it is downright hard. And, you can expect some failures along the way. What you do when you encounter those failures will define your future success.
Lifelong self-learners don’t give up. They work through the problems, obstacles, and failures they encounter and seize them as opportunities to learn.
Ross Simmonds tells his readers that to continue to grow as professionals they must challenge themselves. He does this by intentionally putting himself into situations that are unfamiliar and will “require new skills to come out on the other side successful.”
This is how you do it.
You step up and create a challenge for yourself to do something outside of your comfort zone. The process might be messy. The journey may be filled with surprises. But the destination will certainly be worth it.
In fact, it is in this zone of discomfort where learning best takes place. In The 3 Zones Everyone Should Know About, AffinityBlue founder Seth Sandler explains that most people operate in and transition between one of three zones.
In the comfort zone, we are using acquired skills but are not challenged. When you operate in this zone, you aren’t growing. At the other extreme is the panic zone. In the panic zone, you are being asked to perform tasks that are so far outside your ability or your ability to learn that you cannot function and become ineffective or discouraged.
The sweet spot for personal development is in between these two zones. In this middle zone, you must learn in order to achieve your goals but your learning goals are achievable.
Staying within your comfort zone is a good way to prepare for today, but it’s a terrible way to prepare for tomorrow
4 Ways to Become a Better Learner, Monique Valcour
Remember to engage your natural curiosity. Ask questions that allow you to look past the temporary pain of unknowing and see the possibilities that come with finding answers. Accept that failure is a part of the learning process. And, remind yourself that because you have an infinite potential to learn, your discomfort is only temporary.
You can gain the skills you need to get past this obstacle and you will be stronger for having done so.
Self-learners are self-motivated
Self-directed learning provides no clear motivation, so you'll have to create your own.
At the core of self-learning is personal autonomy. To become a self-learner you must choose to be a self-learner. Sure, external factors such as changes in your job role or a desire for advancement may prompt your decision to learn a new skill or improve upon your existing ones, but the motivation to continue must come from within.
Researchers call this type of motivation “intrinsic motivation” and define it as “the spontaneous tendency to be curious and interested, to seek out challenges and to exercise and develop [your] skills and knowledge, even in the absence of operationally separate rewards.” And many of its characteristics echo those of a growth mindset.
I am a self-learner. A person who is not afraid to not be defined by one thing but pushes to learn more and something new every day.
To curiosity and courage, the internally motivated professional adds diligence a willingness to stay the course.
How can you maintain your motivation as a self-learner?
Unlike compulsory childhood education which is largely comprised of subjects selected by someone else, as a self-learner you get to choose what and when you will learn. Having a clear understanding of why you’ve chosen to be a self-learner, whether it is to satisfy your curiosity or gain a needed skill to advance in your career will help you to maintain your motivation.
What’s your motivation? In most instances, professionals are pragmatic about their knowledge building goals, explain the editors of the Shift Learning blog. Adult self-learners seek to solve a real-life problem or fulfill some personal or professional goal or obligation. We want to learn the skills we need to get us where we want to go and keep our careers on track.
Set goals and monitor your progress.
To maintain your motivation, it is important that you are pursuing your goals, not someone else’s, cautions Christine Renee in The Blogger’s Guide to Preventing Information Overload. Renee writes, “if you’re learning something new, it’s easy to become persuaded to go down a learning path that’s not your own.”
Another way to keep the momentum going is to develop SMART goals--goals that are specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and time-defined. Track your progress as you work to reach your goals to gain positive reinforcement along the way.
Put your learning into action.
Finally, when you are pursuing knowledge to solve a problem or upskill as a professional, one of the best ways to stay motivated is to put what you’ve learned into practice. Known as active learning, this transfer of theory into application engages your mind and improves your retention says, edX’s Anant Argawal.
As you experience the reward of success in applying what you’ve learned, you’ll be encouraged to repeat your self-learning behaviors.
One major side effect of the booming advances in technology is that we are all busy. Kids may still get bored and complain, but very seldom will you hear an adult say, “I have nothing to do.” Unless we intentionally unplug from the frantic pace of life in the 21st Century, there is always something to do and always several someones or somethings vying for our attention.
To be a self-learner you have to make knowledge-building a habit. Routinely shut off the noise and focus on building your knowledge. Whether for a few minutes a day, 30 minutes a week or several hours on the weekend, you have to set aside time to learn.
“No matter how busy I am in a day I always find 5-10 minutes for some self-learning. I strive to learn at least 1 new thing every day to grow as a professional and to share the knowledge,” says Needls co-founder, Michael Koral.
Thinkific’s Amanda Nagy asserts that in a world where nonlinear careers are the new normal, taking time to focus on self-development is crucial because you won’t always find the growth opportunities you need on the job.
She advises her readers to “take courses online, read blogs, or attend conferences to stay ahead of the pack. Never stop investing in yourself. Use time away from work to focus on self-development and stay curious.”
When we asked members of the Zest tribe how they used the process of learning by doing to grow as professionals, several of them told us that setting aside a specific time for learning was essential to their success. They blocked time on their calendars and often cooperated with teammates to hold each other accountable.
What can you do to keep your commitment to self-improvement?
Invest your time wisely.
Making time to expand their knowledge is how top performers achieve those results, says Michael Simmons, describing the benefits of time well-invested in his article Why Successful People Spend 10 Hours A Week On "Compound Time"
"Despite having way more responsibility than anyone else, top performers in the business world often find time to step away from their urgent work, slow down, and invest in activities that have a long-term payoff in greater knowledge, creativity, and energy. As a result, they may achieve less in a day at first, but drastically more over the course of their lives," writes Simmons.
Hold yourself accountable.
Whether through self-monitoring, partnering with a fellow self-learner, or using an app, accountability can give you the nudge you need to keep your commitment to yourself.
In Why Accountability is Your Most Valuable Asset, filmmaker and lifelong learner, Preston Kanak writes, “Accountability is without question my most valuable asset as I am able to grow personally and professionally, experience fulfillment every day, and get one step closer to live the life I want.”
However, Kanak isn’t talking about external accountability. Your peers can serve as a check on your diligence, but at the end of the day it is up to you to be honest with yourself and the efforts you are willing to make to advance your professional goals, he advises.
Leverage the power of digital nudges.
Nudge theory is a behavioral modification technique that uses subtle redirections that move people toward engaging in a desired behavior. Nudges aren’t coercive, the article Nudge Theory: How Brands Can Empower Customers Through Behavioral Science, explains. Instead, they present information or circumstance that leads the mind toward a preferred option.
For instance, you might put healthy snacks on the center shelf in your refrigerator while tucking less nutritious indulgences in a back corner to nudge yourself to eat healthier. The stickers your teammates place on your shared Trello board can also serve a nudge.
Apps that use the power of nudges to prompt you to do the right thing have proliferated in recent years, and the development of mobile apps or “mobile commitment devices” are leading the trend, writes Andrew Braun for Make Tech Easier. Many fitness, mindfulness, self-education, and productivity apps leverage nudges to help users reach their goals.
Make self-learning a habit.
The more invested you become in maintaining your self-learning routine, the easier it will become. Transforming your commitment to learn into a habit is the best way to keep your momentum going.
After publishing a blog post every day without fail for 11 years, Seth Godin wrote the following:
Streaks are their own reward. Streaks create internal pressure that keeps streaks going. Streaks require commitment at first, but then the commitment turns into a practice, and the practice into a habit. Habits are much easier to maintain than commitments. ...once a commitment is made to a streak, the question shifts from, “should I blog tomorrow,” to, “what will tomorrow’s blog say?”
Once self-learning becomes a habit, you no longer have to use will power to make studying a priority. Knowledge building becomes a part of your routine and you have achieved your ultimate goal of having a learner’s lifestyle.