The Importance of Being Teachable

If you examine many of the most highly regarded members in any field, one of the most consistent similarities in their personalities is the ability to constantly learn and the desire to improve both themselves and their work. The ability to learn — and the confidence that you can learn — is the most powerful weapon you have at your disposal during all stages of your life. There is an astonishing amount of research, both quantitative and anecdotal, showing that being teachable and able to adapt to whatever situation you find yourself in will be what ultimately makes or breaks you. Developing the humility required to be this way will be the most solid foundation you can lay in order to build a life worthy of the name.

Here are a few suggestions to help out.

1. Be aware and perceptive. Watch and listen attentively.

Epictetus, a Greek philosopher, once remarked “we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak”. There’s no point in arguing with a famous philosopher, or evolution for that matter. Using your eyes and ears more than your mouth, in all situations, can pay off unforeseen dividends. Speaking up is not a crime, but speaking without understanding or forethought usually makes us appear hasty and arrogant — two qualities that will not serve you well. Use the information that comes to you through listening and watching to learn and better yourself, mixing it with your own thoughts and ideas. In time, some small piece of information you might have missed had you not been paying attention may sway your life with unimagined power.

2. Embrace failure as a learning opportunity.

Be glad when things go wrong! It usually means you are pushing yourself, which is exactly what you should be doing. If nothing ever goes awry, how do you know that you are really doing anything? How do you know that the knowledge you are accumulating or the skill you are learning is truly sinking in? You will need to be able to distinguish the good from the bad. The best way to learn how to do this is to make mistakes yourself. There is no faster way to learn, no better opportunity that forces you to change what steered you wrong.

3. Cultivate a love of knowledge for its own sake.

A lot of the time we learn things for a specific reason — to get through a class, to put on a resume, so that we can make money. That mentality is troublesome to adopt and will not allow us to really understand and master the subject. Rather than viewing learning as an endless exploration of ourselves and the world we inhabit, we consider it a chore to be accomplished. By treating learning as a lifestyle, not as a means to an end, we increase our ability to progress and develop. Being teachable and understanding that learning will never end — yet will always bring us closer to our potential — is far more fulfilling than imagining it an obstacle to be conquered.

4. Treat everyone and everything with respect.

You don’t have to be in a classroom to learn. By engaging with everything we come into contact with throughout our daily lives, we find little bits of knowledge and wisdom in the nooks and crannies of every human and the many facets of nature. It’s tough to do all the time — our brains can generally only focus hard on one thing at a time, leaving little room for other information — but even an attempt at being mindful and remaining open can yield surprising results.

5. Read — to help consolidate the thoughts in your head.

This one is a bit of a no-brainer. You would be surprised at what you can learn from a regular reading routine. One of the more beautiful benefits, however, is the way someone else’s words can solidify your own thoughts and lead to an otherwise-missed revelation.

6. Write — even if just to get out of your head.

The therapeutic nature of writing is well researched, but if you really want to solidify some learning, try to write it down clearly and concisely. We spend a lot of time watching others do something, or reading about how they do it, but unless we get it out of brains and through the rest of our body we will never learn it.

7. Be patient — every great thing takes time — but constantly move forward.

Don’t be hasty in your learning. If you are under the age of 90, you probably don’t know as much as you think you do, so stay humble. Life is like any trade — you’ve got to take your apprenticeship first. We are all keen to display our genius and make a splash, but if you rush things too much you will skip out on building a good foundation to build towards your goals on and risk being blown over by the first puff of adversity that comes your way. Give the world a bit of credit — it’s tough to fool — and by forcing your way through you miss out on many subtleties that determine success or failure. Instead, try every day to do at least one thing, no matter how small, to keep your head in a teachable mode and work towards a goal. It may take an entire lifetime, but nothing else will be as fulfilling. And hey — what else are you going to do with all that time?