By Daniel Bobinski
When it comes to what drives adults to learn, people tend to lean one of two ways. At one end of the spectrum are those who love to learn anything about everything. They sponge up as much information as they can on just about any topic. At the other end of the spectrum are people who rely mainly on their past experiences, trusting that the insights they’ve gleaned from their involvement in various events will be sufficient for their success.
Most of us have a middle ground preference somewhere along this continuum, but either way, distinct benefits exist for adopting a practice of lifelong continual learning.
First, let me make sure we’re on the same page by providing a definition. Then, I’ll cover a few benefits for the practice of regularly putting new information into our brains. I’ll end by offering two areas of focus for improving your lifelong learning.
I’ve looked up the definitions of lifelong learning in multiple dictionaries, and interestingly, the one I like best comes from Wikipedia. They say it’s, “The ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons.” With that, the fact that you’re reading this article is evidence enough that you’re already engaged in lifelong learning. After all, you were self-motivated enough to voluntarily start reading. And if you’re seeking a work-life balance, let’s hope you’re regularly taking in material that feeds your personal life as well as your professional one. That said, let’s look at some benefits for doing so.
Benefit #1: You develop an increased capacity to see solutions
One truth about learning is that new learning attaches itself to old learning. When pieces of knowledge enter our brains they need to find a home, so our minds look for ways to file various pieces of new data in ways that make them easy to retrieve when we need them. The academic word for this mental filing system is a “schema,” which has the same root as the word schematic. The more we learn, the larger our schema.
Put another way, when new learning connects to previous learning, we build our “mental web” of knowledge. As this web grows, so does our capacity to see relationships between and among new information. Thus, the more we learn, the more we are able to learn, and our brains have an easier job of seeing how events in “situation A” relate to events in “situation B.” When we have a growing web of knowledge, solutions to problems come easier, and that makes us more valuable in our work as well as in our personal lives.
Benefit #2: You stay connected
Whether your effort is personal or professional, being purposeful to acquire new knowledge keeps you connected to your family and/or your coworkers. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that if you’re not moving forward you’re moving backwards. Now, I’m not sure that’s exactly true. For example, toss a baseball into the air. It goes up and then comes down, but there’s that moment when the ball actually stops before it reverses direction, so technically it’s not going only up or down. Still, there’s some truth to the axiom. We can stop learning for a while, but if we stop for too long, the world and all the people in it start passing us by.
This truth is probably best illustrated by the speed at which knowledge is increasing. For example, scholars have calculated that in the year 1900, the total amount of knowledge in the world was doubling about every 100 years. They also determined that by 1945, knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Not surprisingly, with the advent of computers, the speed at which we are doubling our knowledge base is almost unbelievable. According to research from multiple sources, today the total sum of the world’s knowledge is now doubling every 13 months.
Can you see that if someone doesn’t make an effort to learn new things, conversations and careers will eventually pass them by so that such a person will have difficulty staying connected?
Benefit #3: You’re more likely to keep your mental health
This is not just a comment in passing, an old wives’ tale or a theoretical possibility. Research published in the Journal Neurology found strong evidence that, “[A] history of lifelong cognitive activity may support better cognitive performance” as one ages. Specifically, biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease were reduced and better neuropsychological testing performance occurred in people who demonstrated a history of lifelong learning.
Stated much more simply, it’s quite likely that when it comes to our brain and the activity of learning, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
I want to emphasize that just keeping our brains active as we age is not enough. Research published in the journal Psychological Science showed that people who kept their minds active by doing things they’ve always done did not improve their memory. It was only people who were learning new skills that showed significant gains in their ability to remember things.
How to strengthen your lifelong learning ability
As I mentioned earlier, the fact that you’re reading this tells me you already have an inclination toward lifelong learning. If I didn’t believe that, the subtitle for this section would be, “How to be” a lifelong learner. Instead, the two words I suggest you consider for strengthening your ability are “focus” and “frequency.”
Remember our definition: “The ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons.” Therefore, the first consideration is focus. Do you want your learning to be for personal reasons, professional reasons or both?
The frequency consideration is related to the word, “ongoing.” Decide on a frequency and a type of learning you think are necessary to achieve your goals. This could range from reading “x” number of books on a topic each year to auditing classes at a university or anything in between.
You don’t have to sponge up information about everything around you. Just pick some pertinent topics and make a purposeful effort to keep learning. The benefits, as they say, are many.
– Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. is a certified behavioral analyst, a best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. He loves working with teams and individuals to help them achieve workplace excellence. Reach Daniel through his website, www.MyWorkplaceExcellence.com or 208-375-7606.