Never Stop Learning: Author Interview with Bradley R. Staats

Published on
July 31, 2018
Karina Mikhli
"Keep it simple. What you're doing either works or it doesn't and if it doesn't, try something else--and ask for feedback. This applies to the service you're selling and to the people you're managing."
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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 to individuals and companies, teaches us how to do this more effectively in his book Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive.

Staats starts out by defining what he calls a “dynamic learner,” which is something we all need to become, and then gives us 8 ways to do so, along with interesting anecdotes and research to back this up. Given how new technology is continuing to disrupt so many industries and jobs, this is a must read for anyone concerned about staying ahead of the next disruption and staying relevant.

1. What made you decide to write this book and why now?

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, but I would suggest that designation is inadequate to describe things today. Yes, knowledge is important, 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 important now than ever before. 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 when it comes to learning we are our own worst enemies. 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.

2. You explained how you moved from venture capital to academia, but how did you then fall into studying about 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 is really 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 though, I came to appreciate that good process without good behavior would never work so I’ve grounded my work in behavioral science. By combining operations and behavioral science, I am able to offer a unique perspective in the book about: 1) what we should do; 2) why we don’t do it; 3) how to change our behaviors to learn.

3. How did you come up with the 8 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?

I suppose 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, as well as conducting my own research and reading others’ research, I have sought to understand where do we get ourselves into trouble. Each one of these eight elements has shown up over and over again. With learning we struggle a great deal with outcomes, we have a need for constant, often counterproductive activity, we don’t focus on what makes us unique, and we target the wrong types of experience. The eight principles capture those challenges.

I think the most interesting point, to me, that did not make it in as 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 just 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 a number of chapters (e.g., asking questions or recharging and reflecting), but it could arguably use its own – or maybe even its own book.

4. 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 a number of 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 actually failure. For me, it is that middle point – I feel my heart rate pick up, 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 of the learning challenges you likely don’t “solve” them, you just get better at addressing them. For me, it is a constant reminder to myself that in trying new things failure is not a “mistake” but rather a part of the learning process. Thinking about what would happen if I don’t try new things is a good way to normalize it. Finally, recognizing that the failure in 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 truly dig into the process to understand what went wrong then I’ll learn and do better going forward.

5. What if someone takes the desire to learn too far and uses it as an excuse not to act, like a “learning paralysis” of sorts? Have you come across this and how do you coach them to both 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 and that is true for learning. We need to learn as we go forward, but we can’t be so focused on learning that we are afraid to do. 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 are going along you continue to look at what is happening and you take the time to course correct.

6. 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 practice, but in subsequent tasks the individuals that reflected outperformed the “doers” by 22%. We learn more when we both do and we 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.