Learn to be a Learner Again: Your 2021 New Year’s Resolution

A photography student learns by observation. / Vietnam

Quick check-in: How are your 2021 resolutions coming along? Are there any you’ve already thrown out the window? Or maybe you’ve yet to write your list. Then again, you might not even be the ‘resolutions type’. Wherever you stand on the resolutions spectrum, there’s a common point of connection – most of us desire personal and professional development. 

Our two cents re: development: fostering your ability to be a learner should be your primary 2021 (or lifetime) resolution. 

After 6+ years living abroad, as well as 6+ years working with colleagues based thousands of miles away (them in the U.S., myself in East Africa and Asia), I can attest that positioning myself as a learner has opened doors to a diversity of experiences (picture: me sitting on the floor of a mud hut plucking the feathers of a recently slaughtered chicken). It’s also deepened my knowledge of local cultures, allowed me to build robust friendships with those whom I generally share very little in common, and enabled me to form genuine relationships with colleagues I’ve met once in person. 

Conducting an interview in a remote village in Chad – AKA, learning.

Strengthening your ability to be an active learner is not only a critical skill for developing the growth of yourself, but also your startup team. In order to be a good founder, partner, colleague, and employee, you must learn about those on your team, in your startup spheres, and in your target demographic. This requires listening with intent, asking thoughtful questions and being open to new information and experiences. To be a learner means seeking out the stories and knowledge within others – building sustainable and robust relationships, bridges, and solutions. 

You may be thinking, aren’t we all learners by nature? Well, yes – and also, no. As an infant you put every object in your mouth, deciphering its shape and texture. In elementary school you memorized times tables and learned why a volcano explodes. Later you sat through countless university lectures. So yes, we’ve all spent many years of our lives learning. Unfortunately, as adults, some of us experience a moment or season when we stop living as learners and start occasionally learning. Our routines, work, and relationships can go into autopilot – shifting our posture from that of curiosity to obligation. It could be that the mundanity of day to day routine, or the normal stresses married to adulthood, drown out our desire to try and learn new things. No matter, there is hope. Like many other skills, becoming a learner just needs a bit of coaxing, nurturing and practice.

As a startup founder or employee, practicing active learning presents an opportunity to step back and see your company’s story, your team, and your target demographic with child-like eyes: open and curious. 

Here are some tips to help you cultivate your ability to learn:

Listen to hear. 

  • When with teammates and clients, fight the urge to multitask. Put your phone in your pocket, your hands under your legs – whatever you need to do. AKA, just be present.
  • Listen to hear, rather than respond. Do your best not to formulate your response while the other person is still speaking.  
  • Before speaking, writing, or creating, it’s imperative to listen well; to teammates, target demographics, even to competitors. 

Ask thoughtful questions with the intention to learn. 

  • After listening, ask agenda-free questions. Be genuine and seek knowledge. Inquire from a place of wonder and inquisitiveness. And if you’re really listening, you’ll be able to ask equally thoughtful follow-up questions. 

Remain curious & humble. 

  • In order to be a learner one must put others first. Practice quieting your attempts to interject with stories/thoughts/comments about yourself. Do so only with the purpose of bringing out the stories of the person from whom you’re learning.

Pursue any and all opportunities to learn.

  •  Webinars, Youtube videos, Zoom calls, Email threads…the options are endless.

Look up.

  • Up from your phone. Up from your screen. Up from the sidewalk on your daily walk. See the trees. See the balcony covered in laundry and potted plants. See the elderly neighbor gardening. See your teammate’s confused expression. See the nonverbal dynamics between colleagues. (Tip: harken back to having childlike eyes)
Look up.

Let go of your need to appear ‘put together’.

  • (Again, practice humility). You don’t need to be perfect. And people will often be more willing to engage/share with you if you can break down false walls of security and throw out any expectations of perfection.

Fight for childlike wonder.  

  • It’s this wonder that leads us to imagine, to dream. A childlike perspective keeps you soft, not cynical. Open, not overly-critical. It’s your key to living in and engaging with the world as an active learner. 

Your startup needs you to be a learner. Your family needs you to be a learner. And, especially now due to the national climate, your community needs you to be a learner. So listen well, ask intentional questions and be open to new information, experiences and challenges. Seek out the mystery within others (even those you disagree with!) for the sake of building relationships, bridges, and solutions for your startup – ultimately leading to sustainable and robust developments.

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