Eleven Prerequisites for Lifelong Learning

By Don McMinn - Mar 29th, 2016

This is the second of our three-part series on making lifelong learning an invigorating part of your everyday life. You can find part one HERE.

When I became serious about ongoing learning, I discovered some attitudes and actions that assist and strengthen this pursuit. Here are eleven suggestions that will enhance your ability to learn.

1. Adopt a holistic approach to learning.

We are multi-dimensional beings, so adopt a multi-dimensional approach to lifelong learning. Determine to grow and develop intellectually, emotionally, relationally, professionally, spiritually, and physically.

All six areas are important, and they are interrelated; neglecting one will impinge upon the others, and strengthening one will enhance the others.

2. Develop an inquiring mind; be curious.

Albert Einstein once said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” I think he was being excessively modest in the first phrase, but notice his emphasis on curiosity in the second. An inquiring, curious mind is supple, eager and insatiable.

Will Durant spoke of this intellectual curiosity: “Sixty years ago I knew everything; now I know nothing; education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.” Curiosity will give us a healthy appetite for learning and growing.

Curiosity will prompt us to always be coddling and nurturing various thoughts and ideas. Our minds should be an incubator for developing thoughts.

3. Be willing to pay the price for growing.

There are several “costs” involved in being a lifelong learner. One relates to the environment we are in.

There is a species of fish - the Japanese carp, known as the Koi - that will grow in size only in proportion to the size of the body of water it is in. When placed in a small aquarium, the fish will only grow to be two or three inches long. If placed in a larger body of water, it will grow to six to ten inches. When placed in a large lake, it can reach its full size of two or three feet in length.

In like manner, your environment can inhibit and limit your personal growth and development. It may be the job you’re in - although you may feel secure and the work is tolerable, you’re stuck in a mind-numbing environment and your head is hitting the proverbial glass ceiling. It may be where you live - the provincial mentality is stifling. The friends you associate with may be stymying - you may need a more intellectually invigorating group.

But the right environment can stimulate your growth and help you reach your potential. Fortunately, you do have control over these dimensions of life.

Another cost associated with lifelong learning is the time, energy, and financial resources required. What do you do with your discretionary time? Watch TV or read a book? How you use your free time is very important and a huge predictor of success.

Your choices and priorities in life will ultimately influence and shape who you are.

4. Take responsibility for your personal growth.

Bennis and Goldsmith say, “Adults learn best when they take charge of their own learning.” 1 Actually, I think everyone learns best when they take charge of their own learning, but while young students are usually led by directed, compulsory education, adults must be self-motivated and rely on self-directed learning.

Have you accepted responsibility for your personal growth? Do you have a clear and practical plan for this area of your life? Your personal growth is not the responsibility of the HR department where you work. No one is going to force you to do it; devise your own plan.

5. Learn to anticipate and reflect.

“Experiences aren’t truly yours until you think about them, analyze them, examine them, question them, reflect on them, and finally understand them.” - Warren Bennis

Our lives will be greatly enhanced if we will learn how to anticipate and reflect. These two actions precede (anticipate) and follow (reflect) experiences; they position the learner to reap the maximum benefit from experience.

- Anticipate – before you experience something, think about what you are about to do. Why are you doing it? What do you hope to accomplish? Anticipation helps us understand the context for action so we can maximize experiences.

- Reflect – after you experience something, contemplate what happened. What did you learn? What should be the follow-up? Reflection helps us to make sense of experiences.

6. Record your thoughts.

Maintain a journal where you write down significant thoughts. This is not a diary where you record your history, and it’s not a personal organizer where you keep your to-do list. It’s a thought journal where you record what you’re learning.

When you finish reading a book, record what you learned. When you hear an interesting phrase or anecdote, write it down. Maintain a list of vocabulary words you’re working on.

For years, I wrote my thoughts in a leather journal. Now I type them into Evernote so I can search and retrieve them more easily.

7. View yourself as unfinished.

“We all differ in what we know, but in infinite ignorance, we are all equal.” - Sir Karl Popper

Few things will stunt learning more than intellectual arrogance accompanied by a false sense of knowing-it-all. Sadly, some people live as if they have maxed-out their learning - there’s little more to learn, do, or become.

Instead, we must view ourselves as unfinished - a work in progress; we all live in what Popper calls the realm of “infinite ignorance.” A healthy, proper approach to learning is predicated upon a deep humility based on the fact that we know and understand so little.

8. Don’t overestimate your abilities.

"Often, we form our impressions not globally, by placing ourselves in the broadest possible context, but locally, by comparing ourselves to people who are ‘in our same boat.’” - Stouffer

Lake Wobegon is a fictional town in Minnesota, said to have been the boyhood home of Garrison Keillor, who reports the News from Lake Wobegon on the radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.”

The series introduced what has been called "the Lake Wobegon Effect" which Wikipedia defines as, “A real and pervasive human tendency to overestimate one’s capabilities and achievements relative to others.” It is named after the fictional town where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

For instance, the residents of the town are convinced that the valedictorian of their high school must be the smartest student in the nation. But when the student goes to the state university, it becomes obvious that there are many “smartest students in the nation,” and in fact, the Lake Wobegon student is quite average.

When we overestimate our abilities and achievements relative to others, we succumb to the Lake Wobegon Effect.

A subtle variation occurs when someone does excel in one particular area of life - but only one area of life - but thinks that his expertise in that one area makes him superior to others.

The solution to this limited and myopic view of life, as Stouffer suggests, is to “place yourself in the broadest possible context.” This will provide a more realistic setting in which to evaluate yourself, and it may motivate you to strive for higher goals.

9. Develop your personal intellectual nutrient base.

On a regular basis, feast on proven sources that provide “food for thought.” You need to define and utilize a personal intellectual nutrient base that provides a steady source of significant thoughts. This can consist of books, magazines, online material, such as TED talks as well as spending time with interesting people.

10. Discover and fine-tune your personal learning style.

How do you best learn? When and where do you learn best? Each of us has a unique and optimum learning style. It may take several years for you to experiment with different options to find what works best for you.

For instance, relative to reading, I’ve discovered that:

- Instead of reading one book at a time, I always have three books that I’m reading. I’ll read one for 30 minutes then switch to another and then another. The three books are usually vastly different in topic and writing style.

- I don’t read large books on a single topic.

- If I read 60 minutes a day, I can read about three books a month. My goal is to read 50 books a year, so I read more on vacations and holidays.

What are some unique characteristics of your personal learning style?

11. Consider the lens through which you see the world.

We must look at the lens through which we see the world, as well as at the world we see, because the lens itself shapes how we interpret the world.” - Stephen Covey

For better or worse, we all have what psychologists call “personal constructs” - frames of mind through which we see ourselves and others. I’ll adopt Covey’s metaphor and call them lenses. Our lenses act as both frames and cages: they add focus and definition to our view of the world, but they are often so rigid that they restrict our view and perspective. They come with a set of presuppositions and assumptions that anesthetize the mind.

Early in life, our lenses were crafted by our family of origin and our local environment. In essence, we inherited our first set of glasses.

Have you ever analyzed and critiqued the lenses through which you see the world? It is a healthy thing to do. This type of analysis is not for the faint of heart, but it’s necessary if you want to free your mind from the constraints of constructs.

These eleven attitudes and actions can have a great impact on your lifelong learning journey, as they have had on mine. Embrace them and you will not only enhance your learning, but also become a better version of yourself over time.

Excerpt from ‘Lifelong Learning: Why It’s More Important and Doable Than You Think’. To download a free copy, go to www.donmcminn.com.

Image by Martina Rathgens, original can be found HERE.


1 Bennis W. and Goldsmith J. (2003). Learning to Lead, New York: Basic Books, pg. xxi.

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