When you completed a long course of formal schooling, did you breathe a sigh of relief—and perhaps vow to never crack a book again? I know I did!
When I graduated from high school, I felt liberated from the educational death march I had been on for twelve years. Of course, the next fall found me seated in a class of incoming college freshmen, beginning a new four-year journey. With a baccalaureate diploma in hand, I once again rejoiced in my freedom. However, it wasn’t long before I found myself in the hallowed halls of Harvard University pursuing an MBA.
When my intense graduate school experience ended, I was fortunate to have some downtime before starting work. This time, instead of luxuriating in my release from the academic grind, I devoted myself to reflecting on what I had learned over almost 20 years of formal education. Perhaps the most important insight I gleaned from this process was the fact that for all of my learning, I had so much more to learn.
Today, I recognize that one of the most important leadership traits is a personal commitment to lifelong learning. The fruits of continuous learning over a lifetime are incredible. Among the most significant are:
- The development of personal competencies that make us both marketable and credible with those with whom we interact. The Gallup organization has described learning as the “steady and deliberate journey from ignorance to competence.” Over the years, I have worked with many newly minted MBAs who are confident that their academic experience delivered them fully competent for any corporate experience. While I appreciate a healthy dose of self-confidence, I have routinely cautioned them that “full competence” at any worthy endeavor is a lifelong pursuit. No degree, from Harvard or any other major university, delivers a finished product!
- A broadening of perspective regarding the issues we face in our daily lives. With a commitment to continuous learning, we expose ourselves to new ideas, information, and ways to solve problems. We gain a better understanding of the world and how things work. We feast upon the knowledge and experiences of others, and come to understand and appreciate their perspectives.
- A heightened awareness of our own biases. Most of us have a natural tendency toward what is known as confirmation bias. This bias is manifest when reject information that casts doubt on something we believe, while embracing only ideas that confirm our viewpoint. Zen Buddhism suggests that learners can overcome confirmation bias by adopting shoshin, the “beginner’s mind.” This refers to letting go of your preconceptions when studying a subject, of being open to new ideas and ways of seeing things. Philosopher and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell once suggested that “in all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”
- Enhanced judgment and improved decision-making. Continuous learning becomes like a huge spider web; you keep linking what you have learned in the past to what you are learning in the present. This facilitates inspiration, creativity, and problem-solving.
- Your brain, like your muscles, needs to exercise to stay strong. Studies have shown that those who continuously engage intellectually protect themselves against cognitive decline, including dementia and other brain-related diseases.
- Improved communication skills. Those who continue to read and study are generally more articulate in both their speech and writing. Since communication is an essential component in leading others, this alone is an important benefit of lifelong learning.
So, how do you learn?
Personally, I have been blessed with a love of reading. One of my favorite authors, historian David McCullough, has said, “Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books.” While I agree with him, today we have a number of options that make reading more comfortable for non-readers or those who simply can’t find the time to read.
We can listen to audio books or podcasts. TED talks or other video presentations can be great sources of learning as well. One of my favorite new tools for learning is the website readitfor.me. This site provides book summaries in audio, video, and written formats that make it easy to quickly review the best business and personal development books. I use it as a filter in determining the books I will ultimately purchase and study more deeply.
Abigail Adams, wife of second U.S. President John Adams, put learning in its proper perspective when she said, “Learning is not attained by chance. It must be sought with ardor and attended with diligence.” Whatever manner you choose to learn, do so with ardor and diligence throughout your life!
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.