Learning without loss of confidence

Navleen Girdhar
9 mins
November 17, 2020

Growing up, if we were asked to imagine what careers looked like, we would often imagine or see an image of a sturdy looking staircase. Each evenly placed step would take a person higher, with more benefits, monetary compensations and greater job security. Over the course of the past decade however, this image has been replaced by that of a conveyor belt. The feeling of having to move constantly, to keep learning newer things, is omnipresent. Whether we are striving to stay ahead of the curve, or simply grappling to maintain our own relevance in an ever-changing world, self-development and learning new skills are the pre-requisite.

We now know that learning any new skill offers certain advantages – from health benefits (neuroscience is proving how valuable learning is in reducing stress and potentially delaying the onset of Alzheimer! )to what Carol Dweck was talking about all along with growth mindset. The old adage of adding ‘another string to your bow’ leads us to an exciting and often rewarding path of wanting to grow our skillset.

But where do we go from here? How do we then start to facilitate our ‘new and always improving’ versions? To begin with, a person needs to be motivated and committed to making learning a lifelong priority.

True career resilience however, is more than just taking personal agency. It is a responsibility shared by both, employer and employee.

Thankfully, most organizations have realized that progress – of both, individuals and companies is not a zero-sum game. This means, that the correlation between personal growth of the employees and of the company is positive. Take the example of Amazon. In June 2019, the global retailer announced that it would upskill 100,000 employees — a third of its U.S. workforce — over the next six years by spending as much as $700 million. With capitalism playing a constructive force in this scenario, Amazon’s announcement has inspired organizations of all sizes to look at giving their employees an opportunity to create a career while simultaneously building skills that would give them more options to progress over time.

With employers now on the bandwagon of upskilling, there should be no reason why more and more people are not learning new skills. Unfortunately, success stories are far outnumbered by tales of disappointment and confusion. Why? Because, most people do not see learning as an everyday commitment.

Because of the absence of instant gratification, skill-building becomes difficult and improvements are cosmetic and often short-lived.

A part of the blame can be apportioned to scholars turned Management Gurus, whose definitions of learning range from reverential and idyllic, teetering on near mystical terminology. Learning a new skill is portrayed as a process that enables people to continually expand their capacities, incorporating new and expansive thinking patterns, and where people are encouraged to amass a wealth of new knowledge alongside their old, without so much as missing a heart beat.

If inspiration was drawn from this alone then it will not be long before there is a stockpile of feelings of severe inadequacy, self-doubt, and a lack of confidence. For learning to become a concrete goal, it must first be understood, both by those facilitating the learning as well as by those undergoing it. Learning is the art of at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, along with modifying own behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights. Learning a new skill needs to begin with a commitment.

After committing to upskill, to successfully enable the practice of learning there are three critical questions that need to be answered. First, is the question of expectations. What are your expectations from the learning environment and the course structure?  There must be a plausible, well-grounded checklist of expectations surrounding the process of upskilling. It must be actionable and easy to apply. Second, is the question of support. What type and level of support is being offered within the company to facilitate the process of learning? Third, comes the question of measurement. What tools are being used for assessing the rate and level of learning to ensure that gains have in fact been made?

Once these preliminary questions have been addressed, this will lay the ground work for learning new skills with a fair chance of success. The word to note here is ‘chance’. Make no mistake, learning at work is a complicated endeavor. Even if one does their homework and lays the groundwork, there are still more hurdles to jump over, both intellectual as well as instinctual. Barriers are in the form of own ambivalence to learning. Even if not outright resistant, adults are often ill at ease with the idea of learning. Why? Maybe because at some level we worry that we may not like what we learn. Some people block out new learning as it challenges their old and cherished ideas. Then there is a possibility that we end up finding ourselves lacking. We hear such things all the time. Science tells us that our brain ossifies and does not absorb new material easily. Put these words in context to our learning process, and you would begin to see that ‘ossify’ and ‘absorb’ are used to describe the issue and not a physical change in our brains.

The reason why children can learn faster than adults is that they learn by ‘absorbing’. They see things the way they are and take them all in. Lacking context and experience, they don’t compare and contrast new knowledge to what they already have. In sharp contrast, for adults, viewing new and incoming knowledge through our pre-set filers, imposes a considerable amount of learning overhead. Our brain has to first compare new knowledge with the old. If we are lucky, and the brain has not rejected the input outright, it still has to analyze the key material to retain. Information then gets stored alongside relevant contexts and that which does not fit, is discarded. No wonder learning becomes exhausting!

What makes it all worse is that for most of us, learning is associated with consequences. The arbitrary cut-offs in schools and colleges can instill a sense of dread even when we grow out of the system. We seem to forget the joy that learning can bring. The first dance routine we finally get right; the time our child says the alphabet; even the time we finally learn how to parallel park! The spark of learning is real and useful. So why then do we end up feeling dejected, demotivated, and down right down trodden? It begins when we limit our own ability to learn by wanting steady levels of high-performance.

We end up focusing our energies on achieving results rather than enhancing our skillset.

Despite claims to the contrary, employers too tend to fixate on results, rather than work on promoting a culture suited for learning.

How can we then learn without losing our confidence? When looking to overcome such impediments to curiosity and learning, consider the following:

1. Choose an organization that provides an enriching learning environment.

‘Learning capacity’ should be one of the top factors to look for. Studies have shown that positive learning environments enhance our ability to develop new knowledge. Google is an example of a company that has created a culture of rewarding both formal and informal learning. By valuing mental and physical wellness, building a cultural characteristic that focuses on openness and diversity, Google has successfully created a corporate culture of increasing employees’ knowledge and skills.

2. Create a habit of learning

One of the biggest obstacles in learning is finding the time. Especially in a professional setting, finding the necessary time to learn is critical. A simple way of achieving this is by creating a habit of daily learning. In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and the Power to Change, Charles Duhigg outlines 4 steps to creating a habit: identifying our routine, experimenting with rewards, isolating the cue and having a plan. By repeating a loop of creating the time to learn, we cement our habit of learning.

3. Learn from others

‍To quote Ken Blanchard, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” By focusing only on ourselves, we overlook the pivotal role played by others in learning. When we think of learning, we immediately begin to think of classroom scenarios. Conversely, most learning opportunities are often unprompted and unforced, and this is also true at work.  By opening ourselves to learning from peers, superiors as well as our juniors, we gain access to a variety of perspectives. This also allows us to process information in several new ways and employ innovative attitudes to solving problems.

4. Experiment

To learn what we do not already know we first have to understand what we do not know! The trick to discovering the blind spots in our skills, is to look outside of ourselves. Take reliable assessments, ask people around you what they think your skills are, look back in time to old report cards, performance reviews or feedback reports. To truly discover what our blind spots are, we have to experiment. You could be the best guitarist in the world. But if you have never played the guitar, you would not know. So it is important to try different skills. If it gets too difficult, try to leverage it with something that comes naturally to you. By trying different things, you can start to learn new skills and develop your scope of strengths.

The important thing is to keep learning. If you find yourself on a downward spiral to low self-confidence, remember to seek out ways that bring back the joy of learning. Start by asking yourself, what gives you joy? A simple trick to finding this out is to follow your curiosity. When we exercise curiosity, our brain releases dopamine, a biochemical neurotransmitter. One of the side-effects of dopamine is that our brain interprets it as pleasure. This leads to a positive feedback loop.

The next thing is to learn, how to learn. In our world today, information is a commodity, and the access to information, global. This means that anybody can find out just about anything. A primary consequence of this is that information has been devalued. Given that anyone with the right questions and a working internet connection can access it, the distinguishing factor then becomes how we make use of it.

Third, create the opportunities to apply what you are learning in the real world. When we can take our learning and demonstrate it, we reduce the lag from learning something to applying it. The catch here is to not wait for the opportunity to present itself but to actively generate it.

Fourth, and just as important as the three above, is to review. When you make a habit of reflecting on your learning, how you applied it, or even how you plan on applying it, you enhance your sense of achievement. This is a longer lasting kind of joy and helps us stay on track with our learning.

Learning without losing confidence is key to our growth. By integrating these steps into our thought patterns, we begin to get clear on what truly triggers the thrill of learning for us. When we start to build more joy into our work lives, we start to take back control of our own careers, and ultimately our lives.

References:

1. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20190711005341/en/Amazon-Pledges-Upskill-100000-U.S.-Employees-In-Demand)

2. If Learning Is a Natural Skill, Why Is It So Hard? Have we become fearful of learning? Where is our curiosity? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/jacobs-staff/201501/if-learning-is-natural-skill-why-is-it-so-hard

3. The Importance of Learning in Organizations https://hbr.org/2008/12/the-importance-of-learning-in

4.  New Frontiers in Re-skilling and Upskilling https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/new-frontiers-in-re-skilling-and-upskilling/

5. Take Control Of Your Learning At Work https://hbr.org/2018/07/take-control-of-your-learning-at-work