October 23, 2018
By Harry Koolen
(Word Count: 970; Reading Time: 5:30)
Title: Never Stop Learning, by Bradley Staats. Harvard Business Review Press, 2018.
Category: Personal Development; Coaching; Team Leadership
Purpose of the Book
A growing body of research cited in a recent Harvard Business Review article reveals that we can all develop new knowledge and expertise faster and more productively by applying conscious strategies designed to improve our learning abilities.1 Staats has written a book that addresses this challenge by presenting a systematic process for learning how to learn more effectively, or, as he puts it, a process for how to become a “dynamic learner”. The book is organized around eight key elements to becoming a dynamic learner (see below). Each element is covered in a dedicated chapter that describes the element, presents typical reasons why we often fail to put the element into practice, and explains how to overcome the challenges of building the element into our learning habits.
Never Stop Learning should appeal to anyone interested in improving their own “learnability”2, as well as individuals charged with coaching the development and performance of others.
Key Arguments & Evidence
Staats draws upon research in the fields of cognitive psychology, operations research, and behavioral science in developing his dynamic learning process. By combining operations and behavioral science he is able to bring together a field that focuses on how inputs are converted into outputs to improve outcomes (operations) with one that examines the properties in human nature that influence a person’s ability to learn (behavioral science). The result is a three-step learning process: understand how to become a dynamic learner; determine why you don’t do what is necessary; and know how to overcome the challenges that are impeding your progress.
Staats identifies eight elements that are necessary to becoming a dynamic learner.
1.Valuing failure – Dynamic learners have a growth mindset3 and view failures as learning experiences, in part because failure forces them to change their assumptions. Learning occurs by seeking the “Why?”
2. Focusing on process (which you control), rather than outcome (which you don’t control) – Staats cautions that our culture biases us toward an outcome orientation. But focusing on outcomes obscures the reasons why something worked or didn’t work.
3. Asking questions instead of jumping to conclusions – Staats emphasizes that curiosity is essential to becoming a dynamic learner: “Without curiosity, an individual’s potential skills and abilities never turn into real action and improvement” (p. 62). The action bias in our culture is the main obstacle to exercising greater curiosity. Staats draws upon the research of Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman to advocate “slow thinking”4 as an element in the dynamic learning process.
4. Reflection and relaxation – [On the basis of my own work and consulting experience, I consider Staats’ chapter on reflection to be the most important part of the book]. Reflection is the process whereby we reconstruct and make meaning of our experience5. As evidence of the value of reflective learning, Staats cites John Dewey, David Kolb, and Donald Shön – all well-known learning theorists who placed reflection at the heart of learning and development. Of the half-dozen prescriptions that Staats presents for engaging in reflective learning, the most interesting are making certain that you take reflective breaks during the day (and include physical movement in those breaks!), and doing pre-mortems6 on your most important decisions.
5. Being yourself – Staats admits that being yourself (leveraging your true sources of inner motivation) is the most difficult element to put into practice. Tapping into your sources of intrinsic motivation is essential to the effort necessary to become a dynamic learner.
6. Playing to your strengths – According to Staats, one of the mistakes many of us make is to let perceived weaknesses define what we choose to learn. But you are unlikely to excel at things that aren’t motivating because you will never be fully engaged in those tasks and activities. Staats suggests only focusing on those weaknesses that support your strengths. Those familiar with the Buckingham / Gallup study7 on successful managers will recognize this argument.
7. Balancing specialization with variety – Staats’ recommendation here is to develop a “portfolio of experiences” in tasks and activities that have some underlying relationship, because learning improves when we have a variety of ideas and experiences to draw upon. Your goal should be to become what Staats calls a “T-shaped” individual: skilled in a broad range of related domains but expert in just one.
8. Learning from others – To this I would add, learn with others. Dynamic learning should be punctuated by episodes of transformational learning, when an experience challenges some of your fundamental assumptions and causes you to change what Mezirow calls a core “meaning perspective”8. Drawing upon this and other research, Staats advocates working on diverse teams that will challenge your ideas and assumptions (interestingly, he also recommends working with the same diverse team or group over time). Finally, Staats points out the value of learning by teaching and coaching others9.
Most Valuable Take-Aways
From both an individual perspective, as well as that of someone coaching others, here are the most important take-aways from Never Stop Learning.
- Dynamic learning is a conscious process that requires a growth mindset, which can be learned and can be taught to others (Dweck, see note 3 below).
- When someone assigns blame for a failure to external events or circumstances, they diminish their motivation to learn.
- The action bias in our culture undermines learning. Effective learning requires contemplation and reflection.
- As important as personal reflection is for dynamic learning, the role of learning with and from others is too often neglected.
- Learning requires zig-zagging in one’s interests and pursuits: both variety and specialization are necessary.
- Knowing how to learn (your “learnability”) is a skill that can be acquired and improved upon over time.
- You must take ownership for your own personal growth and development10.
- And finally, I love Staats’ analogy of likening dynamic learning to gardening – something that requires constant attention.
1Ulrich Boser, Learning is a Learned Behavior. Harvard Business Review, 2 May 2018. Available at: https://hbr.org/2018/05/learning-is-a-learned-behavior-heres-how-to-get-better-at-it?autocomplete=true
2Mara Swan, This Little Know Skill Will Save Your Job and Your Company. World Economic Forum, 31 August 2016. Available at:
https://hbr.org/2018/09/having-a-growth-mindset-makes-it-easier-to-develop-new-interests; Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2016.
4Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
5Danelle Stevens and Joanne Cooper, Journal Keeping: How to Use Reflective Writing for Learning, Teaching, and Professional Insight and Positive Change. Stylus Publishing, 2009. See also Barbara Bassot, The Reflective Journal, 2nd ed. Red Globe Press, 2016.
6Gary Klein, Performing a Project Premortem. Harvard Business Review, September 2007. Available at: https://hbr.org/2007/09/performing-a-project-premortem
7Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules. Gallup Press, 1999.
8Jack Mezirow, Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. Jossey-Bass, 1991.
9See also Daniel Dobrygowski, Great Employees Want to Learn. Great Managers Know How to Teach. Harvard Business Review, September 26, 2018. Available at: https://hbr.org/2018/09/great-employees-want-to-learn-great-managers-know-how-to-teach?autocomplete=true; Art Markham, Stop Delegating and Start Teaching. Harvard Business Review, October 18, 2018. Available at: https://hbr.org/2018/10/how-to-stop-delegating-and-start-teaching?autocomplete=true; Ron Carucci, Why Self-Improvement Should be a Group Activity. Harvard Business Review, February 22, 2017. Available at: https://hbr.org/2017/02/why-self-improvement-should-be-a-group-activity?autocomplete=true.
10See also T. Chamorro-Premuzic, Take Control of Your Learning at Work. Harvard Business Review, July 20, 2018. Available at: https://hbr.org/2018/07/take-control-of-your-learning-at-work.
Other Practitioner-Oriented Resources
Erika Andersen, Learning to Learn. Harvard Business Review, March 2016. Available at: https://hbr.org/2016/03/learning-to-learn.
Kristi Hedges, Make Sure Everyone on Your Team Sees Learning as Part of Their Job. Harvard Business Review, September 12, 2018. Available at: https://hbr.org/2018/09/make-sure-everyone-on-your-team-sees-learning-as-part-of-their-job.
Andrew Dyer, Elena Barybkina, C. Patrick Erker, and Jeff Sullivan. A CEO’s Guide to Leading and Learning in the Digital Age. BCG Henderson Institute, September 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.bcg.com/publications/2018/ceo-guide-leading-learning-digital-age.aspx?utm_medium=Email&utm_source=201810&utm_campaign=201810_NoVal_EALERT_NONE_GLOBAL&utm_usertoken=10552096546e8ee8389029b13d5f762953c123e2&redir=true.