Regardless of your industry and how many years of formal education you have, you’ve probably realized that to stay relevant and promotable, you must keep learning. Bradley R. Staats, Professor at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School and global learning consultant, teaches us how to do this more effectively in his book Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive.

Staats starts by defining what he calls a “dynamic learner” and then gives us eight ways to do so, along with interesting anecdotes and research to back this up. Given how new technology continues to disrupt so many industries and jobs, this is a must-read for anyone concerned about staying relevant ahead of the next disruption.

What made you decide to write this book?

For many years people have said that we have been living in a knowledge economy – she who has the most knowledge will be able to succeed and thrive. Still, I would suggest that designation is inadequate to describe things today. Yes, knowledge is essential, but it is changing so rapidly that to succeed in the long run, we have to be able to learn. As Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, has said, “Ultimately, the ‘ learn-it-all’ will always do better than the ‘ know-it-all.’ ” Specialization, globalization, digitization, analytics, and artificial intelligence are just a few of the forces that continue to reshape our world and make learning more critical now than ever. If we fail to learn, we risk becoming irrelevant.

But here is the thing. Although success in today’s environment demands continuous learning, we’re bad at learning. Too often, we solve yesterday’s problems too late instead of taking on tomorrow’s problems before others. Why do we struggle so much at learning? Research shows that we are our worst enemies when it comes to learning. Instead of doing the things that can help us learn, we often do the opposite. With the book, I seek to identify the challenges we face and then offer research-based strategies for overcoming them.

You explained how you moved from venture capital to academia, but how did you then fall into studying how we learn? 

Throughout my life, I’ve been fascinated by the differences I’ve seen in learning. Individuals, teams, and organizations that appeared to have similar resources performed very differently. As I watched, over time, I came to appreciate that the underlying reason was one of learning. And so, how can we learn more effectively? This is the question that pulled me back into academia from VC. I started by thinking it was just a matter of studying the process, and that’s why I got my doctorate in operations. Very early on, I realized that a good process without good behaviour would never work, so I’ve grounded my work in behavioural science. By combining operations and behavioural science, I can offer a unique perspective in the book about: 1) what we should do, 2) why we don’t do it, and 3) how to change our behaviours to learn.

How did you develop the eight principles you outline in the book (learning from failure, focusing on process, not outcomes, asking questions, recharge and reflect, be yourself, play to your strengths, specialize with variety, and learn from others)? And were there others that almost made it into the mix?

The most honest answer is that this is why it took me 14 years of study to write the book. I have been researching learning since I entered academia. As I have been working with individuals and organizations, conducting my research and reading others’ research, I have sought to understand where we get ourselves into trouble. Each one of these eight elements has shown up over and over again. With learning, we struggle significantly with outcomes; we require constant, often counterproductive activity, don’t focus on what makes us unique, and target the wrong types of experience. The eight principles capture those challenges.

The most interesting point that did not make it to its own chapter is time. There is a fundamental struggle between short-term and long-term as we think about learning and performance. In the short term, we need to get things done. This often leads us to do what we always have done. In the long run, learning benefits us in numerous ways, but we don’t think we have time. I incorporate a discussion of time in several chapters (e.g., asking questions or recharging and reflecting), but it could arguably use its own – or maybe even its own book.

Which of the eight do you personally find the most challenging? How did you overcome that?

Without a doubt, failure. In the book, I talk about several challenges around failure – fear of it prevents us from taking risks, we struggle with it when it happens, and we sometimes try to pretend what happened wasn’t a failure. For me, it is that middle point – I feel my heart rate pick up, and I start to question myself when I fail. I know that every new thing I try can’t work – if it does, then I’m not pushing myself nearly far enough. But that still doesn’t take away all of the edge. I don’t know that I’d say I’ve overcome it. I would suggest that for all the learning challenges you likely don’t “solve,” you get better at addressing them. For me, it is a constant reminder that in trying new things, failure is not a “mistake” but a part of the learning process. Thinking about what would happen if I didn’t try new things is an excellent way to normalize it. Finally, recognize that failure at this moment isn’t the final word – that as much as I’d have liked to have gotten it right the first time, if I genuinely dig into the process to understand what went wrong, then I’ll learn and do better going forward. 

What if someone takes the desire to learn too far and uses it as an excuse not to act, like a “learning paralysis”? Have you encountered this, and how do you coach them to learn and act?

This is a great point. In the book, I quote Paracelsus, the founder of modern toxicology, who said, “All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy.” His point is that you can have too much of a good thing, which is valid for learning. We need to learn as we go forward, but we can’t be so focused on learning that we are afraid to act. I love the advice of ready – fire – aim. In other words, take time to look at what you need to accomplish, but then get started. Just make sure that as you go along, you continue to look at what is happening and take the time to course correct. 

What is the one thing we can all do daily to ensure we’re learning as much as we can? 

Reflection. Take 10-15 minutes at the end of your day and think about what you learned and how it will change what you do tomorrow. The challenge is that we don’t want to take the time. We often don’t think it is valuable. In a study we conducted, participants were given a new task to learn and then afterwards asked to choose between spending three minutes practicing it or three minutes reflecting on it. Eighty-two percent chose to practice, but in subsequent tasks, the individuals that reflected outperformed the “doers” by 22%. We learn more when we both do and think – for example, neuroscience shows that both types of learning can change the brain in different but complementary ways. In separate research, we ran a field experiment with a technology service organization in a training program, and we found that individuals who reflected performed 31% higher than a control group. Incorporating reflection in your day is a small change that can have a big impact.