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A Burning For Learning

A friend reached out to me to provide some feedback on my blog post related to power, affiliation, and achievement as motivators: he said: “Are those the only three things that motivate people? What about learning?”

To which I answered: “Who are you to question my all-encompassing knowledge on all topics related to motivation?”

In reality….my answer was YES!!!! Learning is the pinnacle and the foundation of motivation. It’s where we start and end, the Alpha and the Omega of inspiration and drive. Learning is what powers intrinsic motivation (the self-driven, authentic type of motivation), and intrinsic motivation in turn drives higher self-esteem, enhanced performance, greater creativity, more persistence, and just a greater sense of well-being (!!). So, in some ways, it’s fitting that we end our exploration of motivation and kick-off the back-to-school season with a post on learning as the ultimate motivator.

And because, apparently, folks are only reading these blogs for the cartoons, here are psychologists Deci & Ryan, the grandfathers of intrinsic motivation, eloquently summing up learning:

So let’s cut right to the chase: to be a great manager, you must challenge your employees, expose them to ideas and support them in exploring novel work. To truly motivate, your people must constantly be learning.

But, it’s not that easy.

We are innately wired to learn. As babies, we explore and are constantly seeking out new experiences. As Mr. Rogers said, play is the ultimate form of learning when we’re children, and critical to how we start to make sense of the world. When we’re young, no one needs to tell us to learn – we are biologically driven to explore.

But – and here’s the scary part - as we get older, we lose the innate drive to constantly be learning. Our intrinsic motivation can become diminished and subdued. We get complacent, we get lazy, we no longer need to make sense of an unfamiliar world as the environment around us becomes staid. You and your team members may have lost this child-like desire to constantly learn, and have thus lost intrinsic motivation.

So, let’s rephrase: to be a great manager, you must help your team members get back their desire to learn, and then keep that desire burning bright.

Next question is how: how do we build a culture of learning within our teams and our organizations?

The easiest way to do this is to give your team challenging work. But that isn’t always possible, and if your team members have already lost a bit of their desire to learn, getting challenging work may feel like a total drag or a punishment.

So what else can you do? If you have billions of dollars, you may be able to give employees 20% of free time with which they explore novel ideas of their liking (a la Google). But, if you don’t have billions of dollars, here’s a BuzzFeed-like list that provides 10 suggestions (roughly from easiest to implement to hardest) for how to encourage more learning in the people you manage and your organization more broadly.

Listicle of How to Promote a Burning for Learning

1. Strike the word “training” from your vocabulary and replace it with “learning”: Words matter in how we think about things. Learning is not constrained to points in time (while training is). Training implies a start and an end date, learning is constant, ongoing, and one never ages out. Learning gives agency to the learner, training is bound by a trainer. Learning is the responsibility of the person, training is the responsibility of the organization. You get my drift.

2. Let junior people creep in on your calls and meetings: let folks listen in to discussions with customers, vendors, and other colleagues.

3. Encourage a discussion of “what you learned” after big meetings or big projects: This is slightly different from the discussion of “what we learned in order to get better next time”. Rather, this is purely a discussion of what did you find interesting, novel or intriguing about what we just experienced. Ask questions like “What did you find surprising?” or “What was counterintuitive?”

4. Write down one thing you learn every day: if you want to take things a bit further, big consulting firms have this awesome routine of each employee making a slide at the end of each day on what he / she learned. It pushes your brain to synthesize all of the information and data from the day and make sense of it.

5. Give feedback! Give lots and lots of feedback!

6. Commit to using individual development plans: get your people to articulate what they want to learn and how they want to do it.

7. Encourage alternative modes of learning in your teams (e.g., Coursera course; YouTube; discussions with others). Go a step further and help your employees create a small learning community using alternative modes of learning. Have 5 or 6 employees take an interesting Coursera course together and meet once a week to discuss.

8. Structure work as outcomes, not as a set of prescriptive steps. Let people “figure it out”.

9. Teach! – when your team member learns something new and great, have them teach it to others.

10. Job rotation: rotate people through different roles and jobs, exposing them to new people and new parts of the organization.

In sum, celebrate learning: encourage intellectual curiosity, encourage question-asking, and encourage new points of view. Smile when someone asks a question even if it slows you down. So happy back-to-school week and let's get learning!


  • Learning is the foundation of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation has been shown to drive persistence, creativity, performance, and overall well-being in people.

  • We are innately wired to learn. It is one of the first things we do as children. Yet, over time, our innate drive to learn may diminish.

  • Great managers help to stoke the fire of learning in their teams and encourage them to be challenged, learn novel ideas, and share that learning with others.

  • To create a culture of learning in your teams, there are a number of easy to more difficult things you can start doing immediately.

And, thanks to Zach Sheinberg for the feedback on learning as the ultimate motivator! [PSA - Please send me feedback! It's much appreciated and I learn a ton from it too!]


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