Ready to Learn?

Tomorrow is back to school for many kids here in the States. And for my “Dreamers,” the inspiring group of kids I’ve been mentoring since third grade, it’s also Wednesday is their first day of high school. I worry a bit about their readiness for high school. They will be dispersed throughout the city at different schools; they’ll have to travel by public transportation. The expectations on them will be much higher and there will be a lot of ‘firsts’, as there will be for many kids starting school. But these Dreamers have more challenges than most, coming from under-served and low income families and communities.

Being ready for school is something we all should think about. I think about it often, because as a coach, trainer and supervisor, I’m often dealing with busy, over-extended adults with a lot on their plates. It’s hard to make time for learning when you’re coping with multiple roles and multiple pressures. But it’s even more of a challenge when, on top of that, you’re already an expert. And if you’re a leader, you’re there because of your expertise. The more expertise and rank we have, the less we find ourselves in the role of learner. We need to be deliberate about our learning. So it’s important to ask yourself, are you ready:

  1.  To look within? Leadership and personal development is a process, a dynamic expansion of your identity. It’s not just increasing knowledge or gaining skills but utilizing insights and awareness in unexpected and unfamiliar settings. And the chief focus is on you – how you think, perceive, behave, and feel. You are going to focus on things you haven’t previously explored or experienced. And this requires self-reflection. Knowing about things is easy. But reflecting on behavior, actions, and emotions and how they influence those around us isn’t easy or comfortable.
  2. To make yourself important? You can’t just dial in your participation when you are the main event. When the learning is about you, you need to be there. We’re busy; we have multiple obligations, and it’s easy to let ourselves be pulled in a million different directions, to succumb to the sense that we’re indispensable, and needed to respond to life’s emergencies. But you need to make space and time for learning. It just won’t happen without you really, truly being there.
  3. To learn experientially? Learning how to respond, react and bring new insights into unfamiliar settings requires practice. Knowing about something is not the same as knowing how to do something, in real time, under pressure, and on the spot. Some things you just can’t talk about; you have to just do. Again and again. This is especially true for those of us in leadership roles. Having tough conversations, sitting in the heat of conflict and making it productive, delivering difficult news, taking criticism and making it constructive are often called soft skills, but in truth they are hardest things we do. They need to be practiced until they’re second nature, because we just can’t do what we haven’t experienced.
  4. To be a rookie? The older, more experienced, and more expert we get, the harder it is to be a beginner again. But to learn things about ourselves we haven’t known before, we need to re-learn how to be a newbie. And we need confidence that we can develop.  We have to deliberately dislocate ourselves from the expert role and open up to feeling de-skilled, even just a little bit. And it takes a conscious commitment up front to make the learning successful. Change and growth is a real sacrifice. No one likes being at the bottom. We have to remember there’s a good outcome awaiting us.

What do you do to make the most of your learning? What makes you ready to learn?