Lifelong learning might be a cliché phrase, but that doesn’t change the fact that in today’s business world you must keep learning to remain relevant. Lifelong learning is about acquire new skills and open yourself up to new opportunities that will enhance your career, make you more valuable to your employer or future employers, and even improve your pay. Fortunately, there are so many options for continuing your learning there is really no excuse for not doing this.
Why Continue to Learn?
I believe in learning for learning’s sake. I realize not everyone has the same level of interest and curiosity, but you can develop it and there are benefits. So, why should you learn something new? After all, you are doing a great job, you understand your work deeply and fully, and you are at the top of your game. Why bother? The main reason is simply that things change. We live in a time of very rapid technology innovation. What you know today may literally be irrelevant tomorrow. Lifelong learning keeps you on top of new innovations, gains you the right skills, and exposes you to new methods and ideas.
You don’t need a specific reason to keep learning. Learning for learning’s sake brings a great deal of personal enjoyment, expands your knowledge in areas of interest, and studies suggest it keeps your mind sharp as you age. Continuous learning builds your skills and enhances your knowledge. You mind remains sharp. People who continue to learn gain greater wisdom and adapt to change more easily. Perhaps most importantly, lifelong learning leads to a richer, more fulfilling life.
Learning new skills is great way to open yourself up to new opportunities. Lifelong learning improves job satisfaction and can result in increased wages. Specializing in a specific area make you more indispensable to your employer, while learning about complimentary areas improves your ability to work cross-functionally and with more customers. Highly skilled employees are paid more and are promoted more often. Having broader knowledge and more skills is the hallmark of a great leader. You will be able to synthesize information better and be able to find solutions to complex problems more readily. Ultimately, you become a better employee, more valuable to your employer, and have more opportunities for advance within and outside your current company.
The main reason people have trouble learning is a lack motivation. The easiest way to overcome this is to start with something that interests you. Find a topic you enjoy or have a deep desire to learn about. If you are not interested in Financial Accounting, don’t start with that. You will lose interest rapidly and won’t make progress.
Set aside time each day to learn. Whether that is 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you consistently spend time learning each day. Try to minimize distractions and really focus on the material. Put your phone away, stop checking email, close the browser, and really concentrate on what you are learning.
It is important to understand that learning takes time and is not always easy. In fact, you should expect it to be difficult and challenging at times. That a good sign that you are actually learning. Keep in mind that some topics will be confusing and won’t make any sense at first. That is okay. Just keep at it. Over time themes and ideas will begin to gel. Learning is a process that reaps rewards over time.
Achieve Success at Lifelong Learning
Anyone can learn at anytime in their life. You are not too old to learn. Look for meaning in what you are learning. Think about how it applies to you personally, what you will get out of it, and how you will improve. Learning random facts that have no meaning to you will not help you be successful in your learning. You will most likely just forget them because they don’t align to your own goals and experiences. Think about how your new knowledge and skills can be applied in your job or life. This will make it easier for you to grasp concepts and retain what you have learned.
Learning is about doing. You have to apply what you are learning and then practice. Knowing how do something is very different than actually being able to do it. You will make mistakes, you will fail. This is part of learning and helps you get better. But you actually have to do it, not just read about it! Try incorporating what you are learning into your daily activities. This provides you with practice and helps you apply what you are learning in real situations.
Share what you are learning with others. Telling people about what you are learning creates motivation and motivates you to really learn and understand the material so you can explain it when they ask questions. Giving a presentation to your coworkers is a great way to reinforce what you have learned and establishes you as an expert on the topic. Consider doing a Toastmasters speech, presenting at the community center, or sharing what you have learned in some other venue.
Read Inside & Outside Your Field
Find publications, journals, magazines, and blogs in your area of interest, field, or industry. A quick search will uncover hundred of options. Take some time to find valuable sources. Not every publication or every blog is worth your time. Check out LinkedIn, association websites, and ask your peers what they are reading. Focus some effort on in depth articles at least once a week. The rest of the time you can read shorter summary articles that touch lightly on topics of interest. Digging deeper is important to gain a better understanding of the topic.
Finding books on particular topics is a great way to learn. Branch outside your field into related areas and occasionally into completely different domains. This will not only provide you with a unique perspective and understanding of what is happening in other areas, it will also give you a fresh viewpoint and spark unique ways of approaching and solving challenges. Many fields are disrupted from the outside, not the inside. For example, Jared Diamond has a PhD in Physiology but disrupted Political Science and History with his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Many trade groups, business schools, agencies, consultancies, and corporations post a variety of well-written, valuable information. There are hundreds of trade publications covering just about every industry, many of them free. Business schools often publish their research online. Harvard Business Review is a classic, and there are several free options like KelloggInsight from the Kellogg Business School at Northwestern. McKinsey Global Institute publishes research on several topics, as does many others. Corporate blogs are a wealth of information into business topics and challenges. White papers, ebooks, articles, and research are all made available for free. There is no shortage of information out there. Find what you interests you and start reading.
There are a variety of online learning options available today that offer flexible and affordable courses, certifications, and even full degrees. There are short courses offered through LinkedIn Learning, Khan Academy, Udemy and many others to larger, massive open online courses (MOOCs) offered through Coursera, edX, and others. Many universities have online programs, and offer fully accredited degrees online directly or provided through a provider. Some even make their courses available for free. Corporations, like Microsoft, Salesforce, and others, offer free online training on their products and the field their products are built around. There are even courses taught be specialists that are offered directly or through platforms like Teachable and Thinkific. The point is, there is no shortage of option or resources for online learning.
There are courses on every topic requiring varying degrees of effort—from a one hour courses to fully accredited degrees. LinkedIn is great for exposure to new topics and gaining new skills. Coursera, edX, and other offer certifications in a several skills from project management and Six Sigma to data science and Python. You can audit most of these courses for free, as well. Several universities offer full online degrees in Business Administration, Computer Science, Accounting, Public Health, and more. The options are truly staggering. The costs range from free for short courses to several tens of thousands of dollars for full degrees.
There is still room for formal in-person training and education in lifelong learning. If your company offers onsite training, take it. If they offer reimbursement for courses or conferences, use it. For those of you that are really lucky, your company might even pay for your education. Check with your Human Resources department or your manager to find out what your options are and avail yourself of them.
There are several providers that offer formal skills training and certifications. These can often be expensive (they assume corporate reimbursement), so search around if you are paying out of your own pocket. You might be able to do the learning online for free or at lower cost, and then take a certification exam in person instead of doing a full program directly through the provider.
Many universities and community colleagues offer continuing education courses that are inexpensive or even free. Night and weekend options are usually available. Local seminars are often available to the community at no cost. Universities and community colleges allow people to audit courses for minimal fees. Sometimes just approaching a professor and asking if you can sit in on lectures is enough. Community groups, state agencies, and other organizations offer training options as well. Even corporations offer free or low cost in-person training around their products or services. If you prefer in-person classroom training, and the networking that goes along with it, search around and you will find several options available.
Coaching & Mentoring
Coaching and mentoring are great ways to take your learning to a new level. Mentors provide valuable insight and perspective into how to apply your learning, pitfalls to watch out for, and valuable guidance in developing your skills. Look for mentors inside and outside your current organization. Try to avoid someone in your immediate chain of command. This results in a weird dynamic that is best avoided. Finding someone in a different group or outside the company exposes you to new ideas and perspectives, and keeps the relationship focused on your learning instead of your job performance. Mentors can be someone you admire or aspire to emulate. You would be surprised at how many well-known people are willing to provide mentoring if you just ask.
Consider reaching out to peers, colleagues and clients for their insights and thoughts, as well. Remember, coaching is about sharing new insights and new information. Everyone has something teach, and you can learn something from anyone. Be open to that, either formally or informally. It is a great way to learn new skills and learn how others have handled certain situations. Many people are more than happy to help out and answer questions. They are flattered when you ask them to provide some coaching or insights about their experiences because it means you value their skills and knowledge.
Business coaches are another option to consider. They can be expensive, but you might find that helps with motivation (similar to a gym membership—just make sure you use the service you are paying for!). Business coaches can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, and help identify the areas where you might want to focus your learning. They are great at providing guidance with specific challenges you might be working on or want to focus.
Other Types of Learning
Learning does not have to be restricted to work or formal activities. Exposing yourself to new ideas, new approaches, and different ideas can provide you with insights and knowledge that are valuable in your job and life. Volunteering is a fantastic way to learn new skills while helping your community.
Taking on a special project at work or setting stretch goals for yourself will provide motivation to learn new skills and give you a reason to seek out the assistance of others. Consider representing your department in cross-functional meetings. Perhaps you can meet with the Product team periodically to discuss changes or offer insights to them and learn about what they are working on. This exchange of information is a great way to gain exposure to the rest of the company and learn how they are addressing business challenges. Get creative in your learning options.
While formal education is not cheap, the good news is a lot of learning is free. Make use of the myriad of resources out there to keep learning. Many companies offer some form continuing education support, either through direct training or reimbursement for education expenses. If your company does, avail yourself of it. Even if they don’t, your manager might approve a one-time course, conference, seminar, or pay for some books. Just make a business case for it. If your customer is looking for something in particular, you can leverage that as well. If you have a customer who wants specific reports using a tool you have never used before, you can justify the expense of training or books as a customer account expense.
Even if you do not receive approval the first time around, keep raising the issue. This shows your manager you are serious about lifelong learning. You might eventually get them to agree to covering some of the costs or setting up a formal program for continuing education. When asking for reimbursement, make sure you lay out the rationale about how the training benefits the company. Your manager, and their leadership, will want to know how your training will benefit them. Explain it in detail so they understand what they are getting out of it.
Lifelong learning is a great way to enhance your personal development and your professional development. It opens you to new opportunities you might otherwise have not had, and grows your skills. Lifelong learning keep you relevant, makes you a more valuable employee, and improves your overall strategic thinking. There are so many options available for learning today there is really no excuse for not continuing to learn and grow.