A lifetime of learning or learning for a lifetime

woman looking intently forward over a camera

I recall a conversation I had with my art teacher from high school when I was about to graduate from Photography School. I told him: “I’m tired of being in school after 14 years. I want to go and do something else for a while. I’m done learning.”

He just smiled at me.

And about a year later, he happily wrote a recommendation for me as I applied for college and more learning.

Much later I adopted this saying: “The day I stop learning is the day I die.” I’d realized that continual learning is a good thing.

When I was a kid, computers were huge, full of spinning tape reels and flashing lights. Awe inspiring. Now I have more computing power in my phone than was in one of those old mainframes. It’s certainly a world that is constantly changing, so we can’t just stand still.

A friend was a new teacher in the late 1970s. She landed in a steel mill town to teach high school art. Found out most of the kids didn’t care. Because they could go down to the mill and make more money than she did, just pushing a broom.

I had the same experience working in a harbor/manufacturing environment. The general idea was that “I don’t have to learn anything new — I’ve got a job.”

Today, if I return to that harbor, those jobs are long gone and the place looks nothing like it did 40+ years ago. I think there’s still a steel mill in my friend’s town, but it will be with far fewer and much changeds jobs.

Some of us are naturally inquisitive. I certainly am. In spite of what I told my art teacher, I couldn’t stop learning if I tried. I see something and I want to understand more about it.

Abraham Lincoln said: “I don’t think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.”

I get that we’re not all born with the same level of curiosity. That’s okay. The problem is when we make a decision to not learn. That’s when we get into trouble.

It’s the idea that once I have more or less successfully graduated high school, I know everything I need to know for this thing we call life. Being about 18, we tend to think so. After all, at that age we’re invincible!

School will have (should have) given us a good base, but there’s still a lifetime of learning ahead.

closeup of eye with reflection of window in it

To learn is to be human

The capacity for learning, creation and intellectual advancement is a very human trait. We have the ability to be not just sponges that soak up new information, but also to index, organize and evaluate that information to create new insights as well as expressions.

Learning keeps us vital. It makes us ask questions and look at the world with fresh eyes. I grew up in a small town and thought I knew everything about it. Then I traveled to other places, other countries, and when I came back, I saw my home town with new eyes. Not only had I discovered the world out there, but I also rediscovered the world around me (and myself).

Health benefits from learning

Actually it seems that continual learning is a good thing. Studies indicate that there is a relationship between longevity and learning. A habit of learning new things also helps keep our minds sharp and can offset cognitive decline.

Being open and curious helps us connect with others on multiple levels. There’s just more to draw from when we meet someone new and we’re better able to relate to their experience.

On the other hand, when we stop learning (by active decision or just by default), we become set in our ways, unable to adjust or adapt. That tends to lead to dissatisfaction and negativity (complaining).

woman  on tram looking out the window, seeing her reflection

Learning connects us with others

Sometimes inspiration comes when we’re alone, sometimes when we’re with others and prod each other on to new insights. I went to a writer’s conference last fall and just being around and talking with all those other writers moved me forward in ways that me sitting at home would never have.

Teaching is another great way to learn. I’ve never been a teacher by vocation, but I’ve always been teaching. Workshops, talks, one-on-one sessions, small groups, classes in adult ed, online trainings, writing manuals, Sunday School. None of those demanded that I know everything. I just needed to know enough to be a few steps ahead of those I was teaching. Often I learn massively from answering questions in those trainings. The questions force me to dig deeper and find new answers.

Learning can feel overwhelming

We feel that we just mastered something and then the game changes. There’s something in us that would like to reach a place where we’re done and can just apply what we know from here on. I’ve met folks getting close to retirement who feel that way. Tired of trying to keep up with a changing work environment, they just want to hang on or coast into retirement where they feel they won’t have to worry about learning new things.

I submit it’s not really the learning new things so much as a hyperdrive pace and poor management that causes undue stress for way too many workers that cause those feelings.

Learning needs reinforcement

I believe a propensity for lifelong learning is built in. But it can be discouraged by people who tell us we’re asking too many questions or are too stupid.

In high school I took German. One year we had a teacher who was so confusing and picky that students actually left his class knowing less than when they started. Only a few of us made headway in his class and then only because through family or friends we used German outside the classroom.

My teacher in 5th grade told me I couldn’t sing! My dad was in the church choir, so probably I had some potential. But I remembered those words and stopped trying, afraid of being laughed at.

Bottom line is, we need reinforcement for anything we do, including learning. A good takeaway is to surround ourselves with an encouraging environment that challenges us in the right ways to keep aspiring and moving forward.

older man using camera on his phone

Life just keeps changing

There’s a myth that life involved less change before. Say 50 or 100 years ago. Everything was better then. More stable. But it really wasn’t. Any study of history will quickly reveal that things have changed significantly in any generation. The idea of life going on the same way as ever for generation after generation is a romantic rearview mirror dream.

When we do learn, it takes time and effort and we may not learn all we wanted to to, but we are still further ahead and connect better with others.

There is great empowerment in learning. We see that most readily in kids. Have you seen a 3 year old master a new skill? May be something simple (for us adults), but for the kid, it’s magic. “I can do this all by myself!”

As we grow older, we too often lose that sense of wonder at learning. Maybe because we get this false idea that we were supposed to know all this stuff to start with, so learning is not an accomplishment, but just catching up before we’re exposed as frauds.

It’s time to release the kid inside: “I learned! And did this all by myself!”

This week (or month if it’s something a bit bigger), intentionally set out to learn one new thing. As you do, see what opens up. Experience your delight at mastering a new skill. Explore the opportunities it opens up.

woman stretching out her hands in embrace of accomplishment