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Hardwired to Learn

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Hardwired to Learn

Leveraging the Self-Sustaining Power of Lifelong Learning

Teri Hart,

15 min read
8 take-aways
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Harness your ability to learn at any age to grow your career and reach your highest potential.

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  • Analytical
  • Scientific
  • Inspiring


Through an adept synthesis of research – particularly in learning theory and neuroscience – 25-year learning expert and future of work strategist Teri Hart weaves history, economics, technology, psychology, medicine and sociology into a fascinating exploration of the role of mind and body in learning. Her expertly blended insights will convince you of the human mind’s remarkable ability to learn nearly anything at any age. 


  • The Fourth Industrial Revolution demands massive employee reskilling and upskilling across the workforce. 
  • Organizations will require more “Human Intelligence” to balance and work with Artificial Intelligence. 
  • Neuroscience has revealed more about learning in the past 20 years than the previous 200.
  • Brain science reveals your capacity to learn is limitless and ageless. 
  • You learn through effort. Apply and practice learning as you would any other skill.
  • Beware five main categories of bias that impair your ability to learn.
  • True learning is hard and will make you uncomfortable. Track your progress, and don’t give up.
  • Attend to your physical well-being to help your mind repair itself and grow.


The Fourth Industrial Revolution demands massive employee reskilling and upskilling across the workforce. 

Digitization, now in its sixth decade, ushered in a Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the trend to digital transformation, with more organizations ramping up their efforts at digitization, remote work and automation. 4IR could prove even more disruptive than the three previous phases of the Industrial Revolution, in which society and the economy transitioned from agriculture to industry, then factory to services, and thirdly toward information, computerization and data.

These broad shifts, and the current 4IR transition to digitization, usher in requirements for new skills and knowledge. The jobs of the future demand massive re-skilling throughout the labor force, and a transition toward humans working more closely with machines and artificial intelligence (AI). As firms like Amazon – with more than a million workers – automate more of their operations, they are planning for the enormous learning employees will need to perform the higher-level cognitive functions required to work effectively with robots. Amazon intends to spend close to one billion dollars on employee learning in the coming years, starting with its 100,000 warehouse workers.

Organizations will require more “Human Intelligence” to balance and work with Artificial Intelligence. 

Before the pandemic, business leaders flagged skill shortages third among their 10 greatest threats. Human Intelligence – critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and teamwork– will prove even more valuable over time. Interpretation of AI’s outputs and the resulting insights requires complex human skills.

Many aspects of mechanized work require sophisticated human knowledge to facilitate machine intelligence. Machines and AI don’t innovate, create, spot mistakes or, on their own, find insights that lead to opportunities. Of the World Economic Forum’s top 15 skills for 2025 – those it predicts employers will demand most – machines can perform only a few on their own. Firms that invest in developing their employees’ Human Intelligence grow more agile, resilient, adaptable and stress resistant.

“Human Intelligence (HI) is more important than ever. Humans will be needed to focus on managing, advising, decision-making, reasoning, communicating, and interacting with an increasingly mechanized world.”

When workers and firms take the long view in business, they regard learning expenses as investments in their firm’s and employees’ future. AT&T, for example, set aside $1 billion to support its 250,000 person workforce in pursuing skill upgrades and college degrees. In 2018, McDonald’s invested $150 million to fund a five-year education program for its 400,000 employees. Target and Walmart announced similar plans in 2021.

By helping their employees upskill, learn, and chart their own work and career paths – ideally including internal markets for jobs and assignments – organizations unleash a tide of performance improvement and resilience. Add purpose and meaningful work to boost the effect dramatically. When leaders grant autonomy, mastery, and relatedness – connections to colleagues and others – they leverage the elements of perhaps the most powerful human motivation doctrines: Self-Determination Theory. This concept holds that each person generates his or her own motivation in pursuit of self-actualization – not money or accolades. Nourish self-determination to improve learning, engagement, effort and performance outcomes.

Neuroscience has revealed more about learning in the past 20 years than the previous 200.

Over the past 1,500 years or so, philosophers and psychologists developed theories of learning. These began in Ancient Greece with Plato and Aristotle’s notion that your brain, at birth, contains everything you will ever learn; you draw on it through experience and reflection. It wasn’t until the 17th century that philosopher John Locke rejected the idea of innate knowledge, introduced agency, and sparked a revolution in studying how people learn. 

“Learning how to learn is the key to developing new skills and increasing knowledge.”

The 20th century demolished more myths about the limitations of human learning. Professor Carol Dweck, Dr. Kimberly Noble and others smashed the pervasive misconception that people possess fixed intelligence. The brain has limitless capacity to learn new things, even through middle age and toward the end of life. Many people, even educators, still subscribe to the fallacy that different people learn better in accordance with divergent styles. People do have learning preferences, but these proclivities do not reflect how well they actually learn. You prove more likely to learn when you disrupt your preferences and force yourself to take in information in less comfortable ways. 

Much of today’s teaching styles draw from 20th-century theories of behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism. Behaviorism posits you learn best through a series of rewards and punishments. Cognitivism says you build learning atop other learning, merging the old and new. Cognitivism, as does constructivism, advocates self-directed learning.

“In the past 20 years, with advances in neuroscience, we have learned significantly more about ourselves and how we learn than in the last 200.”

These theories remain relevant and useful and, in many ways, brain science supports them. However, in the past two decades, the field of neuroscience has revealed far more about how humans learn than all prior theories combined. Don’t make the mistake of falling back on 20th-century teaching styles alone. Weave in new understandings from science to continually improve your learning processes.

Brain science reveals your capacity to learn is limitless and ageless. 

You mature and change through life, as do your values and beliefs. When you view your life as a continuous quest for development and improvement, you fuel a growth mind-set that facilitates lifelong learning. Your brain’s learning infrastructure contains about 86 billion neurons tied up with each other through hundreds of trillions of connections named synapses. Neuroscience proves that your brain creates new cells (neurogenesis) and new connections throughout your life in a process called neuroplasticity.

“The basic idea of neuroplasticity is that brain activity stimulates the brain to reorganize its connections.”

In the mid-20th century, psychologist Donald Hebb quipped that “what fires together, wires together.” He meant that when you use parts of your brain repeatedly, you make new connections and those connections grow stronger, helping you remember and learn. Today’s neuroscience proves Hebb correct and shows that your capacity to learn new things is limitless and ageless. In a fascinating 1986 study with nuns as subjects, researchers learned that continued education and challenging mental activity into old age – such as learning a musical instrument or a new language – create new neural pathways and reduce the likelihood of contracting Alzheimer’s disease.

“Research shows that older brains are better at complex problem-solving and information synthesis than younger brains.”

Researchers believe mentally active people create additional “lanes” of neural pathways, giving them reserves. Many of the nuns likely had Alzheimer’s but didn’t exhibit symptoms because they could draw on reserves that others who exhibited symptoms may lack. 

You can reverse the effects of severe brain damage through effort. For example, after neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a stroke that badly damaged the left side of her brain, she worked intensely for eight years to teach the right side of her brain to do what the left side used to do – walking, talking and elements of thinking.

You learn through effort. Apply and practice learning as you would any other skill. 

Believe you can learn and achieve related goals. Current research should convince you that you can. You must intrinsically want to learn, not just want good grades or a promotion, for example; you need to have a genuine interest. Remain open to change; question everything, including what you’ve learned from listening to a talk or reading a book. Apply and practice what you learn; teach it as you learn. This improves your approach and deepens the synaptic connections in your brain that cement the learning and bake it into memory. Learn by reflecting on and discussing your failures; never bury them.

Remember that about 95% of your thinking occurs unconsciously – instinctually. You make decisions using shortcuts – patterns and assumptions you form throughout your life. The rest of your thinking occurs more slowly and consciously, as when you set out to solve a puzzle. You can’t apply slow thinking to everything – you would exhaust yourself early each morning – but try to perform more mindful thinking.

Beware of five main categories of bias that impair your ability to learn.

Watch for five main categories of bias. First, you crave simplicity – simple stories featuring cause and effect. Resist this. Life proves complex, as must your thinking. Second, know that you unconsciously look for information and people that agree with your positions, especially your values and morals. Deliberately seek out opposing views. Third, everyone wants to belong. You might conform with the popular view to do so. Don’t. Think authentically. Fourth, resist the need to control things. Your attempts at control impede change and close off your mind to new ideas. Finally, your powerful ego and identity can cause you to shut out uncomfortable or challenging ideas. Know this and resist pulling away from contrary opinions and learning. 

“When I reflect on all the things that hold us back from our potential to learn, I notice that they all have one thing in common: our mind-set.”

Build capacity to learn by linking your learning goals to your identity and purpose. Think about your values, interests and strengths to identify a long-term goal or purpose to work toward. When you do a thing for a larger purpose, you create resilience that helps you stick to it through challenges. Take time to reflect on your experiences, so you can make connections between them, find consistencies and test what you learned. Forget what you know sometimes, and open up. Listen to others’ ideas; ask questions and challenge your assumptions. Regard yourself as a work in progress, always learning, never assuming you know it all. Approach the world with curiosity.

True learning is hard and will make you uncomfortable. Track your progress, and don’t give up. 

Plan learning, set goals and undertake intentional practice. Tell people about your goals and publicize them to increase your commitment. Within your learning plan, adopt a system of practice, including methods and routines. Track and measure your progress.

“Learning something difficult results in much more brain activity and development than learning something that is comfortable or that you are good at learning.”

Reflect on your progress and setbacks to build the patterns and memories that produce learning. Real learning will make you uncomfortable; it should not be easy. Embrace the hard path, including various mediums and approaches, where you learn and from whom. Vary what you learn and choose topics you find difficult, not easy. 

Take your time. Learn in chunks at intervals. As in learning to ski, for example, you’ll metaphorically fall, suffer bruising, and may want to quit, but get up and continue.

Attend to your physical well-being to help your mind repair itself and grow.

Medical and neuroscientific research illustrate the connections between the body and mind. As you age, synaptic connections and pathways in your brain become more fully developed because your brain prunes away unused connections.

Exercise, diet and sleep can stop, and even reverse, synaptic decline.

“When we take care of our bodies, we take care of our brains – and vice versa.”

Eat foods that contain Omega-3 fatty acids and avoid excessive sugars. Practice mindfulness, including yoga, meditation and breathing. Take breaks from learning and doing to give your mind the space it needs to catalog what you learned and spark new ideas.

About the Author

Teri Hart, an Ironman triathlete and yogini, has built a career in learning leadership across several Fortune 500 and Global 500 firms.

This document is restricted to personal use only.

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