Elon Musk is a man of wealth and great talent. His businesses and ventures—including PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX—are fueled by imagination, intellect and drive.

But the most important factor in Musk’s extraordinary career may be an overlooked and underappreciated trait. The story of Musk represents a magnified version of a trait that many high performers share: learning agility.

“Learning agility is knowing how to learn—knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do,” says CCL’s George Hallenbeck. “It is about learning from experience and applying it in new ways, adapting to new circumstances and opportunities.” Musk and other high-profile learning-agile people—including Richard Branson, Oprah Winfrey, and Nelson Mandela—show many common characteristics and behaviors:

  • They are often looked to, and even relied upon, as innovators. They are willing, even eager, to challenge the status quo.
  • They have high levels of intellectual curiosity. They push, explore, ask questions, seek knowledge and insight.
  • They are energized by challenges. They don’t get overwhelmed; instead they stay calm, get focused and work through obstacles.
  • They are very resourceful. If one approach doesn’t work, they try another.
  • They are great at jumping into action—performing—but they also know when to step back.
  • They draw on past experiences and intuitively make connections from previous lessons learned.
  • They like to live on the edge, seek out new experiences and diverse challenges.
  • They are not foolhardy—self-aware enough to see limitations, but not daunted by not knowing the answers.
  • They are works in progress: restless, self-critical, always striving—compelled to keep challenging themselves and learning.

“When people excel at learning agility, it is more of a way of life than a specific skill,” says Hallenbeck.

You can probably guess that these behaviors can be overdone, and they certainly do not make a person immune to failure. In fact, failure is often part of the story of learning. But learning-agile people are not likely to make the same mistake twice.

While most of us won’t play at the professional level of Musk, Branson, or Winfrey, people who rate high in learning agility are often the “rock stars” in their company or field. They outperform their peers and get promoted more frequently. They learn new information more quickly and are versatile enough to interact effectively with diverse people in diverse contexts. In many ways, learning agility and high-performance (and high potential) are synonymous.

4 Ways to Increase Your Performance by Boosting Your Learning Agility

If you want to increase your performance—and your long-term potential—you can boost your learning agility in several ways, says Hallenbeck.

  • Don’t get stuck on first solutions. Look beyond the obvious or the easy. Ask more questions. Bring in other points of view. Find another way to understand the problem. Approach it from a different angle. If you are typically data-driven, seek out stories or go get some hands-on, action-driven insight.
  • Learn from experience. Memorable experiences impact the way in which you lead and manage. Seek out more and diverse experiences, and just as important, reflect on lessons learned from those experiences. What changes in knowledge, skill level, attitudes, behavior or values resulted from your experience?
  • Create networks of value. Learning-agile people recognize that others are essential to their learning and performance. They build ties and relationships that increase their access to people who can provide new experiences and opportunities to learn. Research has shown that high-quality networks are open, with people who don’t all know each other. They are diverse, crossing critical boundaries. And core relationships are deep, trusting and mutually beneficial.
  • Don’t overthink. Learn to rely on intuition. Concentrate on principles and rules of thumb. People who rate high on learning agility tell us they operate largely on feel and flexibility. That’s why reflection is important—it helps to surface the intuitive and lock it in.

“With improved learning agility, you are able to make the most out of your experiences,” says Hallenbeck. “As you build the habits that help you figure things out as you go, you will improve how you navigate new and difficult situations and increase your contribution to your organization.”

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