Remember when you started learning how to play an instrument, play a sport or even do your first real job? Remember how you couldn’t get your body to do anything right, how your brain went into black-out mode, and you temporarily lost the ability to use language? Good times.
It’s no wonder we sometimes avoid learning new things. That beginner stage is awkward and embarrassing, especially at work. But if Erika Anderson is right, we’re all going to spend a lot more time in that lovely beginner place from now on.
Anderson is a leadership coach and author, who’s worked with senior executives at companies like GE, Conde Nast, NBC Universal, and Facebook. She’s written at least 4 books, the latest of which is Be Bad First – Get Good at Things Fast to Stay Ready for the Future.
Anderson asserts that as technology and knowledge are evolving faster and faster, our main competitive advantage, as companies or individuals, will come from being able to learn new information and skills faster than others.
That means we have to spend a lot of time as uncoordinated, uncertain beginners. But don’t give up and start building an office fort out of the lobby sofa pillows just yet. Anderson has some great advice on how we can all become better learners and quickly get past our initial ineptitude.
Coming from a coach’s perspective, she lays out a very clear process to help you revive your natural instinct to learn and conquer the negative associations we have with being a beginner. She uses the acronym ANEW:
- Aspiration: focus on how great your life will be once you learn this new skill
- Neutral self-awareness: be honest about your current ability
- Endless curiosity: let your drive to understand pull you from beginner to mastery
- Willingness to be bad first: accept your beginner status to improve faster
Aspiration: focusing on the prize
Anderson suggests that before setting out to learn something new, we need to get clear on the benefits. And those benefits need to be so compelling that you’d rather learn the new skill than do anything else.
She provides two techniques for building your aspiration to learn:
- Imagining the personal benefits
- Imagining a possible world in which you realize those benefits
The benefits have to mean something to you. For example, if you get an MBA, you might get a pay raise, but if you’re already living comfortably and you don’t really want more money, then that’s not a good benefit for you. Perhaps the idea of leading a team is more compelling.
When you have a good understanding of the benefits, cue up your imagination and create a world in which you’ve achieved your goal and are basking in all the good results. Maybe you’ve gotten your degree, have moved into a management position, and are building a strong, cohesive, high-performing team. Spend some time imagining how great that will feel, and you’ll build an emotional motivation for completing your MBA.
Neutral self-awareness: seeing yourself clearly
If you want to get better at a new skill, it’s incredibly helpful to objectively assess your current ability. If you think you’re better than you are, you won’t work on the fundamentals. If you think you’re worse than you are, you won’t push yourself to new levels.
From Be Bad First:
If you want to be good at something, and yet you’re not willing or able to be accurate about your current level of capability, you won’t be open to doing what you need to do in order to improve.
Anderson points out that most of us have a skewed view of our own abilities, but we can get in touch with reality by challenging our assumptions and asking others we trust for their opinions.
For example, whether we’re thinking to ourselves, “I’m great at leadership and don’t need to learn more” or “I suck at leadership and always will,” we can learn to stop, look at the facts of our own behavior and accomplishments, and decide how true those statements really are. And if we have colleagues we can rely on for honesty, we can ask them to size up our skills.
Endless curiosity: diving in
It’s fashionable to be curious these days. But real curiosity is more than a passing interest. Anderson defines it as “a deep and abiding need to understand and master.”
It’s an innate drive that children use to figure out how the world works. And it stimulates learning.
Most of us still experience curiosity as adults, especially regarding personal interests or hobbies, but few of us are deeply curious about the latest release of new accounting software. So Anderson offers techniques for sparking your curiosity by consciously finding something intriguing in any endeavor.
For example, if you want to be curious about a topic, try asking yourself questions like these:
- How does it work?
- I wonder if I could do that?
- Why does this happen?
- How can I find out more?
- What would happen if I tried this?
And if you can identify whatever lights up your interest in hobbies, you can use that insight to help find curiosity sparks in other topics as well.
Willingness to be bad first: beginning
In Anderson’s final key to successful learning, she reminds us that we all have to start at the beginning, where we have to admit our ignorance, take faltering first steps, and make beginner mistakes.
She offers ways to make this stage a little easier as well, but she shows us that embracing beginner-hood can actually improve your standing as a leader. She describes a client who was stepping into a CEO role where much of her job was new. But she never hid her process of learning.
As a result, her colleagues “see her as open, confident, non-defensive, and a quick study.” She’s built trust with others because she doesn’t pretend to know what she doesn’t know, and her example has freed her team to admit gaps in their knowledge and consult her for help.
What I learned from this book
Whether you enjoy learning new things already or you avoid it like the zika virus, you’ll find some great, practical techniques in this book. Here’s what struck a chord with me:
- In these days when everyone’s an expert, it’s refreshing to embrace the status of beginner.
- You don’t have to fall in love with everything you learn. Instead, you can find some feature of your new skill that already excites your interest. You just have to look for it.
- If you’re brave enough to be openly bad at something new, you can improve your work relationships, especially if you get better over time.
Anderson provides several exercises in the book and accompanying materials on the website, all designed to help you learn to learn. It’s worth checking out if you want to compete in today’s race to adapt. I’ll see you at the starting line.
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