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Tag Archives: Learning Agility

Put learning agility into practice

Leaders who “refuse to let go of entrenched patterns or who do not recognize the nuances in different situations tend to derail.” This quote from the Center for Creative Leadership is absolutely true. In today’s global, interconnected market, leaders must be agile enough to navigate a diverse range of disciplines, cultures, and skill sets.

Learning agility is a term that often gets bandied around, but how, exactly, can a leader learn to be agile? How can this concept actually be put into practice?

First of all, learning agility is as much a mindset as it is a practice. For instance, if you’re in a rut with your career, it’s possible you aren’t taking full advantage of learning opportunities. There are many possible reasons for this: perhaps you’re afraid of failure, or worried about getting outside your area of comfort and expertise. However, without allowing yourself to encounter new experiences, you’ll have no shot at developing the necessary life skills to navigate through an increasingly interdisciplinary economy. You can’t expect different results from doing the same thing over and over again; Albert Einstein defined insanity as such.

So, to be agile in practice, you must first retrain your brain to be open to newness. It may not be comfortable at first, but hopefully you’ll find that new experiences are rarely as daunting as we build them up in our minds.

When aiming for “brain retraining,” consider four different attributes of learning agility (as discovered in a study by Colombia University): Innovating, Performing, Reflecting and Risking.


This refers to challenging the status quo. Instead of going along with what’s worked in the past, an innovative leader embraces new challenges and is open to new ideas. An innovator asks questions, takes on new tasks and experiences to increase their perspective, and constantly tries to approach issues from multiple angles.


To possess learning agility, you must be able to perform under  stress and deal with the inevitable ambiguous or unfamiliar situation as it arises. An agile learner does this by staying present, engaged, and a keen observer of new information. This includes listening skills; a good performer must embrace, not avoid, verbal instruction.


This goes beyond simply thinking about the new things you’ve learned. Reflecting means using new information, skills, and experiences to generate a deeper insight into yourself, those around you, and any problems you’ll face. Good reflection should always ask the question, “What kinds of changes do need to make in order to  accommodate  these new experiences?”


Learning agility is a body of skills and attributes that can be boiled down to one character trait: the ability to put yourself out there. This means that you volunteer for opportunities that don’t guarantee success. In fact, an agile learner values the experience of failure, as it is a much better catalyst for growth than continual success. Risk here means risk that leads to opportunity, not thrill seeking.

If these attributes don’t describe the way you operate, don’t panic. “Being open to failure” isn’t natural, fun, or frankly, very common. Don’t think of these traits as a list of must-do’s in order to be successful. To put it in perspective, these are the conclusions derived from studying a large and diverse group of leaders; no one leader perfectly reflects all these qualities.

That said, staying humble and open to change is the most important starting point to attaining agility in leadership and learning. If you can do that, the rest will follow.

Mitchinson, Adam and Robert Morris, Ph.d. “Learning About Learning Agility.” Teachers College, Colombia University, April 2012.



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Learning agility and using fear as a catalyst

When learning something new, we instinctively keep it close and secret until we feel confident that we’ve got it down pat. Usually this is because we feel embarrassed by our clumsiness with new skills. However, we can’t learn until we apply our skills, which means a bit of screwing up. You’ll find that even though screwing up might be hard on your ego, it’ll increase the rate at which you learn and respond in unique situations.

This is because of a special nerve in our bodies, called the vagus nerve. As Christopher Bergland explains in this article on Psychology Today, “When people say ‘trust your gut’ they are in many ways saying, ‘trust your vagus nerve.’ Visceral feelings and gut-instincts are literally emotional intuitions transferred up to your brain via the vagus nerve.”

Bergland goes on to say that we can teach ourselves to respond positively to the “gut-feeling” we get from the vagus nerve by being in tune with the loop between our bodies and minds and using this awareness to our advantage. Instead of choking under pressure, which comes from a negative response from the vagus nerve, we can control its signals and stay calm under stress.

Now, I’m not saying that you should go out and look for the most stressful situation you can find and purposely make your learning experience as intense as possible. Many people thrive under pressure, while others do much better using more gradual methods, and I understand that. I do want to encourage you to push the limits you think you have when you’re taking on something new, because:

  1. Most of us underestimate ourselves.
  2. Most of us overestimate the thing we’re learning.
  3. You won’t really know how true either of the above are until you go out and see for yourself.

Examples of diving in:

-Giving a presentation using material you’re new to. Of course, don’t do this at your next big, job-on-the-line presentation, but do try out new materials, approaches and styles when you have a less career-defining presentation.

-Teaching yourself a skill that is outside your normal set of skills. If you’re a numbers wiz, try out some of the good literature. If you’re an extrovert, try meditation. If you’re shy, try the above suggestion!

-Wearing your mistakes as badges, knowing that each falter invariably pushes you closer to mastery.

How do you deal with handling pressure? How does it impact your ability to learn?


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Our society goes on and on about the power of persistence. We’ve all heard the story of Thomas Edison trying thousands of times before finally getting the light bulb right, or of Martin Luther King Jr. bringing about social change against enormous odds. We idolize figures who strive against great obstacles and persevere, unwilling to give up.

To be sure, persistence and resilience in the face of hardship are admirable characteristics. But many blame themselves unfairly for not having success with something that might not be feasible. There are circumstances that no amount of will power can impact, and these are the times when the courageous thing to do, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, would be to let it go and move on.

But you may be wondering, how do you know when to let it go? Wouldn’t we still be using gas lamps if Edison had let go of his vision to invent the incandescent light bulb?

It is tough to know when to count your losses when you’re right in the thick of it, be it a project or goal or what-have-you. Making it harder still is that social stigma of being a perceived failure. However, there are a few key questions you can ask yourself that will help you know if you should let it go (for now!), and help yourself in the long run.

1. Is my goal feasible? Ways to determine this: Do I have a detailed game plan? What are the concrete steps to achieving my goal? Can I do it on my own? If not, who have I enlisted for support?

2. Am I making progress? If you’re heart is truly in it, you’ll see results, even if they are miniscule. But if you find yourself drifting away, it may be because deep down this project isn’t right for you at this time, and there’s absolutely no shame in acknowledging that.

3. Has the process thus far had an overall positive or negative effect on my life? There’s healthy stress that motivates us to keep going, and then there’s unhealthy stress, which crosses over into other parts of our lives and brings our general happiness down. If the goal feels like a burden you cannot handle, then it may be time to let it go.

4. Do I really, truly, deep down want this?

Consider these questions, and be okay with setting things aside if that’s what you feel is best for you. Acknowledging that you may need to let it go for a bit shows great maturity and self-awareness, and that’s something to be proud of! Remember: in the long run, you’re preparing yourself for even greater success.

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