See some of Sexton and GrowthWorks’ other writings
White Paper: Creating Perpetually Innovative, People-Driven Organizations GrowthWorks, Inc. Oct. 98
Sowing the Seeds of Corporate Innovation by G. Sexton and B. McDermott. Reprinted from the Journal of the Association for Quality & Participation Nov./Dec. 98
Titanic Lesson: Adapt to Change or Sink by B. McDermott. Reprinted from CityBusiness: The Business Journal May 98
Employers Need to Learn How to Use Existing Talent by G. Sexton. Reprinted from the StarTribune, Minneapolis-St. Paul March 97
Recommendations from Peers: Break-It! Thinking Helps Company Leap Plateaus. Reprinted from the Training Directors' Forum Newsletter June 99
7 Secrets for Managing Innovation by G. Sexton and B. McDermott. Oct. 99
8 Characteristics for Creating a Climate of Perpetual Innovation: A Checklist of Essential Questions by G. Sexton and B. McDermott. Oct. 99
Innovation Training Objectives: Attitudes, Mindsets & Skills for Managers by G. Sexton and B. McDermott. Oct. 99
Innovation Training Objectives: Helping Your Workforce Handle the Demands of Change by G. Sexton and B. McDermott. Oct. 99
Innovation Training Is Paying Off for General Mills Foodservice Division by G. Sexton and B. McDermott. Jan. 99
Search for Individual 'Purpose' Yields Boost in Organizational Performance: Linking Personal and Professional Success by G. Sexton and B. McDermott. Jan. 99
Personal Mastery: The Foundation of Creativity in a Learning Organization by G. Sexton. March 2000
Employee Attitudes Are Lifting Bottom-Line Business Results by B. McDermott .Dec. 99
Why Do Leaders Fail?: Study Provides Insights by G. Sexton and B. McDermott. Oct. 99
Things Troubling Trainers...and What to Do About Them Session Handouts from Training 2000 Presentation by Brian McDermott. Feb. 2000
Visit the GrowthWorks, Inc. website http://www.growthworksinc.com
In the not-so-old days, when learning primarily entailed teachers and trainers standing in front of the class, working earnestly to talk and chalk knowledge out of their heads and into ours, we didn’t have to spend much time thinking about motivation or self-direction. But with so many learning options moving to the web, educators of all sorts are fretting and philosophizing about what it will take to inspire learners to stick it out with online coursework.
I believe, however, that what was true about the most effective old-school learners will remain true about learners forever: the motivation to learn comes from within. External incentives and rewards can help, but they can’t make up for a lack of personal desire for knowledge and growth. So, rather than strategizing about what prizes to award to successful online learners, it seems our time would be better spent trying to understand the magic that makes self-directed learners self-directed… and figure out how to put that stuff in a bottle.
I’ve wrestled with this fundamental question over the last decade as an educator, consultant, and knowledge seeker myself. I’ve come up with six characteristicsinvisible assetsthat I believe distinguish those who successfully take personal responsibility for their learning and careers:
1. Self-directed learners work with an underlying sense of purpose. They find meaning beyond job descriptions. They’re guided by passion that exceeds the narrow definition of tasks performed. They believe what they do makes a unique contribution. These are the people who install hoses on an incubator assembly line and see their job as helping save the lives of premature babies.
2. Self-directed learners never surrender the art of dreaming and re-dreaming. Many people are ineffective at setting and achieving goals because they lose the ability to inspire themselves with dreams. Dreams create direction. Self-directed learners continually envision their futures. So many people have quit dreaming and stalled unhappily in life, stunted by the practical and realistic conditions of their lives? There are bills to pay. Kids to put through college. Too many years invested in getting to where they are…
3. Self-directed learners focus on their gifts. They value their unique talents and skills. They leverage their strengths and manage their weaknesses. Attempting to become all things leads to mediocrity at best. Ask any top performers about their success and they will emphasize having focused on doing what they do best. Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed, “Most people go to their graves with their music still inside them.” The self-directed are life’s music makers.
4. Self-directed learners see themselves as volunteers not victims. They have an internal locus of control. The self-directed take responsibility for their choices and pursue their own definitions of success. They believe they are where they are because of the choices they’ve made. They understand that any change in the direction of their future must begin inside them. Self-directed learners respect the external forces in their lives but refuse to be controlled by them.
5. Self-directed learners act despite their fears. Uncertainty and change are intimidating and inevitable, but being immobilized by them is not. To grow and learn requires movement. Initiating actionany actionsets into motion synchronous events that don’t happen for people without the courage to begin. You’ll do nothing but collect Manhattan-sized parking tickets if you plan to drive from New York to LA but decide to wait for all the traffic lights along the way to be green before beginning the trip.
6. Self-directed learners thrive on interdependence. Self-direction does not mean being a Lone Ranger. All the benefits of self-direction can be lost in an organization or team unless self-directed learners master the art of interdependence. It’s essential to trust and rely upon others. So for all their independence, the most successful self-directed understand they are part of a greater whole. Success is impossible without interconnections.
Can this stuff be bottled? Can it be taught? A better strategy is to think of uncorking what already exists.
The first challenge is to help people tap into their invisible assets. For some, that means identifying their sense of purpose, dreams, and gifts for the first time. For others, it means cutting through the fog that “working for a living” can create so they can once again see these characteristics clearly within themselves. With that clarity will come the courage and commitment to grow and learn.
In 1923, Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet: “No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge. The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness. If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.”
If we can bring people to the threshold where they can see their invisible assets, they’ll do whatever else it takes.
Does that mean carving out specific time and money to focus on training for these characteristics? Does it mean making them a small but consistent part of every learning and development experience we create? Either way, it’s tough to make a case for these “soft skills” in today’s marketplace. It seems intuitively clear, however, that we must find a way to foster self-direction at this level. If we don't, we might as well run a big chunk of the $60 billion that corporate America spends on training every year through the paper shredder in the mail room.
Gerry Sexton, M.D. is a senior partner and chief explorer at GrowthWorks Inc. in Minneapolis, MN. He recently published a whitepaper, “Creating Perpetually Innovative, People-Driven Organizations,” and is at work on his first book, Working on Purpose. Send him email at
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