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New Learners for the New Economy
By Kirsten Olson,
Author of Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture

While things are looking a little brighter, the economy still seems to be in a bit of free fall. (Except if you're at Goldman Sachs.)

If you aren't looking for work yourself, you know someone who is searching for a job, who just graduated, or is tuning up their skills so they don't get permanently furloughed or downsized. What qualities do you need as a learner to adapt to our new economy? What learning attributes do employers seek in the flatter, fragmented, and constantly changing workplace? Based on a book I just wrote, it's clear many of the ways we were taught to be learners in school are directly in contrast to the qualities we need in today's economy and job market.

Below are twelve critical "habitudes" of learners in the new economy. These habits and attitudes are critical to adapting to our new information-overload economy, thriving amidst constant change, and allowing you to enjoy your work more. Moving out of the old ruts of learning -- that it is boring, and that someone else is in charge -- will help you grow personally, expand your skills much more rapidly, and allow you to experience greater pleasure in your work. And seeing what you do as pleasure is perhaps your greatest asset you can bring to any potential employer.

New learners for the new economy . . .

  1. Are highly adaptive. They are able to see where opportunity lies and network to it. Perhaps you were hired for program development, but that market is withering. As a new learner, you are strategically attuned to the signals your sector offers, and are able grow your skills and experiences toward new opportunities. Where is opportunity right now in your sector? Where will it be in a year? If you a job seeker, in interviews be ready to talk in about how you adapted to workplace or educational change, and provide examples. Then, when you get that job, be that adaptive person you described.

  2. Ask great questions. Powerful learners ask lots of questions. After that, they pause, and listen carefully and deeply to answers.

  3. Are curious about everything. Folks who do not take advantage of new ways to understand their businesses or their work, through blogs, online newspapers, newsfeeds, wikis, Googlereaders, are missing important opportunities. Great learners are very self propelled and entrepreneurial about their learning, and have lots of "learning projects" going all the time. Read avidly about your business or market sector. In fact, read avidly. As much as you can, whenever you can.

  4. Have a broad knowledge base that they are always expanding. (See above.) Although many of us are pushed to specialize in our jobs, new learners for the new economy are also broad thinkers. They have interest in lots of different knowledge domains.

  5. Are good at seeing patterns. As you sort through mountains of information available all the time, what patterns do you see? What sources are reliable? Why? And how can you synthesize? One of your most valuable attributes as a new learner is your ability to "see" the underlying patterns in information, workflows, organizational crises, and synthesize. Look for ways you can organize and see patterns in information.

  6. Are team players who share what they know willingly and generously. New learners for the new economy lead horizontally, through influence, not competitive moves, backstabbing, or out maneuvering others. As a learner this means not hoarding what you know, but offering up knowledge to others and collaborating around tough problems. You really are a better learner and thinker when you work with others, and your own influence only grows through right-spirited cooperation.

  7. Are a glass-half-full resource managers. The New York Times recently reported that the University of Washington's department of communications decided eliminate landline telephones. "We found a way of saving money that doesn't hurt the student experience, and I think everybody's happy," said the communications department chair. Landlines, the department concluded, were an old fashioned technology that weren't needed anymore. Can you figure out how to survive -- and thrive -- on less? We are on the forefront of a massive shift in American life, where we consume less, own fewer things, and do more for ourselves. New learners for the new economy consume less, and manage resources very carefully, not just because it saves money, but because it is the right thing to do.

  8. Understand that every contact matters. Great learners are tutored by everyone. From the man you give a dollar to on the street on the way to work, to the president of the company whom you meet in the elevator, every time you interact with another human being you are learning. Every encounter is a learning moment. You embrace this.

  9. Know that hierarchy doesn't matter. The old command and control ways of managing the world are being disrupted and disordered, even as this upsets folks who love hierarchy and the old rules. The new reality is influence comes from everywhere, and success and profitability can be found from virtually ANY position. Like #8 above, new learners for the new economy believe this and live it in their actions at work. If you answer phones, are you putting every bit of yourself into it? Are you learning all you can from every phone interaction? Every position matters; everything you do matters.

  10. Are choiceful about how they socialize. Where are you linked in? How do you spend your time? Who influences what you think? Great learner-employees are choiceful about their social contacts and habits, because they know this affects their learning. Take your influences seriously.

  11. Own mistakes and are error alchemists. New research tells us we actually learn more from our mistakes than our successes. Successful new learners are good at owning their mistakes, admitting errors, and fluent at figuring out what valuable lessons they contain. No matter how painful, practice seeing your screw ups as opportunities. Turn lead into gold.

  12. See learning as pleasure. It is! There is almost nothing more exciting than the adventure of a new learning project. Live this adventure. This alone will make you a vital, energetic, standout employee.

Finally, here's the great thing. Probably almost everything you've been doing since you were a kid, playing online games, IMing, Facebooking, and Tweeting will help you be the employee you need to be. Enthusiastic, engaged, cooperative, self-propelled learners are now more than ever highly valued employees. They are the new learners we need. Enjoy.

©2009 Kirsten Olson, author of Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture

Author Bio
Kirsten Olson, author of Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture, is a writer, educational consultant, and national-level Courage To Teach facilitator, and principal of Old Sow Consulting. She has been a consultant to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Kennedy School at Harvard University, and many large public school systems and charter schools.

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