Why and How to Be A Lifelong Learner

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” – Socrates

When people ask me what I do for a living, I often say, “I learn for a living.” It sounds intriguing and it’s certainly true of not just myself, but all of us.

Why?

Because we humans are learning machines. From the beginning of our lives, we are constantly absorbing, interpreting, and communicating information about ourselves, each other, and the universe around us. That is the basis of learning. We innately learn in order to understand, grow, progress, contribute, survive, and thrive.

In Self-Education: Twelve Chapters for Young Thinkers (1852), author Edward Paxton Young wrote:

“Our whole life is an Education – we are ‘ever-learning’, every moment of time, everywhere, under all circumstances something is being added to the stock of our previous attainments. Mind is always at work when once its operations commence. All men are learners, whatever their occupation, in the palace, in the cottage, in the park, and even in the field. These laws are stamped upon Humanity.”

When people ask what I love to do, I often say, “I love to learn!” But this sentiment isn’t necessarily true for everyone. Why and how can you become a lifelong learner?

What is a Lifelong Learner

A lifelong learner (also known as an autodidact) is devoted to self-education for their entire life. Some of history’s greatest influences were autodidacts: Leonardo DaVinci, Benjamin Franklin, The Wright Brothers, Florence Nightingale, Clare Booth Luce, Jane Austen, Steve Jobs, and many more. Autodidact Abraham Lincoln said:

“I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday”.

Lifelong learners exhibit these behaviors:

*  Consciousness - Learning certainly happens on both the conscious and subconscious levels. But lifelong learners make a conscious effort to learn and curate what they learn. As a result, their conscious devotion to learning often puts them into situations where they learn a great deal subconsciously.

*  Beginner’s mindset - Lifelong learners don’t always feel the need to be experts. Rather, they are undeterred by being a beginner. An expert looks for confirmation and validation of what they already know. But a beginner constantly looks for new ways to expand their knowledge. They view things with an open and eager mind.

*  Curious - One of the most powerful tools to learning is asking who, what, when, where, why, and how. Lifelong learners are insatiably curious, showing as much enthusiasm for obviously exciting things as they do for seemingly mundane things. They love to ask ask questions and, more so, to find answers to those questions. Cultivating curiosity while adding to your knowledge is an important exercise for brain development.

*  Make connections - Famed social ecologist Peter Drucker said, “To make knowledge productive we will have to learn to see both forest and tree. We will have to learn to connect.” Being able to connect their existing knowledge to the situations, challenges, and opportunities of their life is a key quality of a lifelong learner.

*  Engaged - Lifelong learners don’t just passively sit and let the world flow past them. They are always learning! They take action, try things, get their hands dirty, fail, and pick up themselves up again with gratitude for their learning experience.

*  Reflective - Lifelong learners pause. They think about how they think, what they think, and why they think. They review what they have learned and think it over. They connect new knowledge to things they already know, and consistently curate their knowledge bank.

*  Humble - Lifelong learners are humble optimists. They know great change is possible. They know everyone is capable of great things. But they also know there are things we will never know. They know that, despite their quest for knowledge, there will always be unsolved mysteries and things not quite understood. This mindset demonstrates humility and also motivates a lifelong learner to keep learning.

*  Always learning - It’s obvious that lifelong learners are always learning. Lifelong learners learn “just because”. They want to fly a plane, so they take lessons. They want to learn another language, so they enroll in a course. They want to play the guitar, so they buy a guitar and start strumming. Although there are many excellent reasons to be a lifelong learn, true lifelong learners choose to learn because they love to learn.

A lifelong learner realizes that knowledge is power. Lifelong learning is continuous, self-directed, and active learning beyond formal education.

For many folks, learning stops the moment they leave school or clock out of of their day job. They often spend the majority of their free time in a mall or pursuing other leisure activities instead of learning something that is useful to their career or personal development.

Even when required to attend job training, many workers are rather disengaged from the learning process. They reluctantly attend courses and hardly take learning seriously. Their information retention rate is therefore low and very little is applied after the training ends.

Those who are more motivated will read books and websites on self-improvement, but the effort is usually sporadic, disorganized, and lacks a proper system to retain and apply useful information. These people are the ones who are fine with posting smart quotes and advice on Facebook but don’t actually live it.

In contrast, lifelong learners are self-initiated. They don’t need anyone to tell them to read a book or figure something out. They actively seek useful and relevant information on their own.

A lifelong learner is thirsty for knowledge and, more importantly, wisdom. As Martin H. Fischer said,

“All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind.”

Why be a Lifelong Learner

In addition to learning helping you to be a better parent, the benefits of being a lifelong learner are immense:

*  Learning is fun and engaging – The more you learn, the more the world around you becomes your oyster. You’ll experience things for the first time or in a whole new way. It’s exciting to have your mental light bulb go off as you understand a new concept or explore a new topic. The internet has made learning easy, accessible, and affordable, and eliminates all good excuses to not keep developing in all areas of your life.

*  Learning keeps your brain strong, even into old age – Just as diet and exercise keep you physically fit, learning keeps you mentally fit. Learning new things helps to protect against ailments common of old age, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Brandeis University psychologist and old age specialist Margie E. Lachman’s research has shown that the more education an elderly person has – whether obtained formally or informally – the better they perform on cognitive tests than elderly people who had less education. She said:

“Education seems to be an elixir that can bring us a healthy body and mind throughout adulthood and even a longer life.”

Research psychiatrist Norman Doige, M.D., reveals in his book, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, that continued learning, as well as the lack of it, can alter our brain anatomy. Continued learning improves cognition and perception, even as we age. This is profoundly true when you challenge yourself to stretch your mind in areas where you are weak or inexperienced. As they say, “Use it or lose it.”

My great-grandmother was an American immigrant who received no formal education beyond the third grade and spoke mostly broken English. Yet, she was a devoted single mother, a successful entrepreneur with eight businesses, built three homes with cash, was an active part of her community, she was healthy, strong, and robust, and was entirely independent until her passing this past November at the ripe age of 93. She was one of the most intelligent and awe-inspiring people to ever live. What attributed to her success in all areas of her life, and her long life itself, was that she was always learning. In her mind, there was nothing she couldn’t do because she was always willing to learn how to do it.  She was not just smart; she was wise.

*  Learning keeps you emotionally healthy – When you challenge yourself to master a new skill or concept and then accomplish your goal, you profoundly boost your self-esteem. The sense of fulfillment you receive from the process and application of learning is exciting and gives you the confidence and motivation you need to continue succeeding.

*  Learning keeps you on your toes - The world is constantly changing and, despite what you’ve heard, old dogs can learn new tricks. It’s important to keep learning so can keep up with the world around you or else it will pass you by.

*  Learning makes you independent and useful - You can acquire a bevvy of knowledge and skills through constant learning. This depth and diversity allows you to be independent and useful not just for your sake, but for others as well. When you have an arsenal of abilities at your command, you are able to confidently take initiative and efficiently get things done.

*  Learning makes you attractive and interesting – As you develop your knowledge, skills, expertise, and interests, you become a more engaging, conversational, sophisticated, and intriguing person. When you broaden your intellectual and emotional horizons, you attract and connect with a wider variety of people and develop a more informed and enlightened perspective of the world.

Learning makes you more money - The working world is far more competitive than it was 50 years ago when you could just finish college and have all the education you need for the rest of career. The digital era of technology and rapid and widely accessible information in which we now live means that things are constantly changing. Skills that were cutting-edge just a couple years ago are now likely outdated, and the jobs we perform in the next decade don’t even exist yet. If you want to be competitive in today’s workforce, you need to become an autodidact.  By advancing your knowledge and skills, you become more valuable to the workforce. Your boss will promote you and your clients will return. If you develop your emotional intelligence and leadership skills, you are viewed as a big player with the qualities to move ahead in your career. Being an autodidact opens up new careers paths beyond being a traditional employee. A key quality of successful entrepreneurs is their obsession with learning.

*  Learning makes you more human - As author Robert Heinlein famously put it:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

*  Learning makes you more satisfied with life - In his highly recommended book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Dan Pink states that we need three things to feel motivated by and satisfied with our life: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Lifelong learning fulfills all three of psychological needs. When you’re an autodidact, you – not your parents, professor, or boss – decides what to learn. Instead of being a passive consumer of information, you become an active curator of knowledge. This is autonomy. As you learn new skills, you’ll become proficient at them and exhibit mastery.  Finally, you’ll feel a profound sense of purpose as your self-education reveals to you what your role in life is.

The benefits of lifelong learning doesn’t stop there. The more you know about the world, the deeper you can experience it. Whether you’re conversing, traveling, watching a movie, and so on, your library of knowledge helps you make connections that you may have otherwise missed.

How to be a Lifelong Learner

To the non-autodidact, lifelong learning might sound like a tedious and boring thing that requires superhuman persistence. If this is your impression, you just have to eliminate your excuses and discover the right methods for you to make learning a lifelong pursuit.

Common excuses include:

*  Time - Yes, you’re busy. It might be difficult to imagine finding free time for self-study when your day is already packed with work and family. But you don’t have to spend hours each day, slogging over a skill you’re trying to pick up. Surely, you have a few 10-minute chunks throughout the day to pick up a book or work on that new skill. Turn your spare moments into opportunities to learn.

*  Money – This is only a valid excuse if you need formal classes to learn. You don’t. The internet has tons of free information just waiting for you to tap into. Excellent (and often free!) online learning resources include:

Coursera
edX
FutureLearn
OpenLearning
Open Education Database
Khan Academy
Project Gutenberg
TED
YouTube EDU
Harvard Online Learning
Stanford University Online
MIT OpenCourseWare
Alison
Skillshare
Skillfeed
Udacity
Udemy (Currently features a great course from our friend, Sean Marshall of Family Rocketship, titled Online Marketing Business: $2050 in my First Month Online. Check it out!)

*  Location - The internet has also eliminated this excuse. Access to credible learning opportunities is increasingly available wherever you go, especially if you have a smart phone. Apps such as Lumosity, Elevate, Fit Brains, NeuroNation, and Duolingo make learning easily accessible. Of course, a quick online search will lead you to countless articles, e-books, videos, and podcasts about nearly every topic under the sun. My husband regularly uses YouTube to research how to fix things around our home, such as the water heater and refrigerator. We saved hundreds of dollars by doing it ourselves!

*  Desire – Why read a classic book instead of a gossip magazine or visit a museum instead of the mall or watch a video course instead of a TV show? Because learning is exciting! Actively engaging your mind opens up amazing opportunities and there’s an extreme sense of pride and fulfillment when you realize you are wisely spending your time and investing in yourself. Once you start learning, you’ll want to learn more.

As you can see, learning needn’t be time-consuming, expensive or boring. Simple replace your excuses to not learn with reasons to learn.

Truly learning to do anything means acquiring a new habit. Your habits are your automatic actions which cumulatively comprises your behavior. To reprogram your behavior, you need to reprogram your habits. Here a few tips for installing the habit of lifelong learning:

Embrace the identity of “Learner” – Declare yourself a “learner.” Resist the urge to squander spare time on mindlessly consuming entertainment and other uninspiring distractions. Look for learning the opportunity in everything.

* Change your perspective - Instead of looking at learning as a chore, see it as opportunity. Don’t force yourself to learn things because they’re important and necessary. Realize that every time you learn something, you’re investing in yourself. After all, when you die, your knowledge and experiences are all that you can take with you. It’s up to you to realize and seize the learning opportunities that are all around you. You know you’re a lover of learning when the desire to learn comes from within.

*  Learn with a purpose and commit to it – If you read a book or attend a class without specific goals, you’ll most likely come out feeling empty. Without a purpose, your brain is less inclined to realize and retain vital information. You must give your brain reasons to remember what you learn. Success requires commitment. To make learning a consistent, focused part of your life, you need to set goals for what to learn, how to learn it, and how long it will take. Write down your goals and your plan to accomplish them, and set a specific time each week for reviewing and tracking your progress.

*  Learn how you learn - The best way to learn depends on the learner. There are several different kinds of learning styles but they boil down to three main methods: visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (tactile). Most people learn through multiple methods but favor one or two. If your learning style isn’t yet apparent to you, you can take this quick quiz to help point you in the right direction. Use your learning style preference to your advantage. If you’re an auditory learner, learning via audio tapes or speaker presentations is a great option. If you’re a visual learner, you’ll probably enjoy viewing online video tutorials or will benefit from making flashcards to retain information. If you’re a kinesthetic learner, taking notes, role playing, and finding ways to make your learning experience three-dimensional will best help you develop your knowledge.

*  Foster a growth mindset - You might believe that you’re incapable of learning new things. But neuroscience and psychology have proven that notion to be false. Neuroplasticity refers to the changes in your brain due to your environment, experiences, and other factors. This exciting field of scientific study has proven that our brains remain plastic and malleable well into old age and that it’s possible to create new connections (synapses) among our body’s neurons and thus learn new things regardless of our age. Lifelong learners use the science behind brain development to back up their belief in growth. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck discovered that people have one or two “mindsets” – fixed or growth. People with a fixed mindset believe that their talents are innate and unchanging. They don’t believe they can improve with work and effort. On the contrary, people with a growth mindset believe they can improve themselves by trying new things, developing their resiliency, extracting lessons from other growth mindset folks, and constantly pushing their learning boundaries. Don’t compare yourself to the “lucky brainiacs” or let negative learning experiences from your past stop you from reaping the rewards of becoming a lifelong learner now and into the future.

*  Make it a daily priority – You’re learning all the time. But when it comes to achieving focused learning goals, your mind appreciates regularity and rhythm.  You don’t need to budget gobs of time in your day to sit down and read the encyclopedia. But make sure that learning something new is part of your daily routine and get rid of distractions during your devoted learning time. Regularly devoting any amount of time to learning will help you grow. I like to start my day by reading my scriptures alongside the news and several non-canonical articles that I find interesting. Then I catch up on work for online courses in which I’m currently enrolled. When I have some spare time throughout the day (which isn’t much but even 10 minutes at the doctor’s office can suffice), I’ll go through the brain games and language learning apps on my phone. I’m currently improving my electric guitar playing, so I typically spend at least 15-20 minutes on that each day. It might not seem like much but slow and steady wins the race!

*  Take care of your body - Learning is physical and mental activity that can take its toll on your body and brain if done without proper nourishment. Be sure to get adequate sleep, eat healthy foods that boost brain cognition and supply enough oxygen to your brain, and exercise regularly. Relaxing is also important since being under stress for long periods of time can cause damage to the hippocampus which is critical for long-term memory. Meditation can help you quiet your mind and calm your body so that you can optimize both your learning and relaxing times. So relax and the learning will come.

*  Learn the basics - Making sense of the big world around you is easier if you have a working grasp of basic concepts. I’m not a mathlete but I do know how to balance a checkbook; I’m not a rocket scientist but I do understand the basic laws of physics and chemistry. Having foundational knowledge allows you to make more connections.

Ask questions – Instead of passively consuming information, actively participate in your learning process by asking questions. Asking the right questions can be just as important than having the right answers.

Always have a book – Read widely and often. Regardless of how long it might take you, always be working on reading a good book. Reading for even a few minutes here and there each day can you to polish off a book quicker than you might realize.

Keep a “To-Learn” list – Just like making a to-do list, make a list of all the things you’d like to learn – skills, hobbies, new topics of study. Write down whatever interests you.

Have more intellectual friends – Spend more time with people who think – not just book-smart people, but people who are active learners in whatever their area of expertise is whether it’s calculus or cooking. One of the smartest people I’ve ever met was an automechanic who didn’t graduate from high school but could easily overhaul a vintage VW engine like it was no one’s business. Surrounding yourself with active learners means their learning habits will rub off on you, they’ll inspire you to learn more, and they’ll share their knowledge with you.

Reflective Thinking  – Albert Einstein said, “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.” Follow studying the knowledge of others with reflective thinking of your own. Journal, meditate, and contemplate ideas you have learned.

Curate your sources – There is a difference between information and knowledge. Make sure your sources are credible and have solid substance. Be discerning about what sources you look to and what information you consume.

Create – Some of the most powerful learning occurs when you create something. The creative process enlivens and sharpens various types of intelligence within you.

Put it into practice – Learning is useless if not applied. Don’t just read or listen your way to knowledge. Find a way to put your knowledge to work.

Teach others – As Joseph Joubert said, “To teach is to learn twice.” In teaching others, you will find that you learn even more than your students. If you share your ideas with others, you solidify your learning. Discuss your ideas with a friend, start a blog, or even mentor someone.

Learning is one of the greatest joys and privileges of life and it can also be critical to staying employable and keeping your mind fit as you age. Look for the learning opportunities in every day. By resolving to be a lifelong learner, you’ll realize that you are never finished learning.
 

” ‘A’ohe pau ka ‘ike i ka hālau ho’okahi.” (“Not all wisdom is learned in one school.”) – Native Hawaiian proverb