Learning to learn

Learning to learn: how to future-proof your career

One of the most profound and fundamental skills we can develop now, is the ability and aptitude to learn. The late great Sir Terry Pratchett suggested that having self-belief and a driving motivation is only one half of the capability to evolve in a competitive environment: 

“If you trust in yourself... and believe in your dreams... and follow your star... you'll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things…” 
- Sir Terry Pratchett

Looking to learn? Jump to five tips for effective learning


The International Labour Organisation recently released a suite of guidelines suggesting that reskilling and upskilling in response to COVID-19 was key to worker safety as well as recovery, reconstruction and resilience in the face of the pandemic. The World Economic Forum has long been highlighting the need for continuous learning and reskilling due to disruptive workforce outcomes associated with the progression of the fourth industrial age


How does this affect you?

In a report published by McKinsey this month, the idea of ongoing learning as a fundamental employability skill was argued to be key to organisational resilience as well as fortifying individuals against long term professional disruption. 

The piece identifies that while the clarion call for lifelong learning has been made for some time, individuals may be lacking proficiency as effective learners. In order to learn effectively and apply learnings to the real world, we must exercise our desire to explore and absorb new things, novel and inventive.  

So how can we turn something that we may have thought of as a passive exercise into something that is explicit and conscious to benefit our employability? Here are some tips...

Five tips for effective learning

  1. It's all in the mind(set)

    We’re learning all the time. From the time we’re cognisant of the world around us to the present moment, we’re learning. However, it is when we become more intentional about absorbing and turning learning into something more enacted that we see change or iterative progress.

    Becoming an intentional learner demands what Carol Dweck called a growth mindset. This suggests that people can grow, change, evolve and develop new ways of thinking and behaving. A growth mindset is a practised and intentional approach to being open to new ideas that support ongoing development and continuous application of learning. It may require a move from a thought pattern suggesting “Oh, I’m no good at all this technology stuff! I think I’ll just stick with the way I like working,” to something more akin to “Okay, this is out of my comfort zone but let’s look at how I get up to speed with this automation stuff. How can I get some help and insight? What do I need to know/do/learn?” 

  2. Join the dots

    Approaching lifelong learning with a curious outlook is not necessarily a natural capacity. Intentional learning is inspired by inquisitiveness and reflects openness to ideas, concepts and underpins a big picture view where disparate ideas or complex relationships can be connected. Think of curiosity as the impetus for joining the dots for learning.

    Engage with things that you’d ordinarily avoid, like taking on new or challenging tasks. Learn about your hidden talents and abilities to set you on a whole other trajectory of learning. Focus on what drives your passions or interests to bolster your personal learning, as it exercises the ‘muscles’ that enables professional learning too. 

    Getting the most from your learning may take time. The McKinsey piece also suggests that learners can change their behaviours to gain more traction and value from the time and energy invested.  

  3. Be clear about what you want to achieve

    Set actionable, clearly articulated goals that are specific about what you’d like to achieve or know, but also take advantage of serendipity. Fluffy goals like, “Oh, I think I might like to know about leadership” is not going to deliver the goods as well as “I want to develop the skills associated with leadership capabilities most in demand in technology based organisations.” Being invested in a clear goal will help you notice more opportunities.

  4. Stay focussed

    Make a plan about how your goals might be achieved. Identify when you should invest time, energy and effort. Minimise distraction, particularly if it drains your energy and time (e.g. trifling email or ‘make work’). Note what works for you and try other things (e.g. taking a walk to clear your head, mediate for a short while or listen to music) if you find you’re being diverted from your intentional learning activities.

  5. Practice reflection

    A lot of our time is taken up with the activity of learning ‘stuff’ and then moving on, but reflective practice is fundamental to melding experience, insight and critical thought. It moves the focus away from the ‘doing’ of learning, to the contemplation of meaning. It’s associated with being mindful and thinking more deeply about the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’ of learning to realise that ‘joining the dots’ is an intentional practice.  

So, while we can think about what jobs or roles might be in demand in the ‘new business as usual’, the fundamental skill associated with all of them is the capacity to learn, and the intentional application of that learning in practice. Developing good learning habits will help you to maintain your professional development, keep your mind active, and improve your employability, all while exercising a healthy curiosity about the world and your own place in it. 


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Dr Terri Simpkin is an Associate Professor and Head of MBA Programmes (International) at the Nottingham University Business School, University of Nottingham.

She is an industry experienced academic and former Human Resources Director. She has worked internationally with corporate entities, industry associations and SMEs.

She has advised governments on labour and skills policy as well as workforce development.

She is a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and a Certified Practitioner, Australian Human Resources Institute.

Terri Simpkin


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