What Is a Learning Worker?

In the Information Age, thinking power is valued more than muscle power. Almost all jobs need specialized knowledge if you want to do them well. Every job requires some improvisation and creative problem-solving, and its possible to find solutions to complex business problems in all layers of a company. Often, the best solutions come from the people closest to the day-to-day action.

While thinking is part of every job, there's a class of professionals that thinks for a living; knowledge workers, a term by Peter Drucker in his book Landmarks of Tomorrow. Drucker spotted a trend from manual work to knowledge work, and saw that new type of worker become increasingly autonomous as business complexities increased.

More than 60 years have gone by since Drucker first spoke about the knowledge worker. Now, many jobs are disappearing or at least changing because of automation. Knowledge workers can no longer rely on what they know, as they need to constantly adapt to a changing reality. Learning has become the one constant in almost all knowledge-based jobs.

Knowledge workers versus learning workers

As the name implies, knowledge workers mostly rely on what they know. While strictly speaking they work with knowledge—taking in and producing it—knowledge workers mostly rely on habits that they learned a long time ago. In a fast-changing world, that attitude is detrimental.

I propose we look at all knowledge work as learning work. When we face new challenges, we cannot assume existing solutions will work. We need to get a better understanding of the problem at hand, look for potential solutions, and experiment before applying one. These are all steps in a normal learning process, but few knowledge workers see that.

Now, you may argue that your company doesn't facilitate you learning constantly. Plus, you already have loads of work on your plate so no time to take on yet another project. I'd like to argue that's limited thinking, a demonstration of a fixed mindset (versus a growth mindset). If you stand still, you will regress.

Learning workers look at their job and try to figure out how to do it better. They figure out how recurring tasks can be automated, use software that helps them think, and share their insights freely. By starting a dialogue about ways of working, they progressively free up the time and mental space needed to focus on the work that matters—solving complex problems that move the needle.

What it means to be a worker

Not everyone likes the term worker. Increasingly, people are freelancing or have their own company—or at least they see themselves as an autonomous human being. The word worker may trigger negative associations, but it perfectly describes what we're doing.

You can't only focus on doing what you love. Millennials (myself included) have been poisoned by the idea that we should mostly care about our passions. Fact of the matter is that we have lots of big problems to solve and we can only do that if we combine our brain power. For that, doing the work is necessary.

Work is learning, and learning has become the work—to quote 'personal knowledge mastery' expert Harold Jarche.

We can change the world with our knowledge. While we all need downtime to restore, doing meaningful work can be incredibly energizing. What counts is that we focus on the work that matters, on the stuff that makes life better for as many people as possible.

Work is just a component of life, but wherever you go there you are. While you shouldn't strive for total work—filling the nooks and crannies of your life with work—learning influences all parts of your life, often for the better.

Why become a lifelong learner

Many are satisfied in their jobs; they show up, do things that need to be done, and then move to the couch to watch shows. Their ambition doesn't go beyond that, and that's fine.

But what if you do have an ambition and want to leave your mark on the world? Because of the internet, such a thing is now possible without leaving your house. But, you first need to learn how.

Being a lifelong learning isn't easy, but it is fulfilling. You need to show up every day, but you will also feel the incredible satisfaction of discovering new knowledge or mastering new skills.

Here are five reasons you should become a lifelong learner:

1) Learning is fun

Learning happens with the help of the dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter associated with rewards. Whenever you learn something new, your brain sees it as a novelty and triggers a hit of dopamine. Learning also allows adults to be playful, like kids.

2) Learning gives you possibilities in life

As more and more jobs are for knowledge workers, the ability to learn new skills becomes the number one trait employers are after. Working in IT for eight years, I’ve seen countless people with history and philosophy degrees turn themselves into designers and data scientists. I’m an example of this: I trained to become an educator and eventually became a data analyst.

3) Learning helps you think

Most people are set in their ways and beliefs because they never consider alternatives. When you learn, you deliberately expose yourself to new ideas. Learning enables you to consider unconventional ideas and apply to your life what’s most beneficial.

4) Learning changes your perspective of reality

In line with point 3, learning makes you see the world through different glasses. When you learn to do things in a different way, you become more open to other people and their ideas. Through learning, you’ll see how much everything is connected. The world becomes a place of possibility instead of a bunch of isolated groups and identities.

5) Learning makes you human

All animals learn in some way, but only us humans can decide to learn something. As a human, you have the power to influence your fate and live a life you find worth living. Maybe you cannot see it now, but the beauty is that you can learn to see it.

Make the choice to keep learning, learn how to learn better, and apply it to your job to make your life and that of others better.

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