On my journey from head of communications to establishing my own agency to founder and CEO of CommunicationsMatch™, I’ve learned how much I didn’t know.
Perhaps most important, I recognize that I thought I knew a lot more than I did.
When we make a big leap to do something different, reach beyond our comfort zone, or break out of the box of expectations others create for us, the limits to our knowledge become all too apparent.
As communications professionals, we may know PR and marketing, how to write press releases, or manage a crisis, but move beyond this – how much do we really know?
The answer is: far less than we like to give ourselves credit for.
The reality is we all have to become specialists with expertise in the niches of our professions. However, the skills required to be expert in multiple areas is beyond what most can achieve in a lifetime. Being a farmer or fisherman, plumber or electrician is no different from becoming a writer, web designer, or digital marketer. It takes time and effort to acquire the knowledge and expertise to become a “Master” of them. (Read: What it Takes to Become a PR Expert).
This does not mean that we cannot learn new skills or should not actively seek out and develop them. In a changing world, if we don’t learn forward, we start to fall backwards.
It’s ironic that the confidence we build when we master specialized skills can also get in the way of learning. When we think we know all there is to know, there’s little room and motivation to add more. And, when success is defined by our business cards, salaries, cars, or the restaurants we go to, we’re likely to be thinking about everything but what we don’t know.
The concept of David Brooks' best-selling book, The Second Mountain, reminds us that we all have moments in our lives where circumstances change. It is at these moments we recognize that the failure to continue to invest in learning may well have contributed to this change. Our ability/inability to learn forward makes all the difference to our ability to navigate our second mountain (career) path.
In this context, maintaining a learning mindset is the key to success in our careers and to what happens when, inevitably, we change them. But life is not just about careers. A learning mindset is also a key that unlocks a better and more fulfilled existance. The stakes could not be higher.
How can you ensure that you maintain a learning mindset?
The first step is to simply recognize – before a change in circumstances forces this on you – the limits of what you know. This provides the impetus for the ongoing work required to keep learning and to seek out experts with the expertise we may not have.
Socrates said, “Know you know nothing.” This may be a little extreme for most, but if we start here, we’re more likely to resist the hubris and other forces that close our minds to continued learning. It also underscores a basic reality that it is simply not possible to know everything – even in a narrow, highly-specialized niche.
For the second key to a learning mindset, Aristotle is a source of inspiration: “For the things we need to learn by doing, we learn by doing.” This requires both a commitment to doing (or put differently, the practice of an expertise) and taking the time to learn. Doing is driven by the recognition that if we don’t make this investment in our careers or lives, we will be the poorer, literally and metaphorically, for it.
There’s another aspect of doing which is important. This is being willing to take the risk that we will fail. Since we learn the most from failure, we need to embrace it. Success is, for the most part, based on failure. At Morgan Stanley, the mantra shared by my boss at the time was “fail forward.” A wise friend suggested it should be “learn forward.”
A third idea to maintaining a learning mindset comes from a poster on the London Underground which read, “Life is too short to learn from your mistakes. Learn from others.” There’s a simple wisdom here that both adds to and affirms the first two points: Learning from others’ mistakes starts with being open to learning.
While most of us are more comfortable talking about our successes, we learn the most from our failures and from those willing to share theirs. Success is not achieved by avoiding failure, it’s built on how we deal with failure, bounce back, and keep moving forward.
Maintaining a learning mindset is about recognizing that we need to devote time to self-education. We can do this from a starting point of fear – the world is changing and if we don’t change with it, we’ll face a moment of reckoning – or from the simple Socratic notion that we don’t know everything, so we want to know more.
I know that in the cocoon of a two-decade corporate career working for the largest financial institutions in the world, I had periods of intense learning and plateaus. And, when I decided to pursue a different path, outside the bubble of the corporate communications world, the limits of my knowledge were apparent.
With a learning mindset, driven by the knowledge of what we don’t know, a commitment to doing (and failing), and a focus on learning from others, the path outlined here - one I have tried to follow - offers a way to stay relevant and achieve our full potential.
We need to add in one final dimension here - time. There is no magic formula. No “take two pills and you’ll know what you need to succeed.”
A learning mindset simply offers a well-trodden path to better outcomes in business and our lives over time.
Simon Erskine Locke, founder & CEO of CommunicationsMatchTM
CommunicationsMatch offers communications & PR agency search tools and resources that help companies find, shortlist, and engage communications, digital marketing and branding agencies, consultants and freelancers by industry and communications expertise, location and size. Prior to founding CommunicationsMatch, Locke held senior corporate communications roles at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley, and Deutsche Bank and founded communications consultancies.