By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest. -Confucius.
To be a lifelong leaner is both fun and functional. All that is needed is an enthusiastic heart and a curious mind. When we embrace the spirit of inquiry and curiosity, we embrace life.
When we are captain of our own ship, life can be a wonderful continuous voyage of discovery. Yet we frequently pigeonhole our learning and discovery into limiting discrete blocks.
There are the childhood years, filled with exploration and getting to know the world around us at a sensory level. The early school years follow, during which we are introduced to reading and writing. Middle school years bring a range of core subjects and majority of us will end up finishing the formal part of education with university-level learning. To this we add work experience, reach a level of competence, and sort of coast our way through life from there. In short, we settle.
At a certain level of competence we can navigate life pretty well, so the incentive to keep learning is not always obvious to us. Excessive ego is also a discovery dampener. When assessing our competence in any particular discipline, we can place our level of ability somewhere along a continuum moving from ignorance, to conversational competence, to operational competence, then towards proficiency, and finally all the way to mastery.
For most of us, if we get to operational competence in our main career area we are happy enough. We can get by and we don’t have to expend too much energy continuously learning. We become flat-line learners. By contrast, should we decide to become lifelong learners, our learning curve will look more like an upward curve.
This raises a very pertinent question: Why doesn’t everyone become a lifelong learner?
Because more often than not we act like mortals in all that we fear and act like immortals in all that we desire.
And while we are at it, let’s put mathematical certainty to our mortal existence:
– Considering a lifespan of 75 years, one has 657,000 hours in total.
– With 7 hours of sleep daily, the person sleeps for about 200,000 hours.
– Hours one is awake – 457,000 hours
Research says that we spend about 46% of our wake up time thinking about things we are not doing at that moment. This takes away about 215,000 hours.
So we are effectively left with 242,000 hours i.e. 28 years to live.
Therefore it boils down to choices and priorities. It is easy to be drawn towards passive entertainment, which demands less from us, rather than engaging ourselves in more energetic, active understanding. For most of us inconvenience might prove to be a perfect alibi: “I don’t have time for continuous learning as I am too busy with real life”. But that excuse doesn’t withstand close scrutiny, as experiences (coupled with reflection) can be the richest of all sources of investigation and discovery.
Why not make a conscious decision to learn something new every day?
No matter how small the daily learning, it is significant when aggregated over a lifetime.
1.01^365 = 37.8
0.99^365 = 0.03
Resolving early in life to have a continuous learning mindset is not only more interesting than the passive alternative, it is also remarkably powerful. Choosing lifelong learning is one of the few good choices that can make a big difference in our lives, giving us an enormous advantage when practised over a long period of time.
Having resolved to be lifelong learners we have two main avenues: directly through our own experiences, and indirectly through learning from the experiences of others. While both avenues have their significance, there is no substitute for direct learning through experience –which we enhance through reflection.
The process of insightful reflection makes our experiences more concrete and helps us in future understanding. Reflecting about what we learned, how we felt, how we and others behaved, and what interests were at play, hardwires the learning in our brain and gives us a depth of context and relevance that would otherwise be absent.
Unfortunately there isn’t enough time to learn everything through direct experience. There is no doubt that this is neither practical nor always desirable, especially when it comes to making mistakes. It is far better to learn from the mistakes of others, if we can.
Whether it is through reading, listening, or watching others in action, there are concrete ways to make our indirect learning more effective. Reading is the fountain of indirect learning. We can find ample time for reading if we are sufficiently motivated to learn.
We can create more opportunities to read by watching less TV, taking public transport instead of driving, and always having reading material close to hand (electronic readers). Yet how many times have you read a good book and when asked what the most interesting parts were, you could only remember one or two things from the entire book!
Many read for entertainment. Some read for information. Too few read for understanding. Being widely read is not the same as being well read. The more effort and skill we put into reading, the greater our understanding. There are primarily four levels of reading skill, each building on the former.
The first is elementary reading. This is what we learn in school. On an elementary reading we can recall what a book says. Next comes inspectional reading from which we can deduce what the book is about. We get the gist of it and the general context. Beyond this level we can step up to analytical reading, from which we can explain what the book means. Analytical reading is at the root of understanding. We are underlining and marking up as we go along, circling key words, writing in the margins and making various notes. It is a deliberate and focused form of reading. Beyond analytical reading we can progress to the highest and most demanding form called syntopical reading. Here we are evaluating how the book compares with other books on the same topic. How do we test whether we really understand something?
A powerful yet deceptively elegant technique was devised by the late American physicist Richard Feynman.
Step 1. Choose the topic or concept that you are trying to understand. Take a blank piece of paper and write the name of the topic at the top.
Step 2. Assume you’re teaching the topic to someone else. Write out a clear explanation of the topic, as if you were trying to teach it. A great way to learn is to teach. You identify gaps in your knowledge very quickly when trying to explain something to someone else in simple terms.
Step 3. If you get bogged down, go back to the source materials. Keep going back until you can explain the concept in its most basic form.
Step 4. Go back and simplify your language. The goal is to use your own words, not the words of the source material. Overly elaborate language is often a sure sign that you are yet to fully understand the concept. Use simple language and build on that with a clear analogy.
The great Greek philosopher Socrates displayed this openness to learning, when he acknowledged that his wisdom is predicated on the fact that he knows that he doesn’t know.
Therefore open your heart and mind to the wealth of knowledge that is all around you. Ask questions, listen, learn and most important don’t forget to have fun.