How Your Association Can Encourage Learner Self-Reliance

For liberal arts majors, the phrase “self-reliance” might bring back memories of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In an essay titled “Self-Reliance,” the 19th century transcendentalist philosopher said non-conformity and self-reliance were the secrets to happiness.

You don’t need to have read Emerson to know his self-reliance message makes a lot of sense. Many of your members and other industry professionals are realizing they can no longer rely on their employers for professional development. That’s why our 21st century twist on the Emersonian essay is all about learner self-reliance.

Your association’s role in encouraging learner self-reliance

We’ve been thinking about learner self-reliance ever since identifying it as an issue associations should keep on the radar for 2020 and beyond. Your association can help members and industry professionals understand this new workplace dynamic.

You can help them realize that they are in charge of their own lifelong learning, not their employer. The skills that got them this far may not benefit them in the future. To stay relevant, they must stay sharp and keep learning.

Treat this messaging like you would any other marketing campaign. First, you must make people aware of the problem they face. How is the profession/industry changing or getting disrupted? What new knowledge or skills are required for success?

Then, nurture the desire to change. Encourage people to move in the right direction with messaging about the need for self-reliance in lifelong learning if they want to remain relevant in the workplace. Urge them to take the initiative to explore all kinds of professional development opportunities.

learner self-reliance

What motivates people to become self-reliant learners?

You could easily scare people into learning. You wouldn’t be stretching the truth because, in many industries, those who don’t acquire new skills will be marginalized in the years ahead. But other motivators have a longer lasting effect. It’s better to excite your audience about lifelong learning.

In his book Drive, author Dan Pink identified three intrinsic motivators that work better than extrinsic financial incentives or scare tactics.

•    Autonomy: the desire to control your destiny, which means accepting full responsibility for your career. It’s not your employer’s job to help you move forward.
•    Mastery: the desire to improve skills and develop expertise.

•    Purpose: the desire to do something meaningful, for example, be a force for change in your profession or industry.

Tap into these motivators when developing marketing for your professional development and career programs.

How to help learners become more self-reliant

Lifelong learning might be a new concept for many professionals in your industry. Someone else—their boss or HR—has always told them what kind of training they needed so they never had to think about it. Encourage them to take charge of their own learning by providing the professional development and career resources they need to become self-reliant learners.

Goal setting

Ambition isn’t universal. Many people work toward performance goals suggested by their supervisor, but not their own. Maybe they don’t even know what goals they want to pursue. Show them what’s possible. Map out career pathways and all the different ways you can get to the endpoints.

Goals don’t have to focus only on positions, they can also be about competencies. Spell out all the different ways to acquire new competencies. Record interviews with people describing how they achieved their goals.

Provide goal-setting worksheets, webinars, and virtual workshops. Remind your audience about the power of writing down goals. One study said you’re 42% more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down. A Harvard study found that only 3% of its MBA graduates wrote down their goals, but, just ten years after graduation, they ended up earning ten times as much as the other 97% put together.

Help members and learners organize accountability groups and masterminds so they can help each other stay on track.

learner self-reliance


Dr. Carol Dweck popularized the concept of fixed vs. growth mindsets. Fixed mindsets are focused on the score or grade. They believe intelligence is engrained. They’ve got the degree(s) and/or credentials to prove it. They know all they need to know.

Growth mindsets are focused on the learning journey—the setbacks and hard-earned knowledge. Intelligence is developed. They’re intrinsically motivated lifelong learners.

Provide self-assessments that help members and customers understand their mindset as well as their strengths and weaknesses. Give them the tools to identify skills gaps. With this knowledge, they can plot a sustainable learning pathway.


Self-reliant learners know how to find and use resources to acquire skills and knowledge. They have a natural tendency to stay informed.

Make it easier for new learners to find the information and resources they need. Your website should be easy to navigate and provide connections to the education, information, and people who can enhance the learner’s world.

Don’t assume members know what you have to offer. Regularly remind them of the different resources they have at their fingertips. Provide recommendations for related content wherever you can.

Learning how to learn

Most of us never learned how to learn. We were led through a curriculum during our secondary and post-secondary education. We were told what we had to learn and when to show up for the test.

Teach members and customers how to succeed as adult learners. Explain the principles of adult learning—and make sure your programs adhere to them.

Provide resources on effective study skills, such as planning and time-management. Encourage learners to schedule study time, identify potential obstacles to success, and have a plan B ready.

Connection and community

Learning can be a lonely business. Learners have a better time when you connect them with others. Encourage those who are struggling with solitary learning to consider synchronous courses with online discussions.

People crave connection and community. Encourage learners to use your online community to organize virtual and in-person meetups to discuss common issues and challenges.

Marketing your professional development and credentialing programs

Increase awareness of your educational and credentialing programs. Make sure members and customers know they don’t have to go back to school to move forward in their careers. Celisa Steele, co-founder of Tagoras, said it best:

“More than ever, learners must think strategically about how they build their professional skills and knowledge over the course of their career. You have to recognize self-direction as an inherent need of adult learners and help those learners clearly see where your organization fits in the strategy.”

Position yourself as an educational coach who guides members and customers through their lifelong learning journey. Do they know what level of knowledge you can help them gain? What competencies? What type of credentialing?

Promote the tangible and intangible benefits of self-reliance to members and customers. They can change their circumstances through promotions and career advancement. They can acquire confidence, become more empowered, and be open to new opportunities.

Emerson was a proponent of lifelong learning before it was cool. He described life as “learning and forgetting and learning again.” Encourage your members and customers to become self-reliant learners who take charge of their own lifelong learning.

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career resources
lifelong learning
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