arrow image


Author: Chitra Iyer
Published on:
April 29, 2022

The 4 Traits of Lifelong Learners: Lessons from Harvard Business Review

In the world of work and business, degrees matter less than ever, but the demand for effective learners with the ability to learn new things at any stage is higher than ever. This article from HBR shares the 4 traits of effective lifelong learners through the lens of employability.
Get your copy of my monthly learn-letter!
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Woohoo! You're on the list!

Don't forget to get your exclusive sign-up bonus eBook '5 Steps to Build Your Child's Learning Skills' now!
pdf image

An article I read recently in the Harvard Business Review - although from 2016 and written in the corporate context - is worth recapping for its lessons on what attributes lifelong learners tend to display.

The article cites Arie de Geus, a business theorist, saying

“The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” 

Three years before Corona hit, the piece talked about the crushing pace of change in business, government policy, consumer behavior and even climate. Of course, after the pandemic-led global disruption, we are used to the idea of paradigm shifts that impact life, work, and life at work.

In the context of change, the author, Erika Andersen,  says lifelong learners - people who resist the bias against doing new things, scan the horizon for growth opportunities, and push themselves to acquire radically different capabilities while still performing their job will have a distinct advantage. She adds,

“Such an attitude to learning requires a willingness to experiment and become a novice again and again: an extremely discomforting notion for most of us.”

As a result of their work coaching and consulting thousands of corporate executives, the author and her colleagues have identified 4 attributes such learners have in common.

I share the highlights here, along with ways to develop these attributes in ourselves and our kids:

1. Aspiration 

Effective learners truly want to understand and master new skills. 

This is as opposed to our general tendency to resist change. 

In the corporate world, people need to get their heads around new systems, processes and leadership. In our world, it could be mastering a concept that's been troubling us, finding new ways to solve recurring problems around the house instead of settling for sub-optimal solution, etc. 

One way to achieve this level of aspiration to learn something new is to visualize the benefits to us when we have the knowledge and are able to apply it effectively. It is about making growth mindset our default learning mindset.

2. Self-awareness

Effective learners see themselves very clearly. 

Many studies in the business world have exposed the gap between a brand’s perception of itself and the customers perception of the brand. Similarly, if you ask most people about their level of expertise in their area of work, they will tend to rate themselves high. Very few would say they have a lot more to learn. Very few understand their own learning process.

If I ask you how you rate yourself as a parent on various parameters, and put the same questions to your child, I bet we would see some gap in perceptions. To develop this attribute, be aware of your ‘self-talk’, steer clear of being defensive and have an open mind to opportunities for improvement. Try and spend time with people who challenge your assumptions and world view. In each situation, ask yourself, ‘what can I do differently? How can I make this faster, better, more efficient or more effective?’

Also read: 5 Facts Every Parent Should Know About Effective Learning

3. Curiosity

Effective learners constantly think of and ask good questions. 

Curiosity is the most basic of childhood traits - something we tend to lose as we are spoon fed knowledge and told what to wear, what to study, and what success means, instead of developing our own views. In this context, go back to basic questions that we hear on most of the children's programs our kids watch, and encourage them to speak the language of interesting questions: I wonder if I could…? How? Why? What if? How Come? Put questions above answers- finding answers is easy, asking the right questions is a real skill

Asking questions that turn the topic on its head, ask questions about the art of it, the science of it, the math of it, the form of it, the function of it. Asking questions in a ‘curious voice’ about even the most mundane of topics or tasks can actually make them interesting and create a desire to learn.  

4. Vulnerability

Effective learners tolerate their own mistakes as they move up the learning curve. 

Generally, when we’re trying something new and doing badly at it, we think terrible thoughts: I hate this. I’m such an idiot. I’ll never get this right. This is so frustrating! That static in our brains leaves little bandwidth for learning.

Like we’ve seen with our exploration of growth learning mindset, the ideal mindset for a beginner is both vulnerable and balanced: I’m going to be bad at this to start with, because I’ve never done it before. AND I know I can learn to do it over time.

Read next:

The 6 Abilities of an Effective Learner

21st Century Learning Skills All Students Need

What are the 4C Learning Skills and why Are They So Important?

Practice Techniques of Master Effective Learners

Why Inter-disciplinary Learning Rocks

Download now!

Build Your Polymath Parenting Superpowers!

Once a month, I curate the very best ‘learning to learn’ resources to inspire and challenge parents.
And right now, I'm giving away my '5 Steps to Build Your Child's Effective learning Skills' eBook as a sign-up bonus!
Yes, I want the best ideas about how kids learn.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
PS: I promise: zero spam. Unsubscribe anytime with just one click!

Woohoo! You're on the list!

Don't forget to get your exclusive sign-up bonus eBook '5 Steps to Build Your Child's Learning Skills' now!