Five Reasons to Be a Lifelong Learner

By Don McMinn - Mar 15th, 2016

This is the first of our three-part series on making lifelong learning a beneficial and invigorating part of your everyday life.

In Gail Godwin’s novel, The Finishing School, 44-year-old Ursula teaches 14-year-old Justin the difference between people who grow stale in life and those who remain vital.

“There are two kinds of people . . . One kind, you can tell just by looking at them at what point they congealed into their final selves. It might be a very nice self, but you know you can expect no more surprises from it. Whereas, the other kind keeps moving, changing. That doesn’t mean they’re unstable. Ah, no, far from it. They are fluid. They keep moving forward and making new trysts with life, and the motion of it keeps them young. In my opinion, they are the only people who are still alive.”

There was a time in my life when I temporarily “congealed into my final self.” I finished my Ph.D. degree when I was 27 years old, so the first decade of my adult life was intellectually robust. But then I punched pause on my pursuit of learning, and for the next 10 years I was intellectually disengaged and became increasingly stale.

Perhaps I suffered from “destination disease,” which John Maxwell describes as, “Some people mistakenly believe that if they can accomplish a particular goal, they no longer have to grow.”1

Fortunately, I discovered the antidote for destination disease—lifelong learning. Bennis & Goldsmith teach, “The act of committing oneself to being a lifelong learner can take place at any point in one’s life.”2 I’m very glad I made the commitment.

Following are five important reasons for everyone to be a lifelong learner.

1. Lifelong learning will help you cultivate vision.

There is a scene in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland where Alice is talking to the Cheshire Cat, who is perched up in a tree. Alice is a bit confused about her direction, so she asks the cat:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a great deal on where you want to go,” replies the Cheshire cat.

“I don’t much care where,” says Alice.

To which the feline replies, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

Some people face the same predicament as Alice. They don’t really know which way they want to go in life, so they just wander aimlessly and soon become stagnant and stale. But that’s no way to live. The old adage, “If you aim at nothing, you will always hit it,” is sad but true.

The solution to this problem is fresh vision. Vision is a picture of the future that is better than the present. It is a clear and credible depiction of a better tomorrow. Vision gives us direction and motivates us to pursue a better reality.

But where does vision come from? What is the optimum environment in which vision is spawned?

Vision favors an engaged, well-informed mind. It is often found “along the way” of a curious, ever-expanding journey. As we engage in fresh encounters, we see things we normally would not see, and we begin to visualize new opportunities.

For me, vision often forms as a compilation of various and unrelated parts. I’ll notice something in a museum, read a thought in a magazine, and hear something in a conversation; then there is a moment when the formerly unrelated parts coalesce into a new entity. It is a splendid experience, made possible by living a life that is constantly exposed to multiple, intellectual stimuli.

2. Lifelong learning will keep you current.

The rate of change in society has dramatically increased. Clarke and Crossland comment on this rapid rate of change in their book The Leader’s Voice.

“In ancient times, work was performed on an almost stationary stage. Visionary inventor Ray Kurzweil explains the rate of change in terms of paradigm shifts. During the agricultural age, paradigm shifts occurred over thousands of years. The industrial age produced paradigm shifts, first in a century and then in a generation. At the start of the information age, paradigms appeared to shift at the rate of three per lifetime. Kurzweil suggests that beginning in the year 2000, paradigm shifts have begun to occur at the rate of seven to ten per lifetime.”3

This rapid rate of change makes lifelong learning essential, because if you’re not growing and learning, you will quickly become antiquated and obsolete.

It is more difficult to excel in life than ever before. In his must-read book, Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin gives two examples that illustrate how difficult it has become to excel in life.

“The winner of the men’s 200-meter race in the 1908 Olympics ran it in 22.6 seconds; today’s high school record is faster by more than 2 seconds. Today’s top high school athletes run a marathon twenty minutes faster than the Olympic gold medalist did in 1908.

“When Tchaikovsky finished writing his Violin Concerto in 1878, he asked the famous violinist Leopold Auer to give the premier performance. Auer studied the score and said no—he thought the work was unplayable. Today, most young violinists graduating from a major school of music can play the piece.”4

In every area of life, the bar is being raised. Yesterday’s best is today’s norm. Today’s norm will soon be subpar. Individuals and organizations will find competing increasingly difficult and surviving impossible if they are not constantly staying fresh. Ongoing success will come from ongoing learning.

3. Lifelong leaning will make you more employable.

Abraham Lincoln said, “If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I would spend two hours sharpening my axe.”

His statement reminds us how important it is to keep sharp the tools with which we do our work. Lincoln lived in an agricultural and industrial age, so his statement immediately appealed to the physicality of most people’s work.

In the 21st century, most of us are knowledge workers—our “axe” is our mind. The “shelf life” of most technical knowledge is 12 to 18 months; after that it is too dated to be considered cutting edge. To be effective in the workforce, we must keep our minds sharp.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that young people entering the workforce today will have 10 to 14 different jobs by their 38th birthday. In the past, a person could meander through his career with no concern for lifelong learning and suffer few consequences, land a job with a major corporation or in a stable industry, and coast for the rest of his life. But in today’s fast-changing environment, that simply won’t work.

4. Lifelong learning will keep you fresh and appealing.

When I meet someone for the first time, it only takes me about 20 minutes of conversation to determine whether his or her life is stale or fresh.

The symptoms of an atrophied life are obvious: threadbare curiosity, tired vision, unimaginative vocabulary, dated and overused stories, and a slow, almost languid pace. People who have pushed the pause button on their personal development may someday be described by the fictitious gravestone that reads: “Died, age 45; buried age 70.”

People who are fully alive, current, and vitally engaged with life are interesting to be with and have something to contribute to life and relationships. They provide stimulating conversations and insightful observations. Lifelong learning sustains interesting and growing relationships.

5. Lifelong learning is enjoyable.

The main reason we should be lifelong learners is for the sheer joy of it.

The world is a fascinating place that provides innumerable areas to investigate and explore. Consider the areas of study offered by a major university: anthropology, chemistry, psychology, music, journalism, biology, history, art, architecture, and others. Don’t these subjects arouse your curiosity and whet your appetite for learning?

The World Wide Web gives us instant, current access to most of the world’s knowledge. Using your computer you can visit any place and investigate any thought, and doing so will ignite your imagination and feed your mind.

I’m 63 years old (as of 2015). I now have more past than I do future. I regret that for several decades I punched the pause button on my learning; I was simply unaware of the pure joy that comes from growing and learning. I can’t recover the lost opportunities, but I am committed to live fully till I die, and the core of that pursuit will be to feed an insatiable appetite for learning and growing.

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 Sir John Tenniel


1 Maxwell, J. (2002). The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, pg. 144.

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

3 Clarke, B. and Crossland, R. (2002). The Leader’s Voice, New York: Tom Peters Press, pg. 127.

4 Colvin, G. (2101). Talent Is Overrated, New York, Penguin Group, pgs. 9-10.

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