The Ultimate Business Survival Skill – Purposeful Learning

As the economy becomes more and more global, the competition will increase.  Few businesses will enjoy a secure market position.  The quality of competition will also improve as competitors strive to out-do one another in providing customer service and value-added products and services.  In this new economy, those who survive and prosper will be those who know how to learn, and who do so faster and more systematically than their competitors.

Those organizations which become learning organizations will be those who fill themselves with people who regularly engage in purposeful, self-directed learning.

How, then, do you instill this “purposeful, self-directed learning” in your organization? First, let’s define our terms.



This is not the kind of thing we did in school, where the dissemination of knowledge was a higher goal than changing behavior. Today’s learning, at least for business people on the job, always involves changed behavior.  In other words, for you to learn something, you must do something differently.  I often tell people in my seminars that “You don’t get paid for what you know, you get paid for what you do.”

Today’s learning at least for business people on the job always involves changed behavior.

Knowledge, at this level, if it is isolated and unapplied, is virtually useless.  That is different from the kind of knowledge which drives a change in behavior.  The key indicator is behavioral change.

I’ll often have people approach me at the end of a seminar and say words to the effect of “I’ve learned so much.”  While I don’t often say this because it would be rude, I will always think, “You don’t know if you have learned anything.  Show me what you are doing differently over the next few weeks, and then we can determine if you have learned anything.”


This learning has an end in mind.  We’re not in college anymore, where we must take courses just because the college curriculum demands it.  Purposeful learning begins with the end – the purpose – as the starting point.

On the job, purposeful learning focuses on improving your skills so that you can do your job more effectively or, broadening your skills so that you qualify for another position.

On the job, purposeful learning focuses on improving your skills so that you can do your job more effectively or, broadening your skills so that you qualify for another position.

So, for example, a salesperson who takes an online course in selling is improving his/her job skills. That same salesperson who enrolls in a course in sales management is investing in acquiring skills and competencies that will qualify him for a promotion.


In both examples, above, the individual initiated the learning experience.  That’s what makes them self-directed.  The learning was initiated by the individual in an attempt to better himself/herself.

Not all purposeful learning is self-directed.  From my experience, those executives, professionals, and workers who take the initiative to improve themselves and gain additional skills are in the minority.  I’ve often observed that, in my world of salespeople, only one of 20 salespeople have invested $25 of his money on his own improvement in the past 12 months.  Those who create their own learning experiences are more likely to rise to the top of their professions and gain positions of influence in an organization.

But just because someone is not ‘self-directed’ does not mean that purposeful learning is not for them.  As a veteran sales trainer, very few of the salespeople we train would have taken the course on their own, yet they can gain new competencies and skills and become more effective for their employers and more richly compensated themselves.

Six Disciplines for the Purposeful, Self-Directed Learner

1. Set aside dedicated time for learning.

Understand that your future is dependent on your ability to learn and grow at least as rapidly as the world is changing around you.  That isn’t going to happen haphazardly.  There was a time when you could count on that, but that was in a slower, less stressful environment.  Today, you must learn better than ever.

In today’s environment, nothing worthwhile is learned without intentionality, purpose, and dedication.  If, for example, you decided to be a golf professional, you’d sign up for lessons with the best coach you could afford, and spend hours every day practicing and studying the game.

So too with any competency.  If you’re are going to improve yourself and perhaps your organization, you must dedicate time to the task.  I recommend a one-hour block of time every week, dedicated specifically and exclusively to learning, as a starting point.

2. Expose yourself to differing ideas.

One of the surest ways to plateau is to limit your input to only those ideas you agree with, and the people who agree with you.  Stretch outside of the box and encounter those ideas and people who have a different point of view.

It is amazing what a bit of exposure to the other guy’s point of view will do to broaden your horizons and impact your attitude. If your attitudes and ideas are solid and well-supported they will withstand the assault of opposing ideas. And your exposure to different ideas will provide you with wisdom, empathy, and self-confidence that will serve you well in the long run.

One of my clients has the habit of having lunch with “a good thinker outside of the industry” once a month. That is purely to expose himself to ideas from sources outside the norm.

On the other hand, one of the surest indicators of a weak position occurs when the advocates of a certain position seek to prevent their followers from being exposed to other points of view.  Cult leaders often seal their followers off from the outside world and limit their exposure to other ideas.  Think of Jim Jones and David Karesh.  Religious systems have been known to do the same thing.

I was raised in the Catholic tradition for example, and we were taught that visiting another church was sinful.  Modern extreme Islamists as so afraid of other perspectives that someone who questions their beliefs will be subject to death threats.

3. Ask Questions.

A well-phrased question is one of mankind’s greatest thinking tools. I often teach salespeople that a good question is their single most powerful sales tool.  When we ask a question, the other person thinks of the answers. That means that we can influence, shape, and stimulate thought processes in the other person.

And that is just as true for ourselves.  When we ask ourselves a good question, it stimulates our thinking.  I suspect that a good question was the stimulus for much of the world’s progress.  Edison, for example, probably began by asking, “Can electricity be transformed into light?”

If you want to find better ways of doing things, if you want to improve your competency and skills, continually ask yourself questions.  Write them down, and seek the answers, and write them down as well.  This simple little process can energize your learning and growth.  I’ve often thought that the simplest way to great thinking was to articulate good questions and write down the answers.  The question stimulates the thinking and writing down the answer forces precision and commitment.

The simplest approach to good thinking is to articulate good questions and write down the answers.

4. Take a risk – a project that is outside of your comfort zones.

One of the surest ways to learn and grow is to put yourself in a situation where you must stretch yourself and gain new competencies and skills in order to succeed – or just survive.

I began my speaking practice, for example, decades ago, with one specific objective – to get enough money to pay the mortgage and buy groceries for the month.  I had found myself in the position of being overqualified and too expensive for every position for which I interviewed and had no choice but to find “a lot of little jobs instead of one big one.”  That lead to a consulting practice, and that lead to speaking as a way to feed the consulting practice. A few years later, I was traveling the country speaking as often as three times a week. The speaking portion of my business had expanded to the point where it was the engine that created an entire business.  I would have never developed that competency had I not been in a position where I had no other option.

Dave Kahle
YOUR business can be much more than just a money-making enterprise. Helping you achieve that potential is Dave Kahle’s passion. He has been helping business grow for 30 years. The author of The Good Book on Business, he’s written 12 other books, which have been published in eight languages and distributed around the world, and has presented in 47 states and 11 countries. He has personally and contractually worked with over 459 companies, and touched thousands of others through his seminars, speaking engagements, and webinars. You’ll find him challenging your paradigms and prompting you to think more deeply.