I love learning. At the risk of outing myself as a nerd (which for the record, I’m totally comfortable with), one of my favorite things in the world is learning something new. I went to school much more than was strictly necessary, often without a clear career path in mind, because I found the challenge exciting and the prospect of absorbing and applying new knowledge to be downright energizing.

Creating the Conditions to Apply Learning

What I love most about learning is the moment when it becomes clear and I can fully understand and then apply a new concept. The part that comes before that—the muddling through, the frustration of not totally getting it, the mistakes and false starts—I don’t love so much, but it’s worth getting through for the thrilling moment of clarity when everything snaps into place.

Even though it’s been just over five years since my last stint in a formal classroom, I’ve been fortunate to continue my education on a near-daily basis. In some cases that’s been through my own pursuits: writing workshops, reading everything I can get my hands on, taking online courses out of curiosity, or using the internet to teach myself very important new skills, like cooking pad thai, solving a Rubik’s cube, or folding paper cranes.

In many other cases, learning has happened at work. I’m not one to shy away from a project or task just because I don’t know how to do it. This approach to work has allowed me to add a lot of new skills to my toolbox, including things like event planning, data analysis, podcast production (that was a really fun one for a podcast enthusiast like myself), video editing, and a number of other things.

From Understanding to Application

In order to make the leap from understanding a concept to applying it, certain conditions need to be present. Access to resources (technical, time, systems), and expertise (whether additional learning materials, or to experts who have walked the path before) are obvious conditions that need to be met, but for me, the most important factor when learning and applying something new is permission to be bad at something.

I like to think that I’m good at this part, at least in my personal life. Anytime I write something, I start with the idea of a “shitty first draft” (with credit to Anne Lamont’s excellent book about writing, Bird By Bird). In many areas, it’s easy for me to accept that I’m a beginner: I’ll try the complicated recipe—if it’s terrible we’ll order pizza; I’m never going to be a pro on the golf course—but it’s a great way to spend an afternoon, and if I hit a few decent shots that’s a win.

Where it gets much trickier is at work. The stakes are higher, and the pressure to be productive and contributing at a high level—the pressure to be good at the work I do—means that I don’t feel as free to try new things. On another, more practical level, I know that for the most part, I was hired for the skills and expertise I already have (and for good reason! It makes sense that people pay to go to school and get paid to go to work). I’m employed because of the things that I’m already good at—the things that I have already worked to learn.

How to Encourage Learning on the Job

Of course, every job comes with learning curves and new tasks to master. Most organizations and leaders (the good ones at least) recognize that learning is critical to the bottom line—and yet, there is often a great chasm between knowing and doing.

So how do we create the conditions needed to be continuously learning and applying new insights on the job?

For individual contributors, it’s important to balance core duties and capabilities with the pursuit of new skills. Look out for interest areas and opportunities to stretch within your organization, without losing sight of the function of your role. Add value wherever you can. Spend time with colleagues in other departments and learn more about the skills and expertise they bring to the organization—it’s a quick short-cut to that thrilling moment of understanding something new. Learn as often as you can, and wherever you can—and share that learning back with your team and leader.

Great leaders provide resources, time and space to be bad at something new, and a culture that embraces curiosity without expecting an immediate return on investment

And for leaders, if you believe that learning is important, that you want your team to be stretching and learning and bringing those lessons back to you and your organization, then it’s up to you to create the conditions that your team needs. You must provide resources, time and space to be bad at something new, as well as a culture that embraces curiosity for curiosities sake without expecting an immediate return on investment. In your one on ones, ask your team to share their interests, and help them develop and then carry out professional development plans. Be clear about primary roles and responsibilities, and generous with cross-departmental opportunities. Perhaps most importantly, go first—pursue new knowledge and skills and share that journey with your team—they will understand that you’re not just paying lip service to the idea that they should be learning (plus, you get all that wonderful satisfaction of applying some newly acquired knowledge yourself—that’s a win-win in my books).

In a way, learning new things and then applying them runs counter to our cultural definition of productivity—you have to muddle through, make mistakes, be bad before you can be good. And yet, we live in a world that is changing and evolving so rapidly that learning and applying new things is becoming non-optional for those of us who want to keep pace and stay relevant. I count myself lucky to be so excited and energized by learning—it will continue to serve me well.

Photo by Filip Bunkens on Unsplash