“There’s a myth that learning is for young people. But as the proverb says, ‘It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.’ The middle years are great, great learning years. Even the years past the middle years. I took on a new job after my 77th birthday — and I’m still learning.
Learn all your life. Learn from your failures. Learn from your successes, when you hit a spell of trouble, ask ‘What is it trying to teach me?’ The lessons aren’t always happy ones, but they keep coming. It isn’t a bad idea to pause occasionally for an inward look. By midlife, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves. We learn from our jobs, from our friends and families. We learn by accepting the commitments of life, by playing the roles that life hands us (not necessarily the roles we would have chosen). We learn by growing older, by suffering, by loving, by bearing with the things we can’t change, by taking risks.”
In this, from his 1990 speech in Phoenix to McKinsey & Company, John Gardner delivered a message of motivation for continuous personal renewal. His powerful words were cited in a Harvard Business Review article of September 2014, “The Best Leaders Are Insatiable Learners,” as an exemplary testament to the vital necessity of continuous learning for achieving success in the marketplace. Clearly, Gardner was on to something in a speech that still remains relevant nearly a quarter of a century later.
Alvin Toffler is quoted as saying, “Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.” Simply put, if you are not learning, you are failing.
Are you learning something new every day?
There is a wealth of knowledge waiting for you to discover. When was the last time you sat down to read a book or began following a new blog? News sources, research studies, and magazines are other abundant sources of information for enriching your intellect. In addition to reading, you can open your mind to new perspectives that will broaden your current way of thinking by engaging in stimulating conversation, or by collaborating with others of diverse backgrounds and interests, or by joining a social media networking group in your field. Volunteering to take on project assignments that will stretch your abilities in new functional areas, listening to talks, attending training sessions and webinars, and finding a mentor who will push you to grow are all avenues of learning that often go untapped. Learning through multiple means helps to broaden your range of knowledge and improves the retention of information.
Do you have a thirst for knowledge?
Many people have a natural motivation to learn from a deep and sincere thirst for truth. But if learning for its own sake does not motivate you, there are other drivers that can help you become a continuous
learner. For example, many people are driven by a competitive edge to not simply survive in our technological world, but to thrive. Some strive for personal growth and improvement in order to become
more adaptable, and others, who value career growth, realize that continuous learning is a necessary means to attain professional goals. Still others may hunger for knowledge in order to be able to pass it on to those they are mentoring or teaching. These factors and others may serve as internal drivers to lifelong learning. Kevin Eikenberry puts it this way: “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]
How are you building a culture of learning?
Encouraging one’s team to learn continuously keeps it competitive and relevant in the marketplace. The reality is that teams who fail to adapt and learn will be left in the dust. Business is constantly changing. According to the 2014 video, Did You Know?, “The amount of new technical information is doubling every two years…which means that for students starting a four-year technical degree, half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study. In 1900, human knowledge doubled every 100 years. In 1945, human knowledge doubled every 25 years. In 2014, human knowledge doubled every 13 months. By 2020, human knowledge will double every 12 hours.”[ii] In order to thrive in today’s world, one must be willing and eager to absorb and share information at an ever-increasing rate.
By prioritizing such learning opportunities as training workshops, it is possible to see measurable increases in productivity as more advanced and efficient ways of completing everyday tasks are adopted. By getting out of the routine work environment and engaging with learning materials that spark innovation, the mind is given the time and the freedom to think bigger and bolder. It is this kind of learning that most often leads to creative breakthroughs.
To be part of building a team that learns continuously, each member must value collaboration and maintain an attitude of relentless curiosity. To assess these attributes, try asking your team members to explain the last thing they learned, how they learned it, and how they have shared it with others. Look for passion, inquisitiveness, and an excitement to share and implement newly acquired knowledge.
As a leader, you play an indispensable role in facilitating their collaborative learning. If you expect your team to be continuous learners, you must make this skill a priority, both by modeling it yourself and also by giving them ample time to follow your lead. Encourage your team to challenge current methodologies and roles with new insights. Share what you’re learning with them and be a reliable mentor and resource, always giving them the freedom and confidence to bounce their new ideas off you. Finally, give them opportunities to teach others what they are learning. It will not only motivate their desire to learn, but also help to ingrain what they’re learning on a far deeper level.
The greatest leaders are continuous learners. More engaged and better able to think on their toes, they are equipped to make smarter decisions. Continuous learners maintain a frame of mind on a daily basis that makes the most of curiosity, critical thinking, and reflection. They never quench their thirst for knowledge because they embrace the wisdom of John Gardner: “Learn all your life.”[iii]