Rediscovering the Learning Mind

Why the Professional Development Path Leads to Success [PM Magazine, June 2019]

ARTICLE | Jun 4, 2019
abstract graphic representing artificial intelligence and technology
By Patrick Malone

It might be a surprise to see an article on learning and the human brain begin with a quote from Henry Ford, but he was quite predictive when it came to his views on continued professional development: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

Most of us spend the first 18 years of our lives attending school. But after the formal part of our education is concluded, we risk placing learning on the back burner. Carving out time for professional development becomes more challenging as we advance in our careers and build our personal lives.

As part of a busy public sector workforce, we find it’s not easy to steer one’s mind into a learning mindset. Local government managers struggle with this every day. But it wasn’t always this way.

Careers are based, initially, on the gathering of a level of expertise. Early in one’s career, learning takes place at an extraordinary pace, and we find that we are recognized and promoted for our technical proficiency. Our established knowledge base is comfortable and consistent. And this is exactly the way the human brain likes it: predictable.

But what happens when things change? We get promoted. There’s an organizational shake-up. What happens when what we know isn’t enough to address the complexity of today’s world? Hence the need to revisit the learning mind.

The Brain Connection

The key to unleashing the learning mind is to first understand the human brain. This amazing organ weighs in at about three pounds and is almost 80 percent comprised of water. It is a complex web of 86 billion nerve cells (neurons), known as the gray matter, and billions of nerve fibers (axons and dendrites), the white matter. It is the fattiest organ in the body and its blood vessels stretched end-to-end would almost reach 100,000 miles in length. And, it’s a resource guzzler, using almost 20 percent of the body’s total blood and 20 percent of the oxygen at any given time.

More impressive than the anatomical and physiological miracle it is, the brain fuels connection with others, driving creativity, innovation, emotion, and the ability to learn. And now, thanks to innovations in the field of neuroandragogy, scientists are uncovering the secrets behind how the adult brain masters memory, recall, learning, and intelligence.

What scientists have uncovered is that each time we learn something new, there is an actual physical change to the brain itself. When we learn, a new branch forms and our neuronal network is expanded. Mechanically, when we receive a new stimulus, the brain compares it to our existing knowledge bank and finds a way to connect the stimulus to something we already know. When this connection happens, the brain changes and we hold the new stimulus as newly gained knowledge. Simple as that.

Barriers to Learning

The brain may be extremely complex, but so is the world of the public manager. Face it: There’s plenty of clamor out there interfering with a public manager’s ability to learn. But the fact remains that the noise levels in and out of the workplace are at an all-time high.

Vignette 1 – My supervisor in our county office is always bugging me to get additional training and I don’t get why. If I wasn’t smart enough already, why would I have been promoted to office manager last year? But now she wants me to go to some certification course for project management. The truth is, I’m comfortable with my current skill set. I like things the way they are. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Internal obstacles. Oftentimes, our inability to learn is tied to the internal dynamics of our own psyche. Our own accomplishments are the first suspects. Once we’ve had some measure of success, it’s easy to rest on our intellectual laurels. Others may have the opposite problem and suffer from a lack of self-esteem. Perhaps we’ve had a negative experience with regard to education in the past. Other internal barriers may exist as well:

Too much confidence: The brain is very comfortable with the knowledge it has already mastered. And we as human beings tend to rely on that knowledge. It gives us a sense of worth, well-being, and a place in the work community. It gets us to where we want to go, then we get comfortable.

Not enough confidence: Adults often face this barrier to learning, especially if it’s been some time since they have had any formal education. Self-doubt is a perfectly normal reaction. Becoming a ‘student’ again is not akin to the roles many of us play: supervisor, manager, parent.

Fear: Sometimes lack of confidence can easily morph into flat-out fear. Fear is one of the most powerful blockers to learning because when we’re afraid, our neurological systems go into shut-down mode, focusing only on survival. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone is ripe with fear of failure.

Vignette 2 – More training? I thought my boss was kidding. Has she noticed we’re in the midst of implementing a new citywide payroll software package? There’s no time, and given the cost of this software initiative, no money! And where would I go anyway? Nothing is out there that works for my schedule, especially if I want to have any semblance of work/life balance.

External obstacles. External impediments to learning are far easier to see, and easier to overcome. They may be institutional confines or exist outside the workplace. In a world of fewer resources and high demand, they may prove formidable. External barriers may also include:

No time: Managing in the public sector is beyond a full-time job. Training that occurs during the workday can impact mission accomplishment, and after-hours learning events cut into valuable family time.

No money: This is never easy. Sadly, educational and training programs are often the first to go in times of austere budgets. Adult learners with mortgages, children, and aging parents are unlikely to find residual funds.

Availability: Many options exist for continued learning but availability can still be a barrier. Location and timing of classes may create an issue. Likewise, opportunities to gain seats in sought-after programs may be limited.

So Why Bother?

With all of the impediments that impact our ability to pursue professional development, one might be persuaded to avoid the headache altogether. But despite the obstacles, scientists have shown that taking an active approach to continued professional development has tremendous benefit to mind and soul.

One of the more obvious benefits is job-related. Continual learning allows one to stay abreast of the latest advances in the field and invites innovative solutions to problem solving. It can result in greater job satisfaction, promotions, and mission accomplishment. This also transcends into our personal lives, allowing us to use our newly found knowledge in other environments.

There are neurological benefits as well. All of our cognitive processes, including memory, thinking, problem solving, and focus are enhanced if we take a purposeful approach to professional development. Each time we choose to learn something new, the brain grows stronger in its capacity to continue to grasp new concepts. In one University of Texas, Dallas study, researchers discovered that adults who engage in challenging mental activities improve their cognitive functioning over time.

Finally, researchers suggest that learning helps us live longer lives. This is especially true when combined with proper diet, exercise, and sleep. David Cutler and Adriana Lleras-Muney, in their meta-analysis of education-longevity research, found strong evidence that education has a direct impact on mortality. They also determined that education is a predictor of health in most countries.

What Next?

Continuous professional development is not out of the realm of possibilities for busy public managers. With a little ingenuity and a willingness to try something new, public managers can find themselves back on the path to a learning mindset. A few tips:

Get plenty of sleep. The good news is that sleep is an extremely important factor in keeping our brains fresh. Research by Dr. Matthew Walker, at the University of California, Berkeley, revealed that naps can enhance brain power and make you smarter. During one phase of the sleep cycle, the brain clears short-term memory storage to make way for new information. The research also showed that working through the night, not uncommon among public managers, lessens our ability to learn by nearly 40 percent.

Diet and exercise matter too!

Be flexible. No one working in the public sector is ever able to straighten up their desk and proclaim, “Whew, all caught up!” Many of the external barriers to learning can be tackled with a little flexibility.

Online courses are the most obvious solution. But it is important to think beyond traditional coursework. Free local events sponsored by public, nonprofit, or private business offer opportunities for dialogue on current issues with the added benefit of networking. And local community colleges and universities often offer free events to the general public.

Try something new, then practice. Mentally stimulating activities are very effective in creating new neural pathways. These pathways open the mind to new ways of thinking and seeing, and they generate what scientists call neuroplasticity. Crossword puzzles, number games, and logic problems can all be effective in helping to create these new pathways. Also, exposing oneself to other fields of study such as anthropology, music, or art can help to stimulate new ways of thinking.

Write it down. Keeping a journal in order to assess and track one’s learning journey has tremendous advantages since adult learners tend to be focused on the big picture. Many times, the details of new learning will get lost because of our genetic predisposition to focus on the larger picture. Jotting down details in a journal makes for an easy reference point as we move from new subject to new subject.

Learn so you can teach. “See one, learn one, teach one” is a popular phrase that actually has scientific truth behind it. When we teach, we are more careful to organize the material in our minds, remember it, and present it. This is also a hallmark of learning organizations – managers who engage in a consistent cycle of teaching and learning with and for their teams.

The Last Word

We can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s thinking. Perhaps the answer to continuing professional development is to embrace the concept of a beginner’s mind - referred to as ‘shoshin’ in Zen Buddhism. This simply represents a childlike curiosity – one that comes without preconceived assumptions, beliefs, expectations, or judgments. This provides a path for us to learn to think of things in ways we’ve never considered before.

When public managers make growth and learning a priority, they are poised to continue their professional and personal journeys while being open to new opportunities and viewpoints. The result is better and more creative services to all of our citizens.

Patrick S. Malone, Ph.D., is director, Key Executive Leadership Programs, Department of Public Administration and Policy, School of Public Affairs, American University, Washington, D.C. (pmalone@american.edu).

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