How to Keep Learning at Work — Despite an Unhelpful Boss

stay curious at work

The Dunning-Kruger effect. It is a mouthful to say, but the concept itself is pretty simple. It refers to a cognitive bias where people confidently assess themselves as much smarter than they really are. And research shows that is more common than you think. As humans, we tend to make up our minds about something and discard contrary facts that get in the way.

It is easy to stick with what you know — it is much harder to embrace something new.

After all, it takes humility to know what you do not know. (Meta, but true.) This is especially important at work — you need your mind to be open so you can accept new information, critical feedback, and other points of view. This is true whether you are in an established role or starting out in a new job.

But over time, people close off. Usually, when stress takes over — work piles up or the office culture gets political. Maybe your boss wears you down when you suggest new ways, loudly arguing, “We do not do it like that.” Head low, shoulders hunched, you concentrate on just getting through.

That closed-down feeling can stymie your success, especially when you are starting something new.

Let me explain how this plays out. Yes, you are excited for a fresh start. But there is also a lot of unknown and that can be hard. You are learning new processes and maybe even new skills. As a result, you may find yourself retreating to the familiar and parroting back, “Well, this is how we did it at my last job.”

This is the wrong way to learn on the job. But there are tactics you can take to keep growing and learning — whether you are starting an entirely new job or just taking on a new project.

Here are five ways to stay curious at work:

Know your purpose
Take this opportunity to set a vision for what you want to accomplish. Write down what you hope to learn — big picture objectives, not tactical work or specific achievements. This does not have to be a formal affair, you can simply write down a quick sentence. It is an especially helpful exercise when you are starting something new. Use it as your guide and to refocus yourself when you find that you are sliding back to old ways.

Listen first
It can be tempting to jump in straight away with your point of view. You are ambitious and eager to contribute, after all. Avoid this temptation — you will not learn anything new if the only voice you hear is your own. Instead, focus on others. Pay attention to how they work and how they approach things differently from you.

Question second
You now have a solid foundation for what you want to accomplish and have listened to others around you. Now, question your own assumptions. This is critical — to truly learn and push yourself. Ask why you are approaching a project a particular way and whether your usual methods are the best way.

Ask for feedback
The best way to challenge your thinking is to ask for feedback. Go to a few different folks if you can. Tell them that you respect their opinions and trust that they will give you honest criticism. It takes guts to be this transparent and even more to take that criticism to heart. But it is the best way to grow, even if it feels a little uncomfortable at first.

Rinse and repeat
It is easy to see a little success and assume that you know the right and wrong ways. But learning is a lifelong pursuit — you will always have assumptions to challenge and lessons to learn. So, you have to make it a habit to reset. Once the newness of that new job or project fades, set mile markers to recharge yourself and recommit to your own curiosity.

Sure, it can be easier to stick with what you know when things get challenging. But do not lose your sense of curiosity.

It can be challenging to remain open, especially if you have an unhelpful boss. But it is worth the effort. Because I know one thing for certain — curiosity is fundamental to learning and is a leading indicator of success. And at its best, work is a quest for knowledge powered by insatiable curiosity.

How do you stay curious at work?

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About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap software — and the author of Lovability. His two previous startups were acquired by well-known public companies. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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