Whether we’re in the midst of perpetual failure or on the precipice of achieving our goal, finding an extra piece of information or knowledge that can give us an edge is paramount to our success. But like the old G.I. Joe public service announcements said, “Knowing is half the battle.” The other half is action.
On its own, knowledge is rarely enough. And in order for knowledge to take its full effect, it has to transform our actions. It needs to change how we do things.
There isn’t always a clear line between our thoughts and actions. We can spend all day thinking about doing something without moving a muscle. By and large, inaction in the response of new information occurs when what we learn conflicts with our own biases, previous experiences and habits. As a result, we consciously or unconsciously stick with what we know to be true (or what’s “easiest”) and fail to challenge ourselves to grow.
The first domino to growth isn’t diving into a bed of research. If we want to improve, then we have to first open ourselves up to learning in a way that allows us to accept new information and frame it in a constructive way. Otherwise, we run the risk of leaving our success up to a matter of chance.
Begin the Process
No one ever said learning was easy.
When it comes to learning in a way that contributes to our personal and professional growth, we must put forth a conscious effort. We have to put in the work, be humble about the things we don’t know, so that we can take advantage of what we learn.
Like all activities in life, learning is easier when it’s boiled down to a process. A simple checklist that we can run through when we face new experiences help us ensure that we’re doing the right things to aid our success. Here we have a short, three step process that you can follow as you’re learning for growth. And please, feel free to add steps as you see fit!
Step 1: Cut Yourself a Break
The first step might sound a little light, but making sure that you have patience with yourself has proven to be incredibly important to the learning process—especially if you’re attempting to learn from failure.
No one’s perfect, and everyone stumbles. In order to open yourself up to learning, you have to open yourself up to the process, and that means acknowledging that you don’t know everything and that you’re going to fail—a lot.
The goal here is to adopt some self-compassion. Rather than being angry with yourself or defensive, take it easy and accept your shortcomings for what they are—a bump in the road.
There is a lot of research out there that shows how important self-compassion can be. Self-compassion has been associated with long-term, mastery-oriented goals. People who show high levels of self-compassion also tend to be more likely to see failure as an opportunity for learning when compared to those with lower levels of self-compassion.
People who are less willing to cut themselves some slack following failure are a little more rigid and defensive. Rather than looking examining what went wrong and why, they tend to blame their environment or other external factors to protect their self-worth and image.
When facing failure, forgive yourself. Remind yourself that everyone fails, and that it’s just a step on the path to success. Don’t just reward yourself each time you succeed, celebrate your failures as well. Doing so will bring you one step closer to being able to approach new information or experiences with a clear and open mind.
Step 2: Make a Point to Attribute Failure to Strategy
We’ve talked about the benefits of having a growth mindset again and again on this blog.
For those who don’t know, a growth mindset means adopting the frame of mind that skills and abilities are not set in stone. It’s believing that with enough work, you can change your outcomes. Rooted in the work of psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck, a large body of research has shown that people who adopt a growth mindset continually outperform those who hold a fixed mindset.
A key piece in the process of learning from experience—and in particular, failure—is making a point to believe that nothing is set in stone.
When we fail, we generally have two areas to place our blame.
The first place is on our own natural abilities. When we blame our natural abilities, we’re in a sense, believing that we just don’t have what it takes. We aren’t tall enough. We’ll never jump that high. We’ll never be smart enough. Placing blame on natural ability results in a dead end. We accept defeat because we can’t overcome our nature.
The second area of blame, and the better option of the two, to place the blame on strategy. This says that we might be able to succeed if we try something new or take a different path. In order to make ourselves open to growth, it’s always a best practice to look at our failures in strategy—not ability. Looking at our failure from this perspective keeps the door open to learn and grow!
Getting into the right mindset comes from making a choice to focus on the things you can change as opposed to the things you can’t. It takes practice—and in some cases, a ritualistic mantra stemming from self-compassion that reaffirms that nothing is set in stone. With the right frame of mind, we can stay open to what new knowledge and experiences have to teach us.
Step3: Give Yourself Time to Reflect
Part of the challenge of being open to learning is actually making a point to process what the heck is going on.
Carving out time to reflect on new experiences and information is crucial. It gives us an opportunity to figure out what happened, why, and how we can take what we’ve learned and apply it in a way that will benefit us in the future.
You should routinely time block an hour out of your schedule for reflection. But the trouble is, a lot of us don’t think it’s important enough to make time for. As a result, we close ourselves off to opportunities for self-improvement.
Like we mentioned in a recent post, the benefits of reflection are recorded in science. In a recent study, researchers were able to find support for the idea that at some point, additional new experience pales in comparison to actually articulating previous experience. Digesting our past experience and putting what we’ve learned into context is what leads to improved performance. Not just relentlessly putting our nose to the grindstone day in and day out. Without a period of reflection, we approach future attempts from a standpoint of reaction and instinct. We go with our guts, and in doing so, make ourselves more prone to failure.
During reflection, ask tough questions that reframe your experiences. Figure out what happened, what went wrong, and what can be done better. And once you’ve answered those questions, the real work can begin.
What we do following a period of reflection can be just as important as the reflection itself. With ideas for improvement in mind, ask yourself two questions, “What do I do next, and when do I do it?”
By identifying the next objective, and setting a date for it, you’re making a future date with yourself to apply what you’ve learned. You’re developing an action plan, a proven tactic for helping us bridge the gap between what we intend to do and what we actually wind up doing!
Make it a Habit
Learning, like everything else we do, has the potential to become a habit. It just has to be structured in a way that allows it to become routine. This is why it’s incredibly important that when we approach learning, we use a process.
You’ve heard it here, you’ve read it in the book—on average, it takes 66 days to form a new habit. For a little more than two months, in order to intentionally become a better learner, you should make a point to run through this learning process on a daily basis.
We don’t have to wait for a monumental failure or success to learn something meaningful. Even if you feel like you haven’t learned anything significant throughout the day, the truth is that there is likely something worth unearthing from your day to day experiences that would be worth carrying forward.
Whenever we act (or even when we’re inactive), a new outcome is created. Something changes—something develops—and it creates a new opportunity for learning. Each new development should immediately trigger in our minds the first step of our learning process.
Always begin with a little self-compassion. Show yourself some love and accept failure and success as two equal outcomes on the path toward mastery. Then, get yourself into the right mindset, viewing outcomes as a matter of strategy and approach—not innate skill or ability. And finally, with the right perspective, enter into a period of reflection and develop a plan for the future.