The Learning Strategies Of Successful People

lessons_learnedIt’s well known today that one of the key habits for success is continuous learning. Look up any list of the habits of highly successful people, and you’ll find some form of learning, reading, and practicing on almost all of them.

And that makes sense. Reaching your goals usually requires adopting new skills. If you want to get promoted, you need management skills. If you want to own your own business, you need management, accounting, marketing, and operations know-how (at least).

So how can you learn like the pros? Do they just read books or is there something more to the kind of on-going development that helps these folks get ahead?

Make learning part of every day.

To begin with, business leaders regularly seek out knowledge. According to a recent article in Inc. magazine, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk each read at least one hour (and often more) every day. They search for ideas and knowledge from all kinds of industries and perspectives. And these ideas help them build and innovate in new directions.

But reading is just the beginning. If you want to turn your reading time into useful knowledge, you need to develop the right mindset.

Focus your mindset on growth.

Stanford University Psychologist Carol Dweck has found that people who can learn and adapt have a “growth mindset.” In her words:

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”

Very few adults are completely open to learning. If you’ve ever said “I just don’t have a head for computers,” then you’re not in a growth mindset, at least where computers are concerned.

But once you’re aware of these hidden assumptions, you can stop yourself and get to work figuring out that new software.

Make friends with mistakes.

By definition, learning means doing things wrong sometimes. And successful people aren’t afraid of screwing up. In fact, according to a recent article in, folks like Steven Spielberg, Anna Wintour, and Arianna Huffington have all chalked up some spectacular failures. (Spielberg got rejected from University of Southern California’s School of Cinema Arts. Twice.)

Erika Andersen, author of Be Bad First: Get Good at Things Fast to Stay Ready for the Future, advises readers to accept the state of uncertainty that comes from learning something new. Instead of worrying about mistakes, focus energy on getting better

To illustrate the point, Andersen describes the famous Marshmallow Challenge, in which groups of four people are given twenty pieces of spaghetti, a meter of tape, a meter of string, and a marshmallow. They have to create the tallest freestanding structure possible that will support the marshmallow in just 18 minutes.

500 people from business school students to architects took the test and by far the best performers were kindergarteners. At about six years old, these kids were used to making mistakes, and it never occurred to them to worry about it when their first marshmallow buildings fell down. They just kept going.

Get a mentor.

Having an experienced coach to explore ideas, test notions and assess progress can make a huge difference in how well you learn new skills. Steve Jobs, Sheryl Sandberg, Warren Buffet, Colin Powell and numerous other leaders credit their mentors with helping them excel.

You may not be lucky enough to find a life-long guide, but that’s no reason you can’t connect with someone who’s a good listener and willing to help you innovative. You can have short-term mentors for just one project or longer-term connections that guide you through a big life goal.

Stay young.

Even if you’re not gunning for that CEO job, continuous learning will keep you young. Dr. Denise Park at the University of Texas in Dallas found that learning a challenging skill, like how to use Photoshop, significantly improved memory function in seniors. And there’s some evidence that learning a second language can help keep your brain sharp as well.

Whatever your definition of success, constant learning will be a big part of helping you get there. Today’s stars have already figured that out, and you can take advantage of their secrets to reach your own goals.


Carol Bleyle
Carol Bleyle
CAROL handles client services and marketing for Software, a training platform designed to promote experiential, on-the-job learning and development. She works to realize the vision of turning the 70% of informal learning we do at work into a powerful training and development tool. With an M.A. in Cognitive Linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley, Carol views skills development through the lens of cognitive science and psychology And over the past 23 years, whether in traditional classrooms or on-the-go mentoring in her own company, Carol has constantly searched for realistic ways to make learning more natural and engaging. As a writer, trainer, consultant, entrepreneur and public speaker, Carol helps business owners find practical solutions to employee performance. She and her husband reside in beautiful Loudoun County Virginia with three energetic dogs and two lazy horses.

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  1. I appreciated this article for reasons other than already expressed. I know it was written primarily for working adults but the message ever so important for those already retired. I have many friends in that category who are morphing into dinosaurs because they have no interest in learning – not new things, not expand on what they already know. Tragic!

  2. Your article covers good ideas for making it a pond to always be learning. I know it was written basically for working adults but I encourage people who are retired to keep learning. Never stop. I have many friends who are morphing into dinosaurs because they refuse to learn new things. Tragic!

  3. We can grow in so many ways. The best way to grow is to understand your own essence, your own brand. Then grow from there. We should grow and build on our own essence, and not a mold a mentor or even a society dictates to us. Not doing so leads to depression and poor health.