How and Why To Become a Lifelong Learner

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For the first twenty-two years or so of our lives, our main “job” is learning. The bulk of our time is spent in classrooms acquiring new knowledge. And then, once we graduate, we feel like the education phase of our lives is done and now it’s time to go out into the world. Have you ever thought about how odd that idea is? That only a quarter of our lives should be devoted to learning, and then we should simply rest on our laurels for the remaining three-quarters of it?

It’s an erroneous idea – but one many have absorbed, at least subconsciously. But school need not be your exclusive provider of learning. Just because you’ve finished your formal education, doesn’t mean that your education is over!

Many, perhaps most, of history’s greatest men were autodidacts – those who devote themselves to self-education, either in addition to or as a substitute to formal schooling. A fantastic example of this is author Louis L’Amour. L’Amour was one of America’s most prolific and manliest fiction writers. During his career he cranked out over 120 dime Western novels as well as several collections of short stories and poems. What makes Louis L’Amour’s story all the more remarkable is that he was almost entirely self-taught.

Due to family hardships, L’Amour dropped out of school when he was fifteen and spent the next eight years traveling around the American West working odd jobs on cattle ranches, farms, lumber mills, and even mines. To earn extra money L’Amour boxed in small prizefights around the country and earned a reputation as a formidable opponent. While in his twenties L’Amour became a merchant marine and traveled the globe via steamship.

During all this time, L’Amour was voraciously reading books. As soon as he set foot in a new town, he’d locate the local library. If libraries weren’t around, he’d skip meals so he’d have enough money to order books from catalogs. He was also working on his craft as a budding writer, scribbling notes in cheap notepads that he kept with him all the time.

All of his experiences while traveling, all the books he read, and all the notes he wrote laid the groundwork for his later successful career. But even after L’Amour became an established writer, his pursuit of learning continued and rewarded him greatly. He is a perfect example of the fascinating life one can create for himself when he makes the commitment to be a lifelong learner. (If you want to learn more about L’Amour’s lifelong self-education, pick up a copy of his autobiography, Education of a Wandering Man. Super inspiring read.)

If you want to become the best man you can be, you need to adopt a mindset of lifelong learning. Below we explain why you should become a lifelong learner and how to do it.

Why Become a Lifelong Learner?

“Our whole life is an Education — we are ‘ever-learning,’ every moment of time, everywhere, under all circumstances something is being added to the stock of our previous attainments. Mind is always at work when once its operations commence. All men are learners, whatever their occupation, in the palace, in the cottage, in the park, and in the field. These are the laws stamped upon Humanity.” – Edward Paxton Hood, Self-Education: Twelve Chapters for Young Thinkers, 1852

You’ll earn more. Fifty or sixty years ago, you could finish college and you’d have all the education you needed for the rest of your career. You don’t have that luxury in today’s job market. Skills that were cutting edge five years ago are likely out of date, and the jobs that we will perform in the next decade or two probably don’t even exist yet. If you want to stay competitive in today’s job market and potentially earn more money, you need to become an autodidact.

Not only can becoming a lifelong learner help you earn more money in traditional employment, autodidacticism can be the gateway to self-employment and starting your own business. There are countless examples from history of famous folks who learned how to create thriving businesses without any formal education: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford to name just a few. Countless not-so-famous business owners became successful without ever earning a sheepskin too, simply by teaching themselves what they needed to know and relentlessly tinkering.

You’ll be more interesting and charismatic. Those who met Theodore Roosevelt were always greatly impressed with his ability to hold a conversation with anyone regarding any subject imaginable. Scientists were blown away with Roosevelt’s knowledge of complex theories, socialites were smitten with his witty insights about the latest piece by Oscar Wilde, and cowboys out West respected the “Eastern Dude’s” understanding of desert wildlife. How did Theodore Roosevelt become such a charismatic, conversational dynamo? By developing the ability to speed read and then devouring books like a hungry lion feasting on a fresh kill. While in the White House, he would read a book every day before breakfast. If he didn’t have any official business in the evening, he would read two or three more books, plus any magazines and newspapers that caught his fancy. By his own estimates, TR read tens of thousands of books during his lifetime, including hundreds in foreign languages. As a result, he could connect with anyone, from any walk of life, on something that truly interested the other person.

You’ll be a better leader. Being able to connect with others doesn’t just make you more interesting. It also makes you much more influential. The greater your knowledge base, the more you can meet people where they are, and the greater the stockpile of solutions you have at your disposal to tackle problems and overcome challenges.

You’ll be independent and handy. One thing I admired about my grandpa growing up was all the cool stuff that he knew. He was always tinkering, and it seemed like he knew everything about everything. How to hunt, how to shoe a horse, how to garden (he grew grapes), how to make awesome pancakes. Even after he retired, my grandpa was always learning new things and acquiring new skill sets. For example, he learned how to restore antique horse carriages and old phonograph players. He got so good at it, in fact, that he started restoring antique phonograph players as a small side-business.

Because of my grandpa’s diverse range of skills, when something broke or he needed something done, he could do it himself. He didn’t have to call and pay an expert to do it for him. If he didn’t know how to do it, he went to the library, got some books on the subject, and figured it out.

Lifelong learning keeps your brain healthy. Henry Ford said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” Nearly 100 years later science is validating Henry Ford’s quip. Margie E. Lachman, a psychologist at Brandeis University who specializes in aging says, “Education seems to be an elixir that can bring us a healthy body and mind throughout adulthood and even a longer life.” Her research has shown that the more education an elderly person has – whether obtained formally or informally — the better they performed on cognitive tests than other elderly folks who had less education.

Learning new things can also help stave off old-age ailments like dementia and Alzheimer’s. One study has shown that older folks who stay cognitively active and curious about the world around them are 2.6 times less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s than those who let their minds lie fallow.

You’ll feel more satisfied with life. In his book Drive, author Dan Pink argues that we need three things to feel motivated about, and satisfied with, our life: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Becoming a lifelong learner fulfills all three of these psychological needs.

When you’re an autodidact you – not your parents, not your professor, not your boss — get to decide what you’re going to learn about. Instead of being a passive consumer of knowledge, you’re actively choosing what you’re learning. In other words, you’re autonomous. As you learn new skills, you’ll enjoy the positive feeling that comes with mastery. And you’ll find yourself with a renewed sense of purpose in life as you set goals for your self-education.

The satisfaction that comes with lifelong learning doesn’t stop there. The more you know about the world, the deeper you can plunge into it, and the more levels of it you can experience. Whether you’re traveling, conversating, visiting a museum, watching a movie, or reading a book, your library of knowledge helps you make connections that you would never have otherwise perceived. The more you learn, the more you realize how many references and meanings you’ve missed because the author/speaker simply took that background knowledge, that fluency in cultural literacy, for granted.

You’ll become more human. As Robert Heinlein famously put it:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Common Perceived Barriers to Becoming a Lifelong Learner

Time. I get it. You’re busy. I’m sure it’s hard to imagine being able to cram in time for self-study when your day is already packed with work and family. But here’s the thing: As a lifelong learner, you don’t have a deadline on your education. You can take all the time you want and fit it in whenever you’d like. Consequently, you don’t need to spend hours a day reading or practicing. Just 30 minutes here and there spread over months and years will do. Moreover, in my experience, when I consciously make learning a priority, I usually end up finding the time for it (meaning I was previously wasting my time doing other stuff).

There are all sorts of spare moments that you can turn into learning opportunities. Listen to an audiobook during your commute instead of the best hits of the 80s, 90s, and today. Bring a good book to read while you’re waiting to see your doctor instead of thumbing through a two-year-old copy of Sports Illustrated.

Money. This barrier only exists if you think you need formal classes to learn something. You don’t. Thanks to the wonders of the internet you can learn just about anything (and even take college-level classes) at your pace, completely for free. We’ll talk about some of these free sources later on in the post.

Information. As with money, this barrier pretty much no longer exists because of the internet. There might be some skills that will require special in-person instruction, but finding those people is also much easier thanks to the web.

Location. This is only a problem if you think you need to be in a formal classroom to learn. You don’t. You can learn at home, in your car, or in the garage. Granted, there may be some instances in which you’ll need to be in a certain place to be able to learn a new skill (e.g. you can’t learn how to snow ski in Oklahoma), but those instances are typically the exception rather than the rule.

How to Become a Lifelong Learner

Foster a growth mindset. One thing that might be keeping you back from learning new things is the belief that you can’t learn new things. But neuroscience and psychology have shown this to be false. Our brains remain plastic and malleable well into old age, and it’s possible to create new connections among neurons and learn new things even if you’re 80 years old.

To become an effective lifelong learner you need to adopt a mindset that is in line with how our brains really work. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck discovered that people have one of two “mindsets” – fixed or growth. Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence and talents are innate and fixed. They don’t think they can improve with work and effort. Folks with a growth mindset believe that they can improve themselves through work and practice.

You want to foster a growth mindset. How do you do that? Here are a few things Dweck suggests:

  • Reading research that shows growth and improvement is possible
  • Developing your resiliency
  • Trying new things
  • Reading about and extracting lessons from others with a growth mindset

Change your idea of learning. Learning doesn’t have to be in a formal classroom setting. In fact, most of the useful stuff you know was probably picked up informally from family, friends, and good old trial and error. To become a lifelong learner, ditch the idea that you need to sign up for a class to actually learn something. Learning opportunities are all around you. Remember that learning isn’t confined to what’s found in books – acquiring practical skill sets is a big part of it too.

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