The ability to learn is clearly a superpower in our modern times – everyone must become voracious learners to keep up with workplace changes, prepare for job opportunities, pursue hobbies, satisfy curiosity, and generally engage in modern life.

So it’s easy to see that honing our capacity, effectiveness, and efficiency for learning is important. But what exactly are the elements of that superpower?

If you recall your schooling, you might name such skills as reading, taking notes, studying, synthesizing material, working in small groups, and the like. It’s worth the time, though, to list out the kinds of skills that support lifelong learning and to invest energy in developing those that are most relevant for your learning.

A list of these skills is long (and not agreed or standardized), but I categorize them in three buckets.

Absorbing skills. The first set of skills focus on your ability to take in information and grasp concepts and skills. This set includes your ability to:

  • Understand language (literacy) – to have sufficient facility with language (including relevant jargon) to understand what is being presented textually, verbally, or graphically
  • Focus and maintain attention – to engage in absorbing material with intention and turn off or tune out distractions
  • Take useful notes – to capture key points in ways that make it easy to study further or to identify actionable next steps
  • Study to improve retention and ease of retrieval – to actively memorize, recall, and increase ability to apply
  • Cultivate your curiosity – to maintain an open mind to new inputs and to explore parallel or tangential points; to discern when and how to satisfy curiosity

Transforming skills. These abilities allow you to make meaning and discern guidelines for future action. These skills are the depth of your capability to:

  • Think critically – to appropriately question assumptions and parse logic; to evaluate power structures and potential limiting factors
  • Analyze claims and critique arguments – to trace an argument and evaluate its logic and identify what is left out
  • Glean actionable key points from reading, viewing, or listening – to translate what you take in (and the notes you make while doing so) into key insights
  • Ask useful reflection questions and articulate generative questions to propel learning forward – to self-direct the kind of reflection that goes deep, that considers implications from multiple points of view.
  • Construct mental models, frameworks, system maps, and patterns – to discern and formulate the relationships and flow between and among ideas and actors
  • Envision and play out application to new contexts – to mentally think through actions and what ifs; to connect dots and make unique associations

Enacting skills. The third set of skills move your learning through the final step of applying it to some activity. These learning-by-doing skills include the abilities to:

  • Devise practice exercises and application opportunities – to generate for yourself situations in which you can test out the effective application of what you have come to know
  • Gather and act on feedback – to seek, consider, and effectively respond to feedback (including ability to discern feedback which can be ignored)
  • Deduce lessons from experience – to use reflection and questioning skills to identify lessons learned from varied activities and incorporate them into thinking and action going forward
  • Learn from failure – to use mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn and to take specific action to do so (by analyzing situation, considering causes and effects, etc.)
  • Develop knowledge and skill by working with others – to use coworking and collaborating experiences as fertile grounds for learning; to engage in mutual discussion, reflection, and questioning in ways that enrich learning from and with others
  • Garner lessons from observation – To effectively parse out key characteristics and actions taken by the person you observed to achieve the results you witness; to appropriately imitate and reshape characteristics and actions to make them your own
  • Self-assess performance and progress – to observe and evaluate your own skill levels and performance; to compare thoughts and actions to standards devised by you or others

Take a hard look at these skill sets and evaluate your degree of facility with each one. There is advice to be had on improving all of these skills and some of the available resources are linked below. As you find your own resources, check to sure the advice they offer is grounded in learning research that continues to be validated (note that some learning theories you’ll still find on the internet are debunked, e.g. learning styles).

Learning is the only thing the mind never exhausts, never fears, and never regrets.

~ Leonardo Da Vinci

Learning is a deep capability that enhances our ability to engage in everyday activities, contributes to our quality of life, and enables us to meet challenges. That sounds like a handy set of skills to have, mission-critical for life.

For a deeper exploration of these skills:

Learning Hacks
// Arun Pradhan on Model Thinkers
A selection of distilled frameworks for how learning works

Brain Hacks
// Accenture (2021)
A series of short videos to teach learning concepts and skills (and bust myths)

Wired to Grow
// Britt Andreatta, PhD (7th Mind Publishing, 2nd ed, 2019)
Advice on learning drawn from neuroscience and scientific research

Unstoppable You: Adopt the new learning 4.0 mindset and change your life
// Patricia A. McKagan (ATD Press, 2017)
Practices to help people to sharpen their learning skills