If there’s one thing in the world that I wish to be known as, it’s this; to be a lifelong learner. Over and above every other possible thing, I hope to be remembered as someone who was always learning, always looking for great inputs, always considering those inputs against his current perspective, and always willing and ready to have a mind shifting conversation. No matter what the realm we’re considering; be it relationship, engineering, management and leadership, spirituality, or even health or politics, I hope to have the attitude and mindset of one that is learning, all the days of my life.
This is because the world we live in is incredibly vast, and gets increasingly more complex with each year that passes. So much so that it is impossible for any one person to see it all, know it all, experience it all. The wealth of knowledge and wisdom that is collected, refined, and passed down through generations is awe-inspiring. There is much richness contained there that we ought to tap into in order to further accelerate our experience.
We were all born with an innate drive for progress. Whether you’re a creationist that believes that this is the breath of God in you or an evolutionist that believes that this trait is what made our forefathers fittest to survive, it is undeniable that we each have a spark; a special, mystical force within us that compels us forward.
And learning is the very core of that.
So then, if it’s so important, why do so many of us struggle with it? Not only in our formative years where we’re expected to learn, but in our later years where we have choice and as such choose not to continue? Why have we been so ill-equipped to truly be lifelong learners?
How we were trained to think about learning
When we were young, our education systems taught us that learning was for a purpose, and that purpose was the same for each of us. We were taught that learning was for the purpose of passing exams. Because ultimately, if you do well on exams, then you’d have a leg up on life, and you’d be able to succeed and have a great life.
And so everything we did at a young age revolved around this simple idea that the goal of learning was success. The process was laid out simply as learning -> acceptance to a good college -> get a good job -> have a good life.
That simple idea framed everything. It impacted what we read and how we read it. It caused us to think of writing as a means to that end. It changed how we research and expanded on our ideas. It engulfed the first 20+ years of our lives with an all-consuming requirement that most of us don’t realize is wrong until much, much later.
Allow me to restate the obvious just for completeness: the goal of learning is not to pass exams.
Why we learn
There are many intermediate goals that we may have in our lives for which learning is a required part of the journey (yes, passing exams is one of those). However, I would propose a more lofty goal.
The goal of learning is to gain wisdom, knowledge, and perspective that we can then apply to every facet of our lives.
Each of us has our own path to forge, our own destiny to follow, and our own legacy to leave. We each want to live a great life. We desire many things for ourselves; success, love, greatness, wealth, happiness, relationship. The list is long but distinguished for each of us, but at the end of it all, we each want to know that we lived a rich and full life.
At a young age, we believed that life to be about maximizing self, especially in comparison to others. We strove to be on top, to beat others. We loved (and for many, still love) being right a lot. This is because being right has a lot of beneficial side effects.
Not only do we get the pleasure of knowing that we were right and did the right thing, but we get reinforced by a number of forces both internal and external when we’re right. We may get praise when we’re right. We may be rewarded. We may gain trust and earn respect from our peers. We may be seen in high regard in our community.
Taken with the right attitude, there is nothing wrong with being right a lot. In fact, society on a whole moves forward by people striving to be right and to do the right thing. However, there are two ways to be right a lot. One is to learn a lot. The other is to never leave your niche.
It is good to leave your niche.
Disagreement as you learn
Only a fool assumes they know everything. Wise men know the limits of their own knowledge and are thirsty for more. They leave their niches in search for more wisdom and knowledge. They endeavor to learn; from experiences, and from others.
It is human nature to think about ourselves. Everyone can do that. However, it is unnatural (ie not sinister, but simply not natural) for people to think about others, to see things from their perspective, and to thoughtfully disagree in a way that encourages communication and facilitates joint learning.
As such, we must learn to appreciate (and develop!) the art of thoughtful disagreement. When you are able to find someone that can disagree with you thoughtfully and unemotionally, hold on to that - those people are rare!
Remember that it is pointless to be angry at a disagreement. Disagreements should not be seen as threats but rather as opportunities for learning and for refining one’s perspective.
How we learn
Ultimately, learning boils down to taking in new inputs, analyzing those against our current system of thought and belief, and determining how we adjust those beliefs in response to the input. These inputs can be new experiences, new ideas, or new rumination and insights gained about existing ideas.
There are three major ways to get new inputs: reading, ruminating, and living.
The traditional method of learning has us reading a text in order to strengthen a given argument. It starts with the assumption that the argument is true and then leaves us to confirm that. If you want to learn to be a better leader, read a book on how to lead. If you want to learn to cook well, read a book on how to cook.
As simple as this approach is, it’s insufficient at best and outright wrong at worst.
There is so much more to reading an article, book, or passage than the singular idea that one is trying to develop. With this top down approach, we throw out other sub themes that may be incredibly insightful for us.
A quick example that many of us have done. You’re reading a leadership book. Why would you care about the author’s anecdote about social justice? Just skip that and move on.
This type of top down learning is incredibly inefficient, and promotes echo chambers of confirmation bias.
Learning and insight must come from the bottom up. It is done by developing many ideas bottom up and seeing which ideas and arguments develop naturally, and then following those threads to their natural conclusion. It is from those naturally developed arguments that our thinking evolves and our beliefs and convictions are shaped!
As such, we should read for the sake of discovering something new. If we approach our reading as an act of discovery, we not only remove that confirmation bias, but we welcome diversity. Finding contradictory points and arguments now becomes exciting, because the our approach values and promotes diversity. This then impacts our enjoyment and subsequently our desire to read more, which impacts our opportunities for greater learning.
What do you think about when you think of the term ‘ruminating’? If you’re like me, my mind conjures up images of standing at some great height, with the camera angle pointing upwards at me as I stare reflectively off into the distance. Some pensive soundtrack is playing, like Debussy’s Clair de Lune or Bach’s Cello Suite in G Major.
Of course, life doesn’t actually happen that way.
Much of the time, ruminating can be tough. For even the most well-intentioned ruminator, this endeavor if left undisciplined and untrained can quickly devolve into an aimless wandering of the mind, much akin to a daydream.
In his book How to take smart notes Sonke Ahrens describes a wondrous system that utilizes the discipline of writing as a refining tool for our thinking. At a young age, we were trained to write for the purpose of validating learning. We wrote exams and papers to demonstrate that we indeed learned the topic at hand.
Ahrens argues that we have to change our mindset to one that views writing as a generator of learning. Writing causes us to learn, causes us to study, causes us to debate, converse, and participate in the public realm of knowledge. When we write, our brains think about what we’re attempting to write about, and formulates connections with all the other inputs that we’ve got floating around in there.
It is this act of synthesis that accelerates our learning. In order for the brain to write down a tangible and meaningful statement, it must consider our vast amounts of inputs on a topic and summarize it into something useful to be written. This is the very act of focusing our ruminations. It is directed. It is intentional. It is disciplined.
We often overemphasize this one by chalking everything up to “learning through life experience”. Yes, life experience gives us many inputs. It gives us many opportunities for which new ideas may be encountered. It provides many challenging situations for us to endeavor to overcome.
But all of these opportunities require the right framing. They require the right mindset. They require courage. They require us to lean not on the understanding of others.
We must have the courage to use our own understanding. We cannot truly learn and understand if we are always applying knowledge only in the fashion by which we are instructed! Life experience allows us to extrapolate our knowledge into real experiences, and to learn how we can continually do better.
Have an open mind
I’ll leave you with one final thought; approach life with an open mind.
Often, the most profound lessons in our lives come from the most unlikely places. Remember that there are lessons to be learned everywhere. Having an open mind allows us to learn from anything and anyone, to take the lifetime of learnings from others and to add those to our own journey.
And that ultimately allows us to be the best selves that we can be.