Many of you may not have been considered great learners by the school system, but you can become great learners in the real world. Flip Filipowski, Art Frigo, Dennis Bookshester, Rich Melman, Mike Waters, and many of the other high achievers I’ve interviewed all spoke of their ability to learn on the job and how this ability has helped them succeed. This learning doesn’t involve sitting at a desk, taking notes, and spitting back what a boss wants to hear. Instead, the purposeful learning referred to in this post’s title is all about observation.

Focused observation. Constant observation. Open-minded observation. Some people may learn on the job in spite of themselves. They keep their minds closed to learning unless their boss says to them something along the lines of, “Listen up—this is how you do this task.” Other people restrict their learning because of their superior attitudes. They are afraid to let anyone see that they don’t know something, so they refuse to ask questions or request assistance. Still others just aren’t paying attention or remove themselves from learning environments—you’ll recall my story about Mike, a colleague early in my career who stayed in his office by himself as much as possible.

You need to observe more than the facts. Knowing how to do the basic tasks of your job is important, but you also need to know how to project an air of confidence and competence, how to carry yourself when you walk into a room, how to deal with difficult but important people, how to lead during a crisis, and how to adapt to changing circumstances. Flip Filipowski refers to all these types of knowledge as “diversified learning,” and that’s a great way to describe what the best observers acquire. To help you acquire diversified learning, let’s start out with how you can learn from an amazing range of people and situations.

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Everyone And Every Experience Is a Potential Teacher: Keeping Your Eyes, Ears, And Eyes Open

Now I’d like to share a story about my other grandfather, a street junk peddler. He would buy just about anything from anyone—bathtubs, copper wire, and everything in between. One day when I was twelve or so, he said, “We’re going to be partners for a week.”

“What does that mean, Zaydie?” I asked him.

“I’m going to teach you to do what I do.”

He bought junk from various places, and that day he took me to a garbage dump in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, at precisely 12:30 in the afternoon, when the guys who worked on the city garbage trucks would gather. They had selected particular items they perceived as having value that were being thrown out and placed them in piles for my grandfather’s inspection. Before we approached them, my grandfather pointed out each of his customers and gave me advice about how to deal with them.

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This guy, you don’t have to negotiate. He’ll take whatever you offer, so be fair. This guy over there, he loves to negotiate, so he’ll start high and you start low, but don’t worry, he loves the process and you’ll end up in the middle. Over there, that one,” he said, pointing, “he is never happy with the deal, so you may have to walk away from the sale. And that guy, you have to laugh with him.”

My grandfather had never read anything about customer sales or taken a course in the subject, but he instinctively knew how to negotiate. Despite his appearance and rough edges, he understood that you had to know your customer, and that you had to treat different customers differently. It was a great lesson to learn early on, and I’ve applied it throughout my career.

I’m not sure if software entrepreneur Flip Filipowski learned any lessons from his grandparents, but I do know that he is extremely open to a wide range of knowledge sources. He is not one of those high-tech people who is only interested in what takes place on a computer screen. A voracious reader and a keen observer of life, Flip believes that it is the synergy between one area of knowledge and a very different area that produces great business ideas. As he says, “If you stick with what you know and do it well, eventually you’ll stagnate and become someone who repeats tasks, growing tired and old in the process. As opposed to someone who transfers learning from one area to another and ends up crossing a boundary no one has ever crossed before. Maybe you’ve learned a lot about koi and carp production and you already know a great deal about building automobiles, and the synergy between these two areas produces something that’s innovative. It’s really nothing more than a transference of knowledge, but this coming together of two seemingly unrelated ideas is the source of many great entrepreneurial successes.”

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Being open to learning means more than just acquiring more knowledge about a given subject. It also involves picking up cues about behavior and attitude that can affect how others in an organization perceive you. Bill McCabe, an Eicoff senior vice president, helped his career when he was a young executive by paying attention to how other people dressed. When Bill started out, he didn’t realize that he dressed like someone who would never make it out of the middle-management ranks. He had to develop his sense of style, and to help him do this I used to take him for walks down Michigan Avenue. When someone who looked like a businessman would approach us, I would say to Bill, “upper management” or “middle management.” I helped him realize that the choice of a certain color or brand or type of suit communicated something about an individual. Some people dressed indifferently and looked unprofessional. Some people took great care in their choice of a wardrobe and seemed to have a spark others lacked. I’m not endorsing the old cliché that clothes make the man, but I do believe that they help bring out who that man is. Bill began to pay attention not only to how people dressed but how they carried themselves in different situations, and he was able to use this learning to craft his own effective image.

There are many unorthodox areas of learning, but the following four are easy to focus on and may help you achieve career goals that more traditional learning couldn’t help you achieve:

1. Lessons From Family Elders

A surprisingly large number of the people interviewed referred to a piece of advice from parents or grandparents that helped them succeed. It may not have been a specific career tip. Instead it may have been value gleaned through observing that person’s behavior over time. Or it may have involved a specific incident that made an impression when the individual was young. Not everyone, though, recognizes that lessons taught by elders within a family setting can apply to business and careers. In most cultures, older members of the tribe are considered to possess wisdom because of their accumulated experiences and the perspective provided by age. In our culture, we often ignore this wisdom. The odds are that some older member of your family has told you a story or shared a lesson that you might not have taken to heart. I would advise you to think back and give serious consideration to something a parent or grandparent communicated to you, and to reflect on how it might apply to whatever job or career challenge you’re currently facing.

2. Opportunities To Acquire Knowledge That Have Nothing To Do With Your Job

I am a student of history; Art Frigo is an expert in subjects as diverse as car racing and olive oil. In fact, many high achievers are avid readers and world travelers and have hobbies they’re passionate about. In other words, they relish opportunities to acquire knowledge about subjects that have no direct bearing on their professions. Indirectly, though, this knowledge provides them with perspective and helps them become well rounded in ways some of the brightest people aren’t. While specialists may be brilliant in one area, they often lack the ability to carry on conversations with people who aren’t interested in their particular area of expertise. People who are eager to learn about a lot of things usually can use what they learn in work situations. If they are managers or in leadership roles, they need to be able to relate to and motivate people from all types of backgrounds, and a well-rounded person is able to do this far better than a specialist. I’m not sure if my knowledge of history has helped me craft better advertising strategies for my clients, but I suspect that I have unconsciously applied some historical lessons in my work situations.

2. Work Subjects That Seem Outside Of Your Area Of Interest

At the start of my career I was convinced that I wanted to produce commercials. I had taken advertising courses in college and was certain that I would enjoy the process of creating television commercials. It was a ridiculous idea, since I have the patience of a gnat. Still, at the time it made sense to me, and when I first joined an ad agency as an account executive my goal was to transfer to a creative job. When I attended my first shoot, though, the experience was like watching paint dry. I could no more spend hours trying to get the lighting right for a scene than I could pilot the space shuttle. Fortunately, I was open to learning other aspects of the ad business, and I discovered that what I really liked was developing relationships with clients. At first learning how to develop these relationships seemed outside my stated goal of producing commercials, but I gradually realized that this new area of knowledge would help me succeed in advertising.

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4. Personal Style

This one is simple. Pay attention to how people you respect and admire present themselves. Note their clothes, their speaking habits, and how their offices appear. You don’t need to copy any one individual, but you can pick up valuable tips that will help you to be conscious about the image you’re presenting and what that says about you as an employee, a manager, and a leader.