Learning isn’t for the faint of heart. I don’t mean the traditional sit-in-a-classroom-and-take-notes kind of learning. I’m talking about the kind of learning where you’re exploring the edges of your own known universe: where you’re not sure what comes next and you just barely understand what you’ve already heard. The kind of learning that gets you out of your comfort zone and builds new synapses.

The kind of “big learning” that actually grows you.

This kind of learning is challenging—but it’s also foundational to your success. This is the age of the auto-didact: those who aren’t self-initiating learners are going to be left far behind. Just read an excellent post by Meghan Biro on this same topic. One of my favorite sentences in her post is, “these days the learning curve stops at the grave and starts very early in our careers.” I’ll agree and push it even farther: I believe we need to be skilled learners from the earliest age. (The great thing about kids is that they come pre-equipped as truly world-class learners—if you’ve ever been around a two-year-old, you know what I mean. The challenge is to keep that capability alive in ourselves.)

What makes this kind of learning so critical at this point in time: everything—business, technology, economies, society—is changing so fast, if we rely only on traditional school-based learning, we won’t be able to keep up with it. We have to look at school, at books, at mentors and teachers, at our life experiences as tools—as fuel for the fire of will, of our self-initiated quest to learn. Here are the three things most required to be that kind of powerful learner:

Neutral self-awareness. In order to learn something new, you have to be clear about your current knowledge or capability. For example, I met someone a few months ago who thinks he’s a truly great leader. However, based on the evidence of how he operates every day and how he’s seen by those around him, it seems he’s actually a poor leader. But his lack of accurate self-awareness makes it nearly impossible for him to be open to feedback or learning in this area. I call this kind of deeply inaccurate self-assessment The American Idol Syndrome, in honor of all those contestants past, present and future who are convinced they’re going to be the next American Idol—but can’t actually sing. In order to master anything, you have to be a ‘fair witness’ of your own current capability: to be able to say “I’m a novice,” if that’s true for you right now.

Endless Curiosity. True curiosity is a very powerful thing, and it’s built into all of us. Anyone who’s ever been around a toddler for any length of time can attest to that. The endless “why?” and “how come?” and “what’s that?” are all outward manifestations of that inward engine of curiosity. Curiosity is the impulse to investigate. As children, that impulse is a powerful, instinctive survival mechanism for each of us: the more we understand about our environment, and the more quickly we understand it, the more likely we are to succeed as human beings. Kids’ insatiable curiosity drives them to learn to speak, eat, walk, understand how to manipulate objects, learn to interact with other human beings. It leads them to understand what is dangerous and what is safe, what is delicious and what is disgusting, what is useful and what is pointless.

Unfortunately, many of us lose touch with that inborn curiosity as we become adults. We assume we’re largely done growing, and that we understand things well enough, thank you very much. And our curiosity is often stifled by others, as well. We’re taught, “don’t meddle in things that don’t concern you,” “don’t read ahead,” and “don’t question your superiors,” and even “curiosity killed the cat.” All clear societal messages to stop investigating your environment.

In order to make your way through this modern world successfully—to be a true learner—you have to re-connect with your innate curiosity. The best learners (and most successful people) I know are continually asking curiosity-based questions like, “How does that work?” and “Why is that happening?” and “How can we/I….?” and “What if…?”

Willingness to be bad first. This may be the toughest aspect of true learning. The path to being great at anything includes many, many points of being not great. And that’s frustrating and embarrassing. This is especially difficult for people who are smart and quick learners in general. The first time they run into something that requires real time and effort to master, where their initial efforts are clunky or incorrect, their impulse is to give up (and often to blame others or the thing itself for their immediate lack of success). Being able to keep going, to work through feeling (and being) incompetent and inexpert on the way to competence and expertise, is essential to real learning of any kind. I wrote a post about this a few weeks ago that seemed to strike a chord with people; I believe we all know intuitively that real learning requires both being OK with our own initial ineptness, and faith in our ability to get through it.

The problem is, we generally think of learning as boring. I bet if I hadn’t put the word “learning” in the title of this post, more people would have read it. Don’t get distracted by our ho-hum associations with the concept: call it what you want, but the ability to discover and master new ideas and skills is your surest path to success.