Learning, and Being a Continuous Learner
When people ask me what business I’m in, I often say, “I’m in the learning business.” It sounds intriguing, and it is certainly true. But, truth be told, we are all in the learning business.
Because as humans, we are learning machines. We are most alive and functioning closest to our potential when we are learning, adapting, adjusting, and finding new ways, approaches and techniques to improve our lives (or the lives of others) in some way.
I believe in the above statements. They are as true as any other statement I could write here. But rather than talking about the philosophy of humankind, let me get much more pragmatic.
Change and Learning
Change is all around us. Some say the rate of change is increasing, but whether that is true or not, this is definitely a fact in our business lives. Products change, Customers change, process and policies change. We are put on a new team, we are entering new markets, and we have set new goals. In all parts of our daily professional lives change surrounds us.
In order for us to cope with that change, we need to be willing and able to change. And learning is a key component in developing that ability.
So when I talk about continuous learning or life long learning, I’m not suggesting everyone needs to take a course at their local college, or go back to school for a new degree. Continuous learning is an attitude and a set of behaviors that allow us to succeed in our ever-changing environment, and is the best lever we have to turn who we are today into who we want to be tomorrow. Change requires learning and conversely, there is no learning without change.
So if life long learning doesn’t necessarily mean the “professional college student” and doesn’t require us to be the person who was always asking questions in every class we ever attended, what are the behaviors that make up a true continuous or life long learner?
I’m glad you asked.
There are some common threads among those who actively are learning and growing as professionals (and humans). Life-long, continuous learners:
· Have a beginner’s mindset. If you approach anything with the mindset of an expert, you will learn nothing. With the expert’s mind, you are looking for confirmation and validation of what you already know. A beginner on the other hand, looks constantly for one new tidbit, one or more ways to expand on their current expertise. In other words, expert or not, they don’t think that way, because they know that only with a open, beginners mind, can they benefit from the learning opportunity.
· Make connections. Peter Drucker, the famous and influential management thinker wrote, “To make knowledge productive we will have to learn to see both forest and tree. We will have to learn to connect.” Continuous learners do that. They continue to think about what they have learned in one part of their life and how it relates to and connects with challenges, problems, opportunities and situations that occur in other parts of their life.
· Are flexible and adaptable. Learning requires change, so continuous learners realize that they must be willing to adapt and change if they want to grow.
· Are always learning something. Continuous learners learn new things “just because.” They’ve always wanted to play guitar, so they take lessons. They want to ride a unicycle, so they try it. They learn how to quilt. They learn a new language. These people don’t invest the time required just so they can play “Love Me Tender” or say “good morning” in Chinese. They also do it because they realize that our brains are like muscles. The more we exercise them the stronger they will be.
· Are continuously curious. One of the most powerful learning questions we use is “Why?” Why is the question of the curious. Continuous learners remain curious about people, places, important and mundane things as well. By cultivating their curiosity they are adding to their knowledge and perspective, while exercising an important part of our learning brain at the same time.
· Learn in multiple ways. In school we learned in a relatively limited number of ways, which unfortunately leaves some people with a limited view of learning. Continuous learns know that they can learn by reading, by listening, by trying, through others, with a mentor, etc. (etc.!)
· Teach others. Something magical happens when you teach someone something – you suddenly understand it better yourself. Continuous learners teach others not just to help the other person (or to show them how much they know) but because they know it helps them deepen their mastery of their own learning.
How to Use This List
Now that you have read this far I hope you are convinced of how valuable it can be to be a more active learner. You have also read a list of characteristics. Now that you have read that list of characteristics, I’d like you to read it again. As you read it ask yourself these questions:
· How well do I stack up against these behaviors?
· Which ones would I like to get better at?
· Who do I know that is exceptionally good at each of these characteristics?
· How can I learn these traits and habits from those I know who are better at them than I?
Your answers to these four questions (and the action that you take) will put you on the road to being a more continuous and life-long learner.
Enjoy your journey.