For most people, learning — at least, intentional learning — ends after college. They toil through their high school and university years, maybe pursuing an advanced degree. But once they’ve accepted that final diploma, their learning days are done. Or so they think.
In reality, we learn all the time. Every work assignment and every new challenge in life teaches us something. But most of us stop seeking learning opportunities after our formal educations end.
That’s been the traditional paradigm for decades. Our parents’ and grandparents’ generations lived by this model: go to school, get a job, stay with the same company for your entire career. The world changed slowly, and the knowledge you gained in school remained relevant throughout your career. Under that model, continuing education doesn’t make much sense. There was no need for it.
But we live in a very different world, one that changes much, much faster. Failing to pursue new learning opportunities today is a huge mistake — one I’d like to help people avoid.
A Harvard Business School professor once told me that the shelf life of a modern college education is three years. Three years. After that, all the techniques and data you learned as a student will be borderline obsolete.
That doesn’t mean a formal education is useless, however. As Astro Teller, CEO of Alphabet’s (Google’s parent company) X program, told students at Stanford, the most valuable skill you learn in college is how to learn. That one skill will help you pivot as your industry evolves and you’re forced to explore new opportunities in a rapidly changing work environment.
This new paradigm puts a great deal of responsibility on workers. Making it through a degree program is no longer enough to be guaranteed a job. You must seek constant opportunities to learn and grow if you want to remain employable. While that may sound cumbersome and frightening, it’s also reality. As former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki once said, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”
To stay competitive, you must stay sharp. The next time the economy shifts and your company’s leadership looks to make cuts, they’re going to evaluate which employers have the tenacity and motivation to keep up with the company’s changing needs and which ones have been complacent. If you’re not among the former, you will find yourself on the outside looking in.
But continuous learning doesn’t just make you more employable. Let’s look at how it positively impacts many areas of your life.
The brain is a malleable muscle. It gets stronger if you exercise it, and it atrophies if you don’t. This has implications not just for your ability to create value in a professional setting, but for your health as well. Older adults who live sedentary lifestyles and don’t regularly engage their minds are more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, so it’s extremely important that we stay mentally sharp throughout our lives.
Research indicates that too much TV time can contribute to neurological deterioration as well, so replace even an hour of TV-watching with a massive open online course (MOOC) from organizations like EdX or Coursera. Not only will you put yourself ahead in the job market, you’ll be doing your future self —and your family — a favor. If you’re not sure where to start, check out Crown’s Career Boost Formula – 14 Career Skills Employers Look For. That’ll help you zero in on an area that interests you and boost your career.
Constant learning makes you more confident in your knowledge and abilities. The next time you’re at a networking event, you won’t stammer over your words as you try to think of something insightful to say about an industry trend. You’ll have been following recent developments closely, so you’ll be ready with an opinion to share.
When your team encounters a problem, you’ll bring valuable insights and ideas to the issue because you’re studying the latest trends and techniques. Having this knowledge at hand helps you come across as current and confident, and people will naturally want to work with you.
Of course, they might also tease you before they realize the value of your ongoing learning strategies. I’ve had people question why I participate in MOOCs or why I spend so much time reading and studying. “You’re not getting paid to do that!”, they say. But a time will come when I’ll need to draw on that knowledge, so I don’t let myself slack just because it’s not “part of my job”. My job is to learn new information all the time so I can evolve into a better leader, a better husband and father, and a more well-rounded person.
Most importantly, continuous learning allows you to be prepared at all times. If a crisis hits, you don’t have time to go home and hit the books. You must make decisions based on the information you have right now. I want my information to be as high-quality and up-to-date as possible.
The more you learn, the more innovative you become. As problems or challenges arise, you’re able to think differently and devise creative solutions that could lead to your business’s next breakthrough. An issue that might have stumped you six months ago now seems like an exciting opportunity, thanks to the programming language you’ve been studying or the marketing course you just completed. When you introduce great ideas, you get to work with a wider array of talented people at your organization. Those peers will challenge you to grow and can serve as powerful mentors and connections throughout your career.
Continuous learning also makes you more interesting. No one wants to make small talk for hours at a conference or networking event. They want to talk to dynamic people who share interesting perspectives and an energizing outlook. If you’re always learning, you’ll always bring value to a conversation. People will seek you out because of this trait, and you could find yourself encountering a broad range of new opportunities simply because you’re proactively engaging with the world.
Preparedness is one of the best reasons to always be learning. When a new position opens up at your company or a friend tips you off to a great job at another organization, you want to jump at those opportunities. New jobs often bring increased earnings, better benefits, and a chance to stretch yourself in rewarding ways. However, you’ll have a tough time qualifying for those jobs if you’ve simply been showing up and doing what was required of you, nothing more. Losing a desirable position, and its associated benefits, due to a lack of preparedness is very painful. Don’t miss out because you were complacent and unmotivated.
It helps alleviate everyday stress. If I come to the office feeling disconnected from what’s happening in our industry and am scrambling to get notes together for a meeting, I experience high levels of stress and frustration. But if I have stayed on top of my duties, have been reading the latest books and reports, and have sought out information relevant to my company, I feel calm and happy. I’m confident in my ability to deliver value and I don’t worry about a problem catching me off-guard. Stressed leaders tend to be bad decision-makers, and I don’t want to hurt my company just because I’m unprepared. Continuous learning stacks the deck in your favor, whether you’re an employee or a boss.
Lifelong learning matters to both your professional and personal lives. As a leader, as a spouse, and as a parent, I’m much different today than I was in my early twenties. I’m always growing and seeking new ways to improve, and my family life has become richer for it. For instance, I’ve learned so much from parenting my children. No two children, or adults, are the same. Each requires a unique communication and disciplinary style, and my relationships with my kids flourish when I am cognizant of that.
The more I learn about communication and how to empathize with and read people, the more rewarding my professional and family lives grow. Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned from each of these spheres is to never stop being curious. The second you stop being curious is the second you start taking your spouse for granted, missing out on milestones in your kids’ lives, and ignoring opportunities to forge better relationships with your peers. There is something to learn from every circumstance, and we must stay vigilant if we don’t want to miss the lesson.
Our spiritual journeys are all about growing closer to Christ and gaining a deeper understanding of Him and His will in our lives. Learning is inherent to that process, and we must stay humble in the face of all that we don’t yet know.
A lifelong learning practice helps us stay open to God’s message. I am much more attuned to how God speaks and moves in my life today than I was in my early twenties. I’ve exercised the muscles of faith and learning, so I feel much more capable of receiving His word than I did as a younger man. But I also realize there is still so much to learn about the God of this Universe.
Such connectedness requires intentionality; it won’t just happen because you want it to — and the same can be said for building a lucrative and satisfying career.
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