Friday, May 31, 2013

Old Dog

Somewhere during early adulthood, most of us transition from being learners to be being knowers. 

We stop learning.

Many loosely tie this phenomenon to aging and physiology; as we grow older our capacity to learn diminishes. While there may be some merit to this assertion, it's a best a contributing factor, not a root cause. There are enough people who continue to learn throughout their lives to prove that aging alone does not incapacitate learning. 

Oh yeah, there's also the fact that we've pretty well systematized the transition from learner to knower. As a child you go to school and learn; as an adult you go to work and know. As a child those around you go to extremes to ensure you have the time and the resources to learn. As an adult they go to extremes to ensure that you don't

So, as a matter of course we tend to stop learning during early adulthood, mostly for what seem to be practical reasons. They seem practical because, in the near term, they are. In the long term, they're anything but practical. 


First of all, learning is a skill, not an innate capacity. Like any skill, it gets dull and rusty when not used. It can be cleaned up and sharpened, but the duller and rustier it gets, the longer it takes.

Second, the rate at which the things we know become obsolete is getting faster. It's no longer possible to learn as a child all you need to know throughout your life, even what you need to know to be employed. By the time a young adult reaches retirement age, not only will her chosen profession have changed, but it will likely have completely disappeared. The transition goes from, "Remember when doctors used to...", to, "Remember when we used to have doctors?"

Third, losing learning as a skill leads to depression and other psycho-emotional challenges. Spend time with seniors who used to be professionals and/or experts, but who stopped learning and you'll see what I mean.

Learn What?
If you're with me so far, you might be thinking, "I understand what you're saying,  but for me it is impractical to spend time learning. I don't have the time. I don't have the space. I don't have the money."

That might be true, generally. You likely don't have the time and resources to spend as much time learning as you did as a child, but nonetheless: you always have time to learn something.

The trick is choosing what to learn.

If you want to maximize your learning time and money, pick something you'd never have thought to learn or never'd have believed you could learn. The more foreign, the better.

That's the first requirement. The second is to pick something that you'd absolutely love to learn, but never did. The more foreign and lovely, the better. If it makes no sense whatsoever, then you're onto something.

The third requirement is regularity. Define a daily window of time that you can dedicate to learning what you've chosen. Better to define a short window that you can guarantee than a longer one that you can't.

The fourth requirement is to learn, not to consume. It's OK to read about or be taught as long as the reading and teaching facilitate learning through doing, not just the consumption of knowledge. If you want to maximize learning, then it's better to be taught nothing and to have to figure out what you want to learn than to simply be given the answers.

The fifth requirement is persistence. The longer it's been since you've truly learned, the harder it may seem to do so. It may indeed seem impossible. It'll pass.

Over the years, I've found that the most satisfying learning has come from ideas that seemed completely ridiculous, stupid and/or crazy at first blush. The best things to learn are indeed crazy. Unfortunately, the assertion is not symmetrical; not everything that sounds crazy is worth learning.

What will you learn next?

Happy Friday,

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