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How To Become an Exceptional Lifelong Learner

alt text Image of a woman learning in a library as a metaphor How To Become an Exceptional Lifelong Learner

The short answer to how to become a lifelong learner is never to stop learning. The question is valuable enough to deserve a more extended explanation and practical advice on the specifics.

Shore Up Your Weaknesses

If you are going to spend time learning, you may want to focus your effort on areas where you are weak. Many people will tell you not to worry about your weaknesses and to focus on your strengths. Like anything else, there is a truth in that advice, but it is partial and devoid of context. If there are areas you need to increase your knowledge and skills to produce the positive results you want, those are good places to start.

Maybe your success depends on you becoming a better, more effective leader. Reading books, taking courses, and asking for help from a coach or mentor can help level you up. Understanding concepts you are missing, recognizing the better choices that are available to you, and making better decisions will improve your results.

There are salespeople and business people who know little about business outside of their company and their role. Even though their chosen professions are in business, they haven’t focused on learning things that might improve their results. If you lack business acumen, there are any number of ways to gain it, and in doing so, bettering your results and making yourself more valuable.

Whatever your weakness, if it holds you back, start your lifelong learning there. But don’t end there.

Follow Your Interests

Becoming a lifelong learner doesn’t mean that you must only study things that improve your business results. It also doesn’t have to be something that helps you be successful in the areas people commonly associate with the idea of “success.” There is no reason not to learn more about some subject that interests you. Not only will you enjoy it, but it will also make you a more well-rounded, more interesting, and a better conversationalist.

Maybe you want to learn some form of art, like drawing or painting. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to study acting. I am right now being tutored in defensive strategies in the game of football, as well as learning to print the way architects write on their plans. I know not how these things will ever be useful to me, except maybe making my writing on something on whiteboards other people can read and understand.

If something interests you, if it captures your attention, then it’s worth spending time to learn. Your interest is enough to make it a worthwhile use of your time, even if no one other than you believes it is worth your time.

Pull on a Thread

Sometimes when you are learning something, you bump into something else that interests you. The one thing leads you to another. You pull on the thread, and you keep pulling.

Your study of leadership connects you to human psychology, which leads to organizational development, which leads to cognitive biases and their connection to poor decisions. Your learning on poor decisions leads you to how large organizations fail. This isn’t a path you would design for yourself, but because you pulled the thread, you uncovered other areas of interest.

In 1995, I picked up a book called The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History by Howard Bloom. The book led me to read additional books about memetics (memes, the way ideas spread, not cute cat videos), which eventually brought me to evolutionary psychology (or paleo-psychology as it was known then). This path eventually led me to Integral Theory, an area of learning I am still vigorously pursuing.

If you want to be a lifelong learner, follow your interests, and when you run into something that captures your attention, follow that path.

Apply Your Learning

It’s helpful to know things that are not directly related to your domain or area of expertise. Even though you may not recognize the value of something that has your interest now, reading, studying, and continuing to learn helps you become a lateral thinker, connecting disparate ideas into something useful.

John Boyd, a fighter pilot and the most profound military strategist of the last century, used to challenge people with a thought experiment. You have a motorboat and a set of skis, a tank with treads and guns, and a bicycle with wheels and handlebars and gears. What can you make with these items? Boyd, a lateral thinker, would produce an image of a snowmobile, an object most people would not consider.

One strategy I have developed about leveraging time in sales comes from clock management in football (the American version). If you have the ball, you can take time off the clock, depriving them of time and creating a competitive advantage. What you might believe doesn’t have any practical application or value often turns out to be something beneficial later, even when its value isn’t apparent.

As human knowledge continues to grow exponentially—and exponentially faster–becoming a lifelong learner is imperative. The only way to get lifelong learning wrong is by doing nothing.

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