I have always had a passion for knowledge. I learn simply for the sake of knowing. But as I became more established in life most of my learning became focused on my immediate professional needs. I told myself this was natural and necessary. Looking back now, I am not so sure this was healthy. In effect, I stopped leveraging the power of lifelong learning.
Learning on autopilot
In the early years of my career I remember having to put in the effort to know things I needed to apply daily. Then for a long time I leveraged what I had learnt. From my early 40s learning became a succession of ‘swim or sink’ exercises as I threw myself into overcoming stretching professional challenges. Throughout my career I’ve learnt a lot in many different ways, accepting challenging roles outside my comfort zone as well as simply letting knowledge sink in unconsciously. But one thing I haven’t done since finishing at university is to consciously invest time in learning.
I can’t remember when I stopped learning consciously at work, but it happened nonetheless. Not ideal in my mind.
Lifelong learning can be defined as a self-motivated continued pursuit of knowledge, and is typically perceived as taking place outside of a formal educational environment. When I reflect on my own learning over half a lifetime (I hope!), I realize that at some stage I became overly focused. I am a perfectionist by nature, so putting in significant effort to achieve a 1% increase in knowledge felt right. The issue was that I wasn’t gaining enough new knowledge to continue my self-development. So gradually I stagnated within my narrow knowledge pool. And I didn’t even realize this was happening.
The opposite of lifelong learning isn’t maintaining your current knowledge, it’s becoming obsolete.
Some unexpected professional changes electrified me into action. I realized that by not consciously investing in lifelong learning I was actually lagging behind. Not to mention the fact that I probably became a bit boring! I awoke to the power of lifelong learning.
I started reading more non-fiction, watching podcasts and TED talks, seeking other people’s views on anything and everything, writing to consolidate my own understanding… The more I invested in learning, the more I became interested in areas for further learning. I felt like a child in a toy shop… I still do! I hop around and explore, I browse for 5 minutes and make a note of something, or I spend hours focusing on one topic I find particularly fascinating.
Directed self-development comes as a natural consequence of conscious learning!
Tips for transitioning
So how do you intentionally kick-start and foster lifelong learning? If I were speaking to my younger self, this is the advice I would give:
- Set a goal to explore a topic outside your comfort zone at least once a month. Learn a bit, persevere, savour the topic, then see how much more time you want to invest in it.
- Seek topics that are immediately relevant… and also those that aren’t. You never know where a new path may lead.
- When you find something that you feel passionate about, make time to focus on it. Keep focused, while remaining conscious to the fact that you are excluding other topics at that time. Remember to have an exit route.
- Don’t be afraid to let go. While I like the thought of being a renaissance humanist with encyclopaedic knowledge, it’s just not feasible with the breadth and depth of knowledge in most fields.
- Question what you know… Learn to ‘unlearn’.
- Share what you learn, either in writing or by talking to people. Engage in debate, whether supportive or disruptive of your ideas. Sharing and debating will not only motivate you to learn more, you will always learn something from other people. You might even change your long-cherished ideas!
The world is full of knowledge waiting to be explored. And knowledge brings opportunity. For a long time I kept my eyes ‘wide shut’: wide to my focused area, which was good; shut to the rest, which wasn’t so good. I now try to keep an open mind about everything. I am simply happier this way.
What about you, have you woken up to the power of lifelong learning?