The 5 Differentiating Characteristics Of A Learning Mindset


Publication date:

September 13, 2021


With the shelf life of knowledge shrinking and many jobs no longer providing the security they once did, continued employability will increasingly rest with lifelong learning. Only such learning can secure continued relevance and provide the professional agility that will be needed to thrive in times of rapid change. The success of lifelong learning rests with having a well-tuned learning mindset; i.e., an inherent passion for exploration, discovery, and learning.

In my bestselling book, “Rough Diamonds. Rethinking How We Educate Future Generations” (, I make the point that it is the parents’ responsibility to nurture such a mindset in their children. As born discoverers eager to learn about the world around us, we all come into this world with a rudimentary learning mindset. It falls on the parents not to squander that foundation but to nurture, tune, and develop it further into a mindset that will benefit their children forever.

Going forward, employers would do well to look for the presence of a learning mindset in their potential recruits. With accelerated change and permanent disruption characterizing many industrial sectors, the value of an employee will no longer lie in what that employee knows when coming on board but in his/her intrinsic ability and motivation to learn and keep learning. Because of this, a learning mindset might well become the key human asset to have in the future.

How can we assure ourselves that an individual has such a mindset? What we typically find on a CV might not be all that helpful. Where you went to school would not be much of an indicator since no educational institution currently assesses whether applicants have such a mindset. They probably should because the effectiveness of any education rests on having such a mindset.

Academic achievement might not be much of an indicator either. Having a learning mindset would help achieve academic excellence but it is not a necessary condition for it. In fact, when I think back on the many students I have worked with over the years, many exceptionally gifted and smart ones showed little interest in, or motivation for, learning. In some cases, it was precisely their intellectual ability that got in the way because they felt that, when necessary, their brain power would pull them through.

Does experience and exposure signal in any way the presence of a learning mindset? If somebody made it through the ranks at McKinsey, does that say anything about him/her having a learning mindset? Not necessarily. Variety in background and exposure might be indicative of a curious mind and an interest to explore different things and learn. Those would identify a learning mindset but breath in experience might have other explanations. Other indicators will have to be corroborated before we can convincingly conclude that variety in background and expertise are indicative of a learning mindset.

Reflecting on the challenge, here are 5 characteristcs that I believe collectively identify the presence of a learning mindset.

1. Uninhibited

Learning requires a mind that is at ease, open and free of any inhibition. Information and knowledge have to be able to interact freely and without predefined roles on the stage of intelligent reflection. Not much learning can and will occur when the mind is held captive by the claws of prejudice, strongly-held beliefs or convictions, and/or dilapidating emotions. A mind is like a muscle, and, hence, needs to be kept flexible so it can stretch when it needs to. Learning requires stretching the mind and any inhibition or baggage holding it hostage or weighing it down will limit, negate, or undermine efficient and effective learning,

2. Curious and inquisitive

Curiosity inspires and motivates learning. As William Arthur Ward put it, “curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning”. A curious and inquisitive mind is needed to kickstart and maintain any learning.

A learning mindset is an inquisitive mindset. It is driven to know more, explore more, experience more. It keeps asking questions. The type and quality of questions asked reveal how well-tuned and adept the learning mindset actually is.

Reading, travel, exploration are all indicative of a curious mindset. As Martha Gellhorn puts it, they are all compost for the mind.

3. Thoughtful and reflective

A learning mindset is not one that is judgmental, or one that easily and quickly jumps to conclusions. A true learning mindset takes the time to reflect and think things through. Deep learning requires such reflective thinking.

4. Nonsensical

Learning starts when you leave your comfort zone. It requires you to move boundaries, take risks, and keep an open mind when doing so. Being sensible will hold you back and keep you from experiences you need and want to learn. If Columbus had been sensible, would he have sailed the ocean blue in 1492? A learning mindset does not only seek answers to the question “why”, but also raises – and pushes for – the “why not”.

5. Attentive and perceptive

Learning requires focus and attention. Attention to detail and nuance make curiosity pay off in deep learning. As Ezra Banda put it, “when you pay attention, everything is your teacher”. A learning mindset operates with a multi-sensory radar that is constantly scanning for things to know and learn about. Because of being constantly on, it can mix and pour intellectual concrete wherever and whenever it is needed.

With these five characteristics as a guide, employers would do well assessing for the presence of a learning mindset in potential recruits. Schools would do well assessing whether student applicants possess such a mindset. With lifelong learning looming large on the horizon, the future will be owned by those who have such a mindset.

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