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Are You a Student or a Learner?


As I work closely with many others in my consulting practice, I see a distinct difference between how people approach new situations. Some eagerly jump in, even though they aren’t fully prepared. Others may be willing, but they wait for clear direction, for the path to be cleared, for step by step direction before they will venture into this new territory.

Differences Between Student and Learners

As I observe these two approaches, I see a distinct difference between learners and students.

Students await direction; they rely on a detailed “how to” and “step by step” directions. Learners find the way; they are willing to get messy and are OK with less than perfect first steps.

Students are focused on the external rewards. They ask what it takes to get an A. The want to know what counts toward their final grade and what does not. Learners learn for the sheer sake of learning. They are motivated by an intrinsic desire to learn, to grow, to discover.

Students do what they are told, when they are told. Read this. Do this. Write this. Learners are a bit more unruly. They explore. They get distracted. They dive deep into one area of interest, leaving others behind.

Students want to know “the answer”. Not just any answer, but the “right” answer. Learners spend their time on the questions, and the questions that the first questions give birth to. The bigger the question, the more fun learners have.

Students measure their worth by the teacher’s marks. Learners are willing to challenge the thinking of the teacher. To argue a point. To think more deeply into the topic.

Students strive for perfection. Learners strive for messy attempts that lead them to greater insights.

Students minimize risks by following directions. The clearer the directions, the better. Learners chafe at overly restrictive directions. They revel in the fuzzy boundaries and uncharted territory.

The student is a text book. The learner is a blank journal ready to be filled with insights.

The student associates mastery with passing the test. The learner sees mastery as a continual and deepening practice, with mastery an elusive but worthwhile pursuit.

The Demand for Learners

There are places where being a student is a great approach, such as places of deep technical expertise (like piloting an airplane or preparing tax returns) or jobs where consistent performance to a defined standard is expected. Tasks that are best done in a repeatable process.

Yet the world today is in demand for learners. For in the world today, technical knowledge has an increasingly short half-life. The world demands quick adaptation to a rapidly changing world, one in which known answers are in short supply. It requires deep thinking, comfort with ambiguity and comfort with risk taking.

Today, the biggest risk may not be that you are not smart, but that you can’t learn quickly.

And so, I challenge myself and you, to become even more of a learner. To risk not knowing in the pursuit of knowing more deeply. To abandon the notation of perfect performance and embrace the fun of messy exploration. To tap into that joy of discovery that you had at 5 and discard that fear of appearing foolish that follows you around with adulthood.

If you’d like a companion on your journey, I would be honored to walk by your side. Please know, you can always contact me here or email me at

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