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Why Being a Lifelong Learner is So Valuable

“What did you learn today?” Do you remember when you were a child, and your parents asked you that question? It was their way of making sure you were paying attention in school and – hopefully – giving you an opportunity to show off some newfound knowledge.

Now as an adult, you may be done with formal schooling (or maybe not!), but you are never done learning. Make a commitment to be a lifelong learner. Doing so will benefit you both professionally and personally. Learning new skills, staying up on industry developments, understanding the competition – they’re all essential to remaining valuable in your line of work. On a more personal level, learning gives you mental stimulation, and there’s plenty of research available to suggest that learning is a form of “exercise” for your brain.

Every situation you’re in, and everything you do well or not well, creates a learning opportunity. You can learn actively or passively, the easy way or the hard way. Even professional athletes or artists at the top of their profession continue to improve by evaluating what they could do even better. Take some time each day to reflect on what you’ve learned. Write it in a journal if that’s your thing. Ask (and suggest) what went well and what could have gone better after a key presentation or project at work. You don’t have to go crazy – like asking for feedback all the time – but get in the habit of maximizing the opportunities to learn in the moment rather than waiting for your annual or semi-annual performance review. It will make you a better colleague and – in all likelihood – a more fulfilled one as well.

In committing to being a lifelong learner, consider these principles as well:

  • Take accountability for your own learning. This is a corollary to the “own your career” mantra. You should absolutely take advantage of whatever learning opportunities or programs your company offers, particularly since they’re often good and under-utilized, but in the end, you need to be responsible for your own learning.
  • Have a learning agenda. What’s a learning agenda? A formal definition provided by the USAid Learning Lab suggests that, “A learning agenda includes:

         1. A set of questions addressing critical knowledge gaps,

         2. A set of associated activities to answer them, and

         3. Products aimed at disseminating findings and designed with usage and application in mind.”

While this definition may have the ring of your high school science lab, its key points are that a learning agenda should be structured, relevant, and output oriented.

Professionally oriented learning agendas aren’t just for when you’re early in your career or when you start a new job. A former manager who was an Executive Vice President in our firm used to discuss his own learning agenda at Town Halls. And he wasn’t the bookish type either. He grew up in a working-class family in a rough neighborhood and was – by his own admission – something of a punk as a young man. But he worked hard early in his career and dug into mastering each new assignment and role he was given. He was a committed lifelong learner, and in his time as a senior leader, his organization absolutely loved hearing about what he was still focused on learning at that point in his career. It made clear to them that they needed to keep learning as well.

  • Recognize that we all learn differently. Intuitively, most of us know this, but we often don’t think about how we – and others – learn best. For example,

         o  Do you just need to be taught how to do something or are you a visual learner, i.e., someone who needs to see it done?

         o  Do you learn from books, videos, some other source?

         o  Do you prefer to learn in bite-sized pieces over time or by “binging” new material all at once?

         o  Do you learn formally or informally?

         o  And if you’re a manager, how do your team members each learn most effectively?

  • Bear in mind the 4Es – experience, exposure, education, and environment. For many years, Learning & Development professionals grabbed on to the 70-20-10 rule, i.e., that

         o  70% of people’s learning is through their own experience,

         o  20% comes through exposure to others, and

         o  10% comes through some form of education or training

The problem with this framework is that it ignores the principle that we all learn differently, and it’s never really been proved empirically. Hence you should take it as a frame of reference. More recently, learning professionals have also added the notion of environment, the systems and tools that help you master a job or skill, and the notion that learning should be viewed as a set of processes and not just as a set of assets such as classes or e-learning modules.

Examples of each of these elements of learning are as follows:

         o  Experience includes day-to-day practice and on-the-job training. This is “learning by doing.” Experience can be supplemented or accelerated through stretch assignments, job rotations, or special projects. Beneficially, volunteering for these activities conveys not just that you want to learn, but that you’re committed and want to stand out as well.

         o  Exposure includes what you learn from managers, co-workers, mentors or your external network. Related activities include coaching, feedback, networking, and job shadowing. Outside of your direct work group, you can look to join “communities of practice” – informal or semi-formal groups of people who do similar work – or the more formal professional organizations or trade associations.

         o  Education, apart from whatever level of schooling you completed prior to joining the work force, can include graduate programs, executive education (programs built around the schedules and needs of working professionals), the more topic-specific continuing education offered by local colleges and universities, and online options like YouTube, Coursera, Udemy, or LinkedIn Learning. Undoubtedly, your employer offers formal training as well, whether delivered as in-person / instructor-led, e-learning, virtual classrooms, or simulations. These workplace learning programs are often a great – and underutilized – option, as mentioned earlier.

         o  Environment includes the tools, systems, and infrastructure that support you in a job. It also includes the culture and processes that facilitate or hinder learning. Many organizations aspire to be “learning organizations” but they often ignore how the workplace environment affects learning. As an example, if people get yelled at when they take a calculated risk at work and it doesn’t go as planned, they’ll soon decide to just not take any risks in the first place. That has the potential to stagnate an organization. Learning organizations are beyond the scope of this article, but if you want a provocative read on the topic, you should consider The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge.

  •   Consider your learning agenda over multiple horizons. In other words, think about what you need to know:

         o  Now for success in your current role or at the moment

         o  Soon for growth in your role or readiness for the next role

         o  Long-term to meet your career objectives

In summary, get out there, be curious, and ask questions. Consider “why?” Having an intellectual curiosity, and demonstrating a willingness to learn and take coaching, can play a key role in helping you progress in your career and stay engaged. Commit to being a lifelong learner, and maybe your children will be able to ask you, “What did you learn today?”

How we help. We offer assessments to help you determine your strengths and development needs, coaching to help you accentuate your strengths and improve your weak spots, tools to help you develop a learning agenda, and content to help you learn more about mastering career management.

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