What is Your Learning Agenda?

July 2008

Our brains are amazing intelligence centers that can absorb an unlimited amount of information. So why not just download all we can?  Do you have a learning agenda?  Can you articulate that agenda?

We can choose to improve ourselves or just maintain our personal “status quo.”   We can listen to mind numbing music all day or we can read to enhance our knowledge. We can network, go to school and watch educational television or not. So the question we all have to wrestle with at one time or another, either consciously or without thought, is “do we want to learn to improve ourselves or do we simply want stay as we are.”

Try a little self analysis. In your limited amount of spare time how many hours do you spend in a zombie like state watching sitcoms, cops and robbers, and other sometimes entertaining but totally worthless television programs?  Then ask yourself exactly what, if anything, you got out of all those hours and you will likely answer “nothing!”
The broader your knowledge base the more interesting you are to others. The more you know the more sought after you will be for business meetings and social events. We often draw conclusions about others saying “he or she was really interesting and I would like to meet that person again” or at the other end of the spectrum you might say “what a bore.”  We all want to fall into the “really interesting” category. Building a personal learning agenda is major step in getting there.

In the business world, which is the topic I know best, your learning agenda is likely multifaceted with initiatives in reading, networking, business shows and conferences and possibly classes and even educational television programs. The important goal is to build your own personal learning agenda that is specific and measurable.
Regular reading is the backbone of building a first class knowledge base.  In business we need to start by reading and scanning the key trade journals and magazines that pertain to our industry and I would suggest paying special attention to the offbeat material which often contain the most innovative ideas  It is also important to be reading at least one of the general business magazines – Forbes, Fortune or Business Week.  Tip: next time you are asked what you want for your birthday just say I want a subscription to one of those magazines.

I want to share a personal learning story. In the early 1980’s much of American business was psychologically in the doldrums believing that the Japanese manufacturing juggernaut was going to relegate us to third world status. A business associate gave me a Wall Street Journal review on a new business book titled “In Search of Excellence” written by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman. It was a study of two dozen American companies that were consistently achieving outstanding performance. I read it. I learned how excellence was being achieved in these companies which helped me see a more clear path for my company. I was transformed. I like to say that Tractor Supply Company would not be where it is today had I not read “in Search of Excellence.”

Reading books is the most time consuming, the most transformational and the task that we will put off until who knows when. You need a plan, like this, that says “in the next six months I will read three books that will help me be a better person and a better business leader.”  Let’s break it down: one 300 page book every two months or 150 pages a month or 5 pages a day. You cannot afford not to do it!  Select the books that will help you best develop your skills and I suggest a basic business strategy book, one on self improvement and one of general knowledge like a biography or a history book.  “Good to Great” by Jim Collins should be first on the list if you have not yet read it. If you are not sure what to do on self improvement I suggest focusing on communications skills – either on the written word or on stand up speaking. In the biography and history book category select books that are of interest to you.  The more you read the better you will read.  Tip: fiction is entertaining but does little for your knowledge base.

We all have different learning needs. We may find that the best learning comes from professional associations or trade shows or going to school. Bottom line: we all need a plan. It is easy to procrastinate about our learning agenda and it also easy to avoid the tough learning that will do us the most good. The real challenge for all of us is to build a learning plan and then stick to it. So the question for you to answer is “do I have a leaning agenda?”  And if you do, is it the one that will help you the most?  Entertaining yourself is easy and leaves you just the same as when you started; learning makes you a more interesting and a more productive human being.

Joe Scarlett is the retired chairman of Tractor Supply Company and the founder of the Scarlett Leadership Institute. He can be reached at 

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