When my parents were young and poor, my mother taught herself to build bookshelves to house their ever-growing inventory of books. I grew up surrounded by my mom's handiwork—not exactly finish carpentry, but it worked.

A school teacher, she taught kids by day and herself by night. She became a self-taught gourmet cook. In my twenties, I went macrobiotic; my mom embraced it utterly, learning how to prepare miso soup, seaweed, tempura and all. One year, when my dad conducted a performance of Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt, which dramatizes the story of Moses and Pharaoh, she taught herself to embroider. She attended the concert and after party (which she catered and hosted) in a dress embroidered with scenes depicting all ten plagues: lice, frogs, fire and hail, smiting of the first-born, the whole—and I mean this in a seamstress's literal sense—nine yards.

She loved to learn.

In our business, people often ask what traits to look for in a prospective partner. There are many answers: someone who is hungry, who "has a compelling why." Who is personable. Influential. Hard-working. But over the years I've seen so many industrious, personable, motivated, compellingly whyed and otherwise perfectly traited candidates for success in this business wash out—because they were not able or willing to listen and learn. While those other traits are certainly valuable, I've come to see this singular quality as the first and foremost, the sine qua non, the one thread which, if missing, will cause the entire fabric to come unraveled: coachability.

In our business model, we do a webinar followed by three-way phone calls. I'm on the line with Ed, who just saw the webinar. It's his first exposure to network marketing, and he starts our conversation this way: "Excellent presentation. I understood it all completely, and don't really have any questions."

Ed will not join. If he does, he'll be gone within the month. Why? Because he thinks he already knows. (Hey, I've been doing this for a quarter century, and I still have a lot of questions.) As the Zen master points out, it's hard to pour tea into a cup that's already full.

A friend I will call Diane recently joined my business. Diane has past experience in network marketing; in fact, she has built a large organization, earned a good deal of money, touched a lot of lives. Now she's doing it again. Here is something I've noticed about her: she asks a lot of questions—and then she does something as remarkable as it is unusual: she listens to the answers. No wonder her network is growing like a spring forest. There is great vitality in genuine curiosity.

"I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really," says The Shawshank Redemption's Andy Dufresne. "Get busy living, or get busy dying." Only one of those two options involves learning.

JOHN DAVID MANN is Consulting Editor of Networking Times.