How to be an Infinite Learner
One of the characteristics Reid Hoffman often mentions he values in great entrepreneurs is that they are infinite learners. Those who possess this quality are constantly expanding their expertise to new domains, regularly overcoming their own shortcomings, and their capacity for taking on new challenges seems limitless. Mark Zuckerberg is frequently cited as an infinite learner who has grown immensely in his ability to lead Facebook’s now 10,000 person organization and shape a product experience that touches over a billion people daily. In the world of technology where absolutely all the rules are constantly being re-invented, being an infinite learner has become a critical skill to the survival and longevity of great leaders and their organizations.
But what do infinite learners actually do differently? And in the classic debate of almost every leadership characteristic, is it nurture or nature that primarily drives it? With almost every one of these debates, the answer certainly lies somewhere in between: some individuals have a stronger proclivity to the personality traits naturally held by infinite learners, while other aspects can be acquired with deliberate practice. I wanted to share my observations on what it takes to possess and build the capability of infinite learning.
Be Forever Curious
It all starts with being forever curious. About absolutely everything. We see in our children their childlike wonder with the world. So many things appear as magical. And that drives constant questioning on why is the sky blue? why does it only snow part of the year? where did the dinosaurs go? and so much more. But for many of us as we get older our pace of learning slows as does our wonder about the world we live in. You can say we almost get jaded about our need to know how everything works or even our capacity to do so. But this progression never happens for infinite learners. They keep their childlike wonder throughout their lives and are always curious about how things work, why certain things succeeded, how something was crafted, and how they themselves can learn to do it. It also means they never assume they know everything there is about a topic. They are open to new ideas and new opinions on different ways to do things. Instead of finding these new ideas distracting, they embrace them as opportunities to reconsider their assumptions or at least to strengthen their rationale and belief in them. They constantly go beyond asking the what, to trying to deeply understand the why and the how. And it’s this incessant curiosity that drives them to continually learn.
Take Pride In Your Craftsmanship
Infinite learners also have immense pride in the craftsmanship of their work. They aspire to be nothing short of world-class at their job. They look for opportunities to improve their work and think each time about how they could do it even better next time. They sweat all the details on every aspect of their craft because they know it’s the details that make incredibly well-crafted output. It’s this pride that they derive from the quality of their work that fuels their desire for continuous improvement.
Focus on Leveraged Learning
While the first two aspects above speak to personality characteristics, I want to touch on four things you can specifically do and practice to build your infinite learning capability. The first is focusing on leveraged learning. While learning by doing has incredible value in terms of ensuring you truly understand all aspects of the work, it turns out to be the least efficient mechanism for learning a lot of different things. So in addition to learning by doing, you need to focus on leveraged learning, which is efficiently learning new topics and skills in a highly leveraged way. And that ultimate means learnings from other people’s doing. The workplace is an incredible setting to get this kind of learning. For example, while I worked at LinkedIn in product management, I learned an incredible amount outside my discipline about engineering, marketing, and sales through a close partnership with incredible leaders in each of these disciplines. I spent time not only understanding their deliverables, but constantly asking about their process for producing their results so I could begin to understand their roles in a deep way. Similarly, I only personally worked on a few different products at LinkedIn, but learned lessons from LinkedIn’s entire product portfolio through regular lunches with other product managers to learn from their own experiences. I also often reviewed presentations, product review notes, wiki specs, and more about their products so I could learn as much as I could from there experience of doing. As a leader at LinkedIn, I also began to think about maximizing “learning per hour” for my team as I knew the success of my organization depended on constant learning. For example, we went through an exercise to reduce the number of meetings that our team regularly had with an eye to removing any meetings that weren't producing a high level of learning per hour. So find these learning leverage points that exist throughout your organization and take advantage of them.
Seek out Experts
Learning from others can be extended beyond your own company’s walls to learning from thought leaders and experts in the fields and disciplines that you are looking to grow in. As I identify new areas I want to build skills in, I find experts in the space and find ways to learn directly from them. When I was first learning Python and the Django web framework, I learned from experts like Eric Florenzano who organized and ran the local San Francisco Django Meetup. When I wanted to improve my product skills, I read everything I could from or about the product leaders I respected the most, including Jack Dorsey, Ev Williams, Ben Horowitz, Adam Nash, and more. More recently as I’ve wanted to improve my design skills, I’ve sought out great blogs and content that designers like Joel Marsh, Jared Spool, and Julie Zhuo author regularly. There’s no higher leverage in learning than learning from the very best in their craft.
Equally important is reading voraciously in the areas you want to build expertise in. I make it a habit every morning to spend 30 minutes reading in the areas I’m looking to learn in. I do this by following thought leaders on Twitter and reading the content they share. I also use Nuzzel to get a daily digest of the most interesting content from Twitter. I also subscribe to a variety of product, design, and engineering newsletters that send me daily or weekly curations of the best content from across the web. I use Pocket to save the content I can’t immediately get to and Notejoy for long-term retention of great pieces. This enables leveraged learning from experts across the industry on a daily basis.
Create Space to Reflect
Learning by doing also needs to be optimized to ensure the highest leverage from the experience. What’s important here is creating space for yourself to reflect on the lessons learned from each of your experiences. We often get caught up in the midst of executing on a project that we don’t take a moment to step back and reflect on the key lessons learned from the experience. I find the only way to ensure you’re getting as much as you can from every project or experience you have is to effectively have a personal post mortem to allow yourself to think back on what exactly made that project a success? or a failure? What will I remember to do again next time? Or differently? Better yet, share these best practices and learnings with others because the act of sharing and teaching will solidify the lessons learned for yourself even more. This is one of my primary motivations behind blogging as it gives me an opportunity to reflect on what I think we did well or could do better next time and ensure I crystalize those learnings for the future.
I hope this gives you some tactics you can leverage through deliberate practice to build your own capabilities as an infinite learner.
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Sep 02, 2015