Willing and ABLe: Always Be Learning

A question I like to ask others is “How are you better today than a year ago?” There are variations like, “In what way(s) have you improved in the past year?” These are questions I encourage us to ask ourselves regularly. Over the past year, have you improved physically, have your financial circumstances gotten better, have you worked to develop relationships, what efforts have you taken to learn something new? Improvement is something that always remains available to us in some aspect of our lives. As Henry Ford noted, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” The late, legendary College basketball coach, John Wooden, supported Ford’s sentiment when he wrote, “If I am through learning, I am through.” Wooden continued to live by example deep into his life reading, learning, and continuously seeking new insights. Perhaps, even more poetically, Phillip Brooks offered, “Sad will be the day for any man where he becomes contented with the thoughts he is thinking and the deeds he is doing—where there is not forever beating at the doors of his soul some great desire to do something larger; which he knows he was meant and made to do.”

Both Warren Buffett and his business partner Charlie Munger deeply value learning. They have devoted their lives to learning about the world around them. In a speech to students at USC’s law school in 2007, Munger offers, “I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up, and boy, does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you. … So if civilization can progress only with an advanced method of invention, you can progress only when you learn the method of learning. Nothing has served me better in my long life than continuous learning. I went through life constantly practicing (because if you don’t practice it, you lose it)… I can’t tell you what that’s done for me. It’s made life more fun, it’s made me more constructive, it’s made me more helpful to others, and it’s made me enormously rich. You name it, that attitude really helps.” Munger has witnessed and lived the secret to a satisfying life noted by the late Austrian philosopher, Karl Popper. Popper wrote, “The best thing that can happen to a human being is to find a problem, to fall in love with that problem, and to live trying to solve that problem, unless another problem even more lovable appears.” Being consumed by curiosity breeds purpose and life satisfaction.

We’re either growing or dying. Without effort, entropy wins. No, we can’t avoid the inevitable, but we can delay things. An interest in learning reflects a desire to improve. It shows that we want to get better. We’re not satisfied with where we are. We have more to contribute. It also reflects interest and curiosity. These, too, are valuable. Learning is evidence that you take yourself seriously. It is an example of self-respect. You want to be of use. You want to expand the value you add to the world. In work and life, our contributions are our currency. Economists call it knowledge capital for a reason. What we’re capable of offering translates into our value. If we’re interested in learning, we’re interested in expanding our capabilities. An interest in learning, therefore, is evidence of ambition. Perhaps, counter-intuitively, learning also represents a form of humility. Being willing to learn is an acknowledgement that you don’t have all the answers. It reflects the wise recognition that the Universe of what we don’t know is greater than the tiny little sphere of knowledge that we presently occupy. Being willing to learn is embracing the lesson of the Proverb that suggests, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” By investing in ourselves and expanding our knowledge we increase our effectiveness and contributions to the world around us. A separate benefit of developing additional skills is that not only do you become capable of more but that you are now in a position to share your skills with others. You can’t transfer to others what you don’t have. Your earned wisdom can be multiplied by teaching others further magnifying your impact.

Data from the US in 2017 continue to support the suggestion that more education leads to greater earning capability. Those achieving doctorates, the highest level of formal education, earn on average more than 2.5 times that of those with just a high school education. Every bit of education seems to help as those with a two year diploma, certificate, or trade earn almost 20% more annually than high school graduates. Those with four year bachelor degrees earn on average about two thirds more annually than our high school graduates. These differences over the course of a thirty-five plus year career can add up to considerable amounts of money. The difference in lifetime earnings on average between those with doctorate degrees and those with high school diplomas can equate to well over $2,000,000 over a 35 year career. A little learning can go a long way. Canada has some of the highest levels of university graduates in its population compared with other OECD countries. According to 2016 Census data, over 54% of adults between the ages of 25 and 64 in Canada have Bachelor degrees. However, only 5% have doctorate degrees. The higher we go with our education, the more rare we become. By continuing to invest in education we reflect that we’re willing to do what others won’t.

Statistics related to continuing education sought amongst adults suggest a sort of virtuous cycle. Those that have obtained more education tend to take more continuing education courses. A study done in 2016 showed that of adults between 18 and 65 years of age, of those whose highest education level was graduating high school only 9% had taken a work experience or continuing education learning program. Contrast this with those who had earned some form of graduate degree. Of those that had both a four year degree plus some additional degree, 43% or almost five times as many had benefitted from some type of continuing education program. 56% of those that had either a degree plus a professional accreditation or a graduate degree continued to pursue education. It turns out that those that value education seem to be willing to continue to demonstrate this value by investing in continued learning throughout their careers. That is, learning isn’t one and done at the outset of our lives. Some of this may relate to professional obligations to take annual learning licensing credits. However, these are done by professions which themselves value learning. If we overlay these statistics across the lifetime earnings of these same groups we can see there’s a strong relationship between education levels and earnings. Those that achieve higher levels of learning tend to earn more than others. The learning translates into economic value.

Pursuing formal programs or continuing education courses aren’t our only educational options. We can lead our own learning. Even if we aren’t pursuing formal education, are we leaning in to learning once out of school in some way? Too many of us look forward to leaving school and never being told to pick up a text book ever again. Those of us on this path never saw learning as something we chose but as something we were obliged to pursue. We trudged through the textbooks waiting to be told what to learn. We weren’t curious. We didn’t dig deeper. We didn’t seek out reference materials or look for opportunities to learn more. One of the benefits of learning once you’re out of school is that whatever you decide to study is up to you. Learning, once out of school, is a get to. It’s a choice that is up to you. No one is pushing, poking, or prodding you to learn as an adult. It’s rare that someone is looking over your shoulder making sure that you’re reading or taking a course of some kind. It’s entirely self-driven. This should make learning liberating. You’re free to choose what to learn, when to learn, how to learn, and with who. This should build commitment to your chosen course, but it can also make it scary as the responsibility lies solely with you.

What’s the most common excuse offered to avoid further education? I’m busy. I don’t have time. As S.J. Scott notes in Habit Stacking, “The most common excuse that we like to give for not taking action is time. Many people feel like there are simply not enough hours in the day to get things done.” It’s simply not true. Virtually all of us have an abundance of time that we flitter away each day. When we cling to the idea that we don’t have time what we’re really saying is that this just isn’t important enough for me. I don’t have time because I’m not willing to give up scrolling on my phone or watching Netflix. The thing I could or should be doing is worth less to me than the frivolous activity I am doing instead to waste time. Time isn’t the limitation, interest is. I make time for what’s important to me. If it’s not important, then I’m too “busy.” At least we should be more honest with ourselves.

When Dr. Jordan Peterson was a professor, he asked his students how much time they thought they wasted daily. His students answered honestly and the average answer was about five hours daily were thrown away on frivolous things. Dr. Peterson asked them to give thought to what their time was worth. He suggested they were attending University with hopes of earning a decent income. If they thought they were going to earn six figures one day, they should treat their time today like they were earning $100,000 annually. A person working 2,000 hours a year or fifty 40 hour work weeks earns $50 an hour as a $100,000 salary. If a young adult is flittering away five hours a day chasing easy distractions instead of improving themselves, then they should seek to see the economic cost of treating time casually. Is the time being spent on fun, easy distractions worth paying $50 an hour for? Dr. Peterson’s efforts to accelerate awareness of the value of time in his students was echoed in an experience Jack Canfield writes about in his book, The Success Principles. Canfield noted that the average American spends six hours daily watching TV. He goes on to recount a challenge he was offered from a mentor early in his career. W. Clement Stone (insurance legend and sales guru) invited Canfield to think about what he could do to get better using just one hour daily for personal improvement. If done daily, this one hour becomes 365 hours annually or the equivalent of over nine extra work weeks. What more could be accomplished by devoting nine extra work weeks to your development? The time is to be used to better yourself. You are entirely free to choose the content and medium of the messages you want to absorb.

Dr. Peterson and W. Clement Stone recognized the value of our time. If we can use our time to improve, we can create value for ourselves. Benjamin Franklin recognized this two hundred years ago when he wrote, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” The wisdom of those that have come before and achieved success on many levels coupled with the historical economic data showing a strong connection between earnings and education levels supports the idea that we should always be learning.

Learning is a key success factor for organizations. Peter Bregman writes in his book 18 Minutes, “I was once asked: If an organization could teach only one thing to its employees, what single thing would have the most impact? My answer was immediate and clear: Teach people how to learn. How to look at their past behavior, figure out what worked and repeat it, while admitting honestly what didn’t and changing it.” Learning to learn is an essential skill that benefits individuals and, indirectly, the organizations they serve. A learning organization is only as capable as its individual team members’ abilities to learn. Organizations should be motivated to help their staff embrace the value of learning for two reasons. Smarter people make smarter decisions from which the business benefits. Additionally, seeking mastery which is what continuous learning is ultimately all about is one of the key drivers of work satisfaction. Self-determination theory suggests that we tend to crave three things in our lives that motivate us to extend our efforts willingly. We desire autonomy, mastery, and relatedness. We want some control over how we spend our time. We want to pursue things we care about improving in and we want to spend time with people that are like-minded about whom we care. By helping connect people with their own learning an organization can make itself better and reduce turnover by fulfilling key motivators in its workforce. As Leonardo Da Vinci suggested, “Learning never exhausts the mind.” The effort we exert in learning about something we care about doesn’t exhaust our energy levels but reinvigorates them.