How passion projects contribute to work success: Staying curious and practicing the learning process

The world and workplace are changing fast, and there’s a lot of uncertainty over what that will mean for the future of work. So how do you prepare for an uncertain future? We think that lifelong learning is key.

When asked what skills are most important to future success, most employees list a mixture of technical skills and soft skills. For instance, 85% of people said a detailed understanding of how to use a computer was “extremely” or “very” important, but 85% of people also said the ability to work with people from diverse backgrounds and strong writing and communication skills were “extremely” or “very” important.

It’s not just employees who recognize the value of soft skills – 77% of CEOs say they struggle to find the creativity and innovation they need on their teams, and specifically list skills like adaptability, problem-solving, creativity, and leadership as being important in new hires.

But what does it look like to learn those skills?

Devin Dillon, our Senior Director of Partnerships, spends her day thinking about the learning process. She focuses on creating the best possible learning experiences for students and families, but a few years ago realized she hadn’t experienced the learning process for herself in a while.

So she set off to learn something new. Taking what she knew about how people learn (and a cue from our Curiosity Machine mechanical theater design challenge), Devin enrolled in NYU’s ITP Make Camp and challenged herself to build a mechanical wooden bird. In building her bird, Devin worked through the key stages of the learning process:

  • Get curious. Find a question you want to answer (like “how do gears work” or “what makes a presentation effective?”), or pick something specific you’d like to learn (like how to use a new computer program).
  • Begin looking for the answer. Start researching online, or find books and articles about the topic. Look into online or in-person classes or workshops, or groups of people also learning about your question or subject.
  • Determine how much (or little) you know about the subject. Understand how much there is to know about your subject and how much of that knowledge you currently have. Identify the next logical thing to learn to continue building on that knowledge.
  • Explore further. Make observations about what you’re learning or doing, keep reading, and talk to people so you understand the key points about what you’re learning
  • Test your learning. Try to do the thing you’re learning about. Find a place to apply your learning – is there someone you can share your knowledge with in a presentation, or on a project? Is there a place you can teach what you’ve learned?
  • Check in on your progress. Pull back to reflect on what you’ve done so far and recognize that you know a little more than you used to.
  • Keep going! Keep trying and exploring, asking more questions, talking to more people, and trying to do more of whatever it may be you’re learning how to do.

Learning something is a process, but it’s something everyone can practice and get more comfortable with. Getting comfortable with that process makes any information accessible – which in turn makes how fast the workforce is changing a little less intimidating.

No matter whether you’re honing skills you use every day at work or pursuing a hobby, following your curiosity creates learning opportunities and keeps you comfortable with the often uncomfortable learning process. Developing a lifelong habit of learning new things will make you more adaptable, creative, and courageous – traits that will always be in demand. Being able (and excited) to learn new things is a huge advantage when no one knows exactly what skills will be most sought-after in 5-10 years.

Devin shared her learning process and all its challenges with us a few years ago. We caught up with her recently to talk about how she’s continuing to apply the learning process.

What else have you challenged yourself to keep learning? Have you taken any other classes since the Maker Camp?

I’ve taken an Arabic course over the last few years due to Iridescent’s work in the Middle East. It’s pretty hard but I can say very basic things when I travel now. I also attend the weirdest classes I can find mostly through an organization called the Brooklyn Brainery. The most recent course I went to was A History of Bodegas.

What keeps you seeking out new opportunities and things to learn?

I think it goes back to what I said back when I built the bird – curiosity! I keep exploring the questions that interest me, and follow the answers to interesting places. I find that one question leads to another, or a desire to learn how to do a new skill requires learning how to do two or three other things – like needing to learn how to use Adobe Illustrator and a laser cutter in order to cut out all the gears of the bird.

When people become comfortable with the process of learning, any information in the world becomes accessible. I can’t think of anything more empowering!

Finally, the world needs to know – how’s your beautiful wooden bird doing?

I decided to spray paint it pink which makes the magnets not as “sticky”–sometimes they fall off when I turn the gears. But it’s in a place of honor on my wall now!

Learn more about how we help people become comfortable with the learning process, and how you can support it.

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