Ten actions that will enhance your learning

By Don McMinn - May 10th, 2016

This is the third and final part of our series on making lifelong learning an invigorating part of your everyday life. You can find part one HERE and part two HERE.

Fortunately, lifelong learning is readily accessible and absolutely attainable. It will easily fit into your current life and routine. Develop a few new habits and you’ll quickly start reaping positive results. Here are ten clear strategies that will enhance your learning.

1. Pursue a broad education.

When Peter Drucker was asked to name one thing that would make a person better in business, he responded, “Learn to play the violin.” He was arguing for an expansive and extensive approach to education.

Many people limit their pursuit of knowledge to one, narrow area or topic—usually their profession. While it’s important to stay current professionally, it’s best to take a broad approach to learning.

Thomas Huxley said, “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.”

2. Read.

“One of the marvelous things about life is that any gaps in your education can be filled, whatever your age or situation, by reading, and thinking about what you read.” - Warren Bennis

The fact that you are reading this post indicates that you are literate. This is a good thing, but not sufficient. The critical question is not can you read but do you read? Mark Twain observed, “Those who do not read have no advantage over those who cannot read.” I would add: but those who do read are better off than those who can read, but do not.

Read widely and think deeply. Read as if your life depends upon it.

3. Memorize.

Knowledge without memory is useless. It doesn’t matter how many books you have read, documentaries you have watched, or lectures you have heard—if you cannot remember what you have learned, there is little long-term value.

Learning without memorizing is like having a computer without a hard drive. Every time you shut it off, all your work is lost. When you turn it back on, you have to start all over. In like manner, if acquired knowledge is not reinforced and memorized at some level (conceptually or verbatim), you’ll have to relearn the information.

Find out what works for you, and develop an ever expanding collection of thoughts and ideas that you memorize.

4. Travel extensively.

Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

There’s a difference between being a tourist and a traveler; tourists are satisfied to see the sights; a traveler wants to experience the culture. A tourist takes an air-conditioned bus from one site to the next and returns to the hotel to indulge in familiar accommodations. A traveler takes the local bus and stays in the same hotel that the natives do.

As of 2016, Mary and I have traveled to 41 countries, most of them multiple times. I remember enjoying a picnic lunch of cheese, bread, and wine on a Swiss hillside while watching a farmer cut grass with a sickle. We had lunch in a cafe in Marrakesh, Morocco, that was blown up by terrorist the following month. I have seen the destitute in New Delhi and the well-to-do, out-of-touch in Paris. I was in a bus wreck on the road between Tbilisi and Kobuleti. A four-hour meal shared with friends in Palermo is a memory that still gives me pause.

Travel takes time and money, but it’s worth the investment. You’ll be stretched and challenged, and you’ll learn more about the world in which you live. St. Augustine said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”

5. Pursue invigorating relationships.

Be intentional about spending time with engaging, fully-alive individuals, and be deliberate in your conversations with them.

You will benefit from both distant mentors (people you respect but do not know personally) and personal mentors (people you respect and interact with on a consistent and intentional basis). One of my distant mentors is Peter Drucker. I never met him and he is now deceased, but I have learned much from his life, primarily through his writings. I also have personal mentors - men and women with whom I interact on a regular basis.

Continually expand your network; don’t spend all your time with the same people. Samuel Johnson set himself a rather lofty goal: “I look upon every day to be lost, in which I do not make a new acquaintance.” We may not be able to meet one new person a day, but surely we can engage with at least one new person every week.

When you meet with interesting people, have an agenda or else you may waste the opportunity by just talking about random, insignificant issues. For instance, you could ask: What is your favorite leadership principle? What are you currently working on? How do you stay emotionally and intellectually fresh? What advice can you give me about…?

6. Learn from successes and failures.

“Experience is not the best teacher; evaluated experience is.” - John Maxwell

Learn from your successes. Do we learn more from studying failures or successes? Obviously, we learn from both, but often we analyze our failures and merely celebrate our successes. But the most valuable lessons may come from studying our successes. Here’s why.

You cannot infer success by studying failure and then inverting it. Of all the different ways to perform a certain task, most of them are wrong. Failure reveals what does not work, but it will not tell what does work. That’s why you cannot learn much by studying failure.

You need to carefully analyze successes because it is often difficult to determine exactly why something was successful; cause and effect are hard to establish. For instance, was the workshop you sponsored well attended because of the topic, the speakers, or because it was held in the Caribbean? When you do succeed, create hypotheses about why it may have happened and test them to confirm accurate correlations.

Learn from your failures. View failures and mistakes as both unavoidable and acceptable. Management consultants Pfeffer and Sutton say, “Setbacks and mistakes should be viewed as an inevitable, even desirable, part of being action oriented. The only true failure is to stop trying new things and to stop learning from the last effort to turn knowledge into action.”

If we are afraid of failure, we will never move beyond our safe zone; we will never leave sight of the shoreline for the vast ocean. Instead of thinking, “Failure is not an option,” think, “Failure is an option, and there’s a good probability that it will happen.”

When you fail, look for causes, not excuses. Analyze what happened, identify some causes, learn and adjust.

Although failure is a natural byproduct of living an aggressive life, never be cavalier about failure and don’t romanticize it. Failure is not acceptable if it is the result of slothfulness, poor planning or poor execution.

7. Solicit a personal coach.

Studies show that if you want to get in good physical shape, working with a personal trainer is more beneficial than working out alone or even with friends. Personal accountability to a trained expert who provides informed feedback is invaluable.

Likewise, having a life-coach is perhaps the quickest and best path to self-awareness and personal development.

Coaching can help us hone both professional and life skills.

8. Learn from others and from your own experiences.

Knowledge can come from many sources. Secondhand knowledge is what we learn from others; experiential knowledge is what we learn by observing, analyzing, and making sense of our own life experiences. Pursue both.

Secondhand knowledge allows us to benefit from what others have learned. What might have taken someone years to learn (and often through formidable adversity), we can learn quickly and painlessly.

Firsthand knowledge comes from our own experiences.

I’m often amazed at how little people learn from their own experiences. I once met with a young friend who had recently been fired from his job. After listening to his story and empathizing with him, I asked, “What have you learned from this difficult season of your life?” He had no answer. He had not even thought about what he could learn from what happened. What a waste.

9. Maintain a bucket list.

A bucket list is a list of things you want to accomplish in your lifetime. They are typically out-of-the-ordinary experiences—not mundane, ordinary, predictable ones. For instance, you wouldn’t include maintain personal health on your bucket list or buy a car; but you might include tour Europe or plant a vineyard. And, they are usually big, challenging goals (get my pilot’s license) and not small, simple activities (buy a water bed).

Most people think that a bucket list is just for old people: “I’m 70 years old. What do I want to do before I die? On my deathbed, what will I regret having not done?” But a broader perspective would suggest that everyone should have a bucket list and that the earlier you start your list, the better.

What happens if you don’t set and pursue concrete goals? You will likely drift through life, accomplishing little; you’ll not reach your potential, you’ll underutilize your gifts and squander your resources. In other words, if you aim at nothing, you will hit it.

10. Learn from significant thoughts.

Significant thoughts can change your life.

Call them what you will - wise sayings, proverbs, maxims, aphorisms, adages, quotes - they are concisely written or spoken linguistic expressions that are especially memorable because of their meaning or structure. They are distilled wisdom—important thoughts reduced to a few choice words.

How are famous sayings formed? Who vets all the statements uttered by mankind and decides which ones become timeless and often transcendent? Interestingly, there’s no selection committee and no official vote is taken. A combination of time and human censorship has filtered and culled mankind’s thoughts, and what has survived are nuggets of truth.

Fall in love with great ideas.

Five years from now, you are going to be the same person you are today, unless you proactively pursue lifelong learning. Consistently engage in these ten practical actions and you can remake yourself every five years. Lifelong learning is more important and doable than you think!

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

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