September 3, 2021

Why You’re Bad at Knowing What You Need to Learn

4 min read
By Khairunnisa Mohamedali PhD

This last year and a half has been a bumper period for skills. Specifically, for acquiring skills and being in learning mode.

We’ve needed new skills to navigate an unprecedented lockdown – everything from how to make DIY facemasks to how to cut our own hair (and now isn’t the time for me to share the disastrous Vulcan mullet I gave my son).

We’ve needed new skills to keep up with an unprecedented pace of digital acceleration and workplace transformationMicrosoft’s CEO, for example, declared he’d seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months. McKinsey found organisations did in ten days what they thought would require ten years.

We’ve needed new skills as a safety net during an unpredictable economic climate24% of adults in the UK took on additional learning opportunities to boost their employability, while LinkedIn Learning saw more than a threefold increase in content viewed from January to April last year.

“We’ve needed new skills as a safety net during an unpredictable economic climate.”

It isn’t just individuals who are seeing the need for skilling, upskilling, and reskilling. Companies are opening up opportunities for learning beyond their own employees, to help out during the pandemic. Expedia offered a free education programme introducing new skills to furloughed travel industry workers and smaller partners. And bp launched their skills accelerator to equip young people with key skills for the future of work.  

Even TikTok is jumping aboard, with plans to commission experts to develop educational content. After all, videos with #LearnonTikTok have generated 93.6 billions views, and counting.  

Historian and philosopher Yuval Harari has identified reinvention’ as the most critical skill children must learn, to flourish in the futureTeaching (and learning), in his view, should focus on general purpose life skills, the most important being the ability to deal with change, learn new things, and keep balanced in unfamiliar situations. In a nutshell: reinventing oneself again and again. Key to success in the future is accepting our unprecedented pace of change will only continue, and learning how to adapt and thrive through these changes. 

The takeaway? The rate of change is accelerating, and will continue to. We’ve essentially developed tools that have exponentially increased our ability to intake information. In doing so, we’ve also exponentially increased the invention and innovation that’s the accelerating pace of change we find ourselves in.

“The takeaway? The rate of change is accelerating, and will continue to. We’ve essentially developed tools that have exponentially increased our ability to intake information.”

So, if accelerated change is here to stay, and the only way to keep ahead is to constantly learn, upskill, and reskill…it leads to the obvious question: what skills should we be learning? What will we need to know six months from now? A year? Beyond? 

Well, I have some bad news. We, as humans, generally are awful predicting the future (unless you are in a very tiny minority, in which case: call me, let’s be friends) 

We tend to be too optimistic about the future, and think what we want to happen will happen. We base future predictions on past experiences. We mostly see new information as confirming or fitting with what we already believe is true. We tend to be hyper aware of sudden changes but not gradual ones. We think bad things will happen, but not to us. And we don’t care about things we think won’t happen to us. 

Like I said, very bad at predicting the future. 

When it comes to skills, the result is a major lag between the skills we need to learn, and the skills we have. If we’d been good at predicting what we needed, we might have amped up our ability to work in remote and virtual settings in line with the pre-COVID gradual digitization of the workplace. Instead, COVID has invited a very sudden reckoning (remember the part above, about how we’re terrible at noticing gradual changes?). 

“If we’d been good at predicting what we needed, we might have amped up our ability to work in remote and virtual settings in line with the pre-COVID gradual digitization of the workplace. Instead, COVID has invited a very sudden reckoning.”

For many of us advanced in our careers, we’re old hands and have at least implicit knowledge of things like networking and personal impact. We tend to also have at least a baseline proficiency in skills like resilience and collaboration. Essentially, the skills that are core curriculum for new entrants to the workforce. However, with remote working, each of these taken-for-granted skills has a new qualifier added to them: “remotely” or “virtually”. And that’s made it a whole new skill to navigate.

For example: networking virtually. How do we network when the usual face-to-face encounters, the small chat before a meeting, the shared elevator rides or pre-conference milling and mingling just don’t happen at the moment?  

Personal impact in remote settings. It only takes a 1.2 second delay in responding to a colleague on virtual video chats, for your interlocutor to subconsciously view you as unprepared or untrustworthy. 1.2 seconds. That is a tiny window to have impact. And the usual non-verbal cues we use to build rapport and have impact are absent in virtual settings. The science shows it’s significantly more cognitively demanding for someone to interact with you in a virtual setting because they can’t as easily read your body language. So, what do you do in these virtual settings? 

What about collaboration and resilience? When it comes to virtual working, some studies are finding that colleagues trust one another a lot less in virtual settings, and collaboration is taking a hit. We’re also all at risk of experiencing dips in our resilience and usual level-headedness due to the continued lockdowns and anxieties around the pandemic.  

So, that leaves us with two truths: First, we are in the midst of a big change that is accelerating our need for key skills. Second, we are bad at anticipating what skills we will need and instead much better at reacting when we suddenly realise we have a skills gap. Put simply: we need to learn at a quicker pace, but we’re not the best at knowing what we need to learn. 

What do we do? Three things can help us better anticipate what skills we might need, before we need them. 

1. Be open
Embrace that you might not have it right. In fact, invite such a perspective. It can help you begin to identify what you might be taking for granted. 

2. Be critical
Question everything, especially what you take for granted. Do this by taking a step back from your day-to-day. Consider, evaluate, reflectThink slow, rather than fast.

3. Unlearn
Deliberately let go of your existing ways of doing and thinking, and consciously learn new ways that serve you, your goals, and your context better. 

Put these three things into practice, and you’ll improve your ability to anticipate skills gapsBe better at knowing what skills you need, and you can ride the wave of learning. 

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