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If you aren't learning, you're getting stale
Remember how you felt as an incoming college freshman? Do you remember the thrill of taking classes on subjects that you knew nothing about or more advanced classes on things you already had some experience with? Can you recall those moments of discovery that opened your mind to new ways of thinking?
Curiosity, exploration, making brain space for new topics or ideas, having more questions than answers, and a sense of fascination are traits we don't usually discuss when we think about leadership. We focus more on grown up characteristics like results oriented, decisive, team developer and accountability. We no longer look for or value more childlike or adolescent wonder that accompanies discovery. But we should.
As leaders (and colleagues) we could all use a heavy dose of that freshman feeling of a kid in the candy shop of learning. Or even less sophisticated, the four year old’s relentless "why, why, why". That insatiable quest to understand so many mysteries fades as we age and acquire experience with the world and our chosen professions. We are focused on mastery so we hone skills and thinking in specific areas which can contract our curiosity. This is a normal developmental stage and it is quite useful. Keeping some part of our brains supple enough to remain curious can result in better leaders, more innovation, and greater collaboration.
When was the last time that you:
Asked someone from another department to explain in detail some aspect of his/her work?
Spoke with someone at length who comes from a completely different walk of life than you do?
Invited someone with a point of view that is the exact opposite of yours to describe how he/she arrived at this idea?
Wandered into an operational space of your company and asked for a tour or explanation of the services?
Spent time being trained by a staff person many levels below you?
Admitted to a colleague that you don't fully understand some aspect of the work you share?
Raised a question in a team setting that you feared might make you sound stupid?
We all arrive at a point in our careers, roles or organizations when we believe we must demonstrate mastery and that to do otherwise is a sign of weakness or ignorance. Mastery is great but so is curiosity. We will keep accumulating experiences that will lead to excellence in our work. At the same time, we can remain open to new: topics, ways of thinking, adventures, and people.
Re-engage yourself as a learner and try some of these things:
Read books that are not the usual suspects; outside your discipline, recommended by an outlier, just because
Visit parts of your organization that you don't know much about or that you always think of as the bottleneck in the system and ask for a walk through and explanation of the processes
Ask only questions in some meetings to gain a deeper understanding of people's thought processes and assumptions
Have a conversation with someone you struggle with. Just try to get to know him/her as a person
Take a class on something creative
Probe your own assumptions more deeply. Ask yourself if something you believe is too rigid or out of date. Explore the latest thinking on the topic and then give yourself permission to change your mind
Take the role of devil's advocate to challenge the team's business-as-usual solutions
Use art forms (visual, music, writing, etc.) to switch brain gears to shake up well-grooved thought patterns
Find a worthy contrarian in your sphere who you can spar with routinely
We need to preserve and nurture aspects of childlike thinking. We need to remain curious, to ask why, to see wonder all around, and to greet new things and people with enthusiasm. Without that sense of awe, we lull ourselves into thinking there is nothing left to learn. Once we stop learning we become rusty or arrogant or predictable or boring. Those traits make us less valuable to our colleagues and the organizations we serve.
So, think back to your best college professor or class. Remember how exciting it was to have your mind blown. Remember that learning is exhilarating. Remember that professor or two who taught you how to learn. And pick up where you left off.