What if I don’t know what to learn?

After we join the system, we don’t usually choose what to learn.

When we’re in school, there’s already a curricula in-place for everyone. We don’t usually have a say.

Honestly, I think we don’t even know we should have a say.

Later in life, the job and the employer we have dictate what we have to learn in order to perform. Here, there’s more place to explore. But we’re already so used to being reactive, we don’t always take the time to analyse whether what others say we should learn is what really makes us happy.

The consequence?

Things happen when we’re not in charge of our learning process.

We’re not so involved in the learning process. Maybe because we don’t understand the “why” behind it. Or maybe because we find no common ground with it.

We skip the planning phase so we lose the bigger picture of “how” it’s best to learn a certain topic. Others plan it for us. Teachers. Our boss. The Learning & Development department of our company.

We set no goals, we don’t know how to assess our progress. Because others assess us while in school, we have no idea how to do it when we’re on our own.

We get lost in all the things we could learn. So today we learn this, and tomorrow we learn that, but we don’t really get the chance to deep-dive into things we might really like.

Ok. So what’s the alternative?

Malcolm Knowles, which you know by now if you read What makes you a better learner, said simply:

One immediate reason is that there is convincing evidence that people who take the initiative in learning (proactive learners) learn more things, and learn better, than do people who sit at the feet of teachers passively waiting to be taught (reactive learners).

Malcolm Knowles

The first step

Organisations call it Learning Needs Assessment and most of them do it company-wide or on a team level. What they miss is the individual perspective. Your perspective.

Since we’re just starting to build our learning plans, we can let our creative juices flow. Brace yourselves, because the exercise I propose is a real challenge.

It will take you out of your comfort zone by asking you to get feedback from others.

It will make you think about all the things you don’t know yet.

It will take time.

The exercise

Think about what you want to learn and write down the first 30 things that come to mind. To help through the process, consider answering the following questions:

What are my passions? (is it history, psychology, cooking, sports, drawing, foreign languages etc.)

What technical or soft skills does my role/career require?

Are there any projects I know I’d like to take on in the future?

What skills will they require?

Is there any trend I relate to and I would like to find out more about?

If you’re still in school — what are you learning right now?

An example of personal learning needs assessment

Tips & Tricks

Ask others for their opinion (your manager, colleagues, friends)

They will help you assess your needs more accurately

Be honest. Note only those things you know you’d like to learn (don’t list all the languages out there)

Take your time. As I said before, it’s not an easy exercise, and will require your attention for a longer period of time

If you don’t want to stop at 30, great. Let them be! You can prioritise later.

What else you should know

You haven’t really prioritised yet. This exercise gives you a hint on the areas you want to grow. For example, I want to grow mostly my psychology & history knowledge and my business & music skills. No matter how fancy programming, design or other topics might be, I know right now I have no deep interest in approaching them.

You learn more topics simultaneously, but your focus can be only on one.Right now I’m (hopefully) growing my writing skills while I write this article. And I’m tackling some people analytics and psychometric testing at work. But my learning project is 100% in understanding more the basic theories of psychology. For it I have a clear timeline, goals and ways to measure my progress.

There are steps ahead. After you analyse your learning needs, you can prioritise, plan, schedule, set goals, measure, build healthy learning habits.

But for now, this can give you the first level of awareness you need.

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