"You're not going to get very far in life based on what you already know," said legendary investor and Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman Charlie Munger. He's right, of course; given the mind-boggling pace of technological evolution in our modern world, skills that are valuable today may be obsolete tomorrow.
That doesn't mean professional skills don't matter; it's just that your aptitude to learn new ones may matter more.
It's About What You (Make an Effort to) Know
Your education shouldn't stop when you leave college or graduate school, but it inevitably changes form. In the structured learning environment that a higher education institution provides, being a successful student is largely a matter of just showing up. When that environment suddenly disappears, you become fully responsible for seeking out new learning opportunities. Those who embrace this personal responsibility tend to attract all kinds of other opportunities, too.
Munger calls his esteemed business partner Warren Buffett a "learning machine." Both billionaires are known to be voracious readers, and both regularly dedicate time to exercising their minds. A combination of curiosity and discipline has worked well for the two venerable investors, and it will work for you too -- no matter where you are in your career.
The Right Stuff
According to Tanya Staples, the VP of learning content at LinkedIn, today's top employers often struggle to hire for in-demand skills. Independent learners stand out in a tight labor market because they take it upon themselves to gain skills that will enable ongoing business value. Sure, most companies will offer employees some training and professional development opportunities. But employers, educators, and even politicians generally agree that the responsibility for upskilling is shifting onto the individual.
Plus, life is better when you learn new things. According to a LinkedIn survey, employees who spend time learning at work are 47% less likely to feel stressed out and 21% more apt to feel self-assured and cheerful. If you want to join the ranks of successful lifelong learners, here are three steps you can follow:
1. Dig into your curiosity cabinet.
Individuals who are innately curious are more likely to seek out learning opportunities. That ultimately sets them apart in the job market. "A passion for knowledge is the ultimate competitive advantage in the marketplace," says Mike Monroe, digital strategy manager for Vector Marketing. "It keeps me up to date on my industry, and ensures that I can take on new challenges, and equips me for a future rife with innovation and enthusiasm."
Cultivate your own sense of curiosity by orienting learning experiences around personal interests or hobbies -- not every new lesson has to feel work-related. Whether it's through reading a great book or signing up for a workshop, make sure you're proactive about teaching yourself new skills and taking advantage of the knowledge shared by others.
2. Set learning goals.
Some people simply want to know everything, and that inspires them to continually seek out information about the world around them. But your time during the day is limited, so you have to do a little lesson planning. If you want your learning to pay off in your career, be mindful as you go about your daily work. Notice what on-the-job skills would be most valuable to have. Ask people whom you want to emulate about the skills and tools they use, and take note of strategies and techniques that seem to be effective.
That's not to imply that you can't, say, learn Spanish just for the fun of it. Set goals around what interests you most and could be useful at some point. You'll have opportunities to learn every single day, but you can't possibly capitalize on every area of interest. Keep a list of the topics and skills you want to master, and you'll be able to focus on the opportunities that can move you closer to your goals.
3. Share what you learn.
The old adage "When one teaches, two learn" is true. Even studying with the intent to teach will make you a better learner. Sharing your knowledge helps you solidify your understanding of a subject, and people are perhaps more eager to learn from you than you might think.
A 2009 study on the so-called "protégé effect" found that individuals would often make a greater effort to learn if they were also in the role of instructor than they would if they were simply learning for themselves. This could be because being a teacher invokes a sense of responsibility that motivates learning. If you want to maximize your growth, then share what you know, surround yourself with people who are similarly eager to learn, and find a tutor for the subjects that aren't as naturally engaging.
In the modern workplace, being the smartest person in the room won't necessarily get you to the top of the corporate ladder. However, being the most willing to learn is an attribute that might help you climb it. Seek out learning opportunities every day, and one-day others will seek your wisdom.