A Life of Continual Learning
What would you say the odds are that a person who left college after just one year to take a job for $57 a week as a stock clerk in a department store would one day grow up to become a millionaire at 31, become the vice president of a major corporation, speak around the world to hundreds of thousands of people, author 17 books, and mentor the likes of Tony Robbins and T. Harv Eker?
However improbable that may seem, how likely is it that a college dropout would go on to become one of the most vocal public figures speaking on the topic of learning and personal development and would attribute his continual self-improvement as the key to his success. Listen to what he has to say on the subject:
- “Learning is the beginning of wealth. Learning is the beginning of health. Learning is the beginning of spirituality. Searching and learning is where the miracle process all begins.”
- “Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.”
- “Work harder on yourself than you do on your job.”
- “Don’t wish it were easier, wish you were better.”
- “If someone is going down the wrong road, he doesn’t need motivation to speed him up. What he needs is education to turn him around.”
- “The book you don’t read won’t help.”
- “Miss a meal if you have to, but don’t miss a book.”
Jim Rohn gave the credit for his success to his philosophy of personal development and lifelong learning. He said to get more in life, you must become more. You must learn and grow. And the process of personal growth isn’t a one and done thing. It doesn’t end with a degree.
There are millions of people who graduate from college and think that’s it. Their time with books is over. I can’t tell you the number of people I know who haven’t read a book in the past year. The excuses start to sound cliche.
“Life just gets in the way.”
“I’m too busy.”
“When I get home from work, I just want to relax.”
“I don’t know what to read.”
“Books are expensive.”
“Non-fiction books are boring.”
Have you heard (or said) any of these excuses? The real problem when it comes to learning and self-improvement has to do with overcoming the obstacles. What are they?
Obstacles to Learning
We are content with our life as it is. Contentment is like a cozy warm blanket on a cold night. It surrounds you with something you feel is right but at the same time, it prevents you from going out into the cold.
When I was a kid, I used to have this rickety, home-made go-cart that my parents bought for me at a yard sale. It was pretty fun for a while, but it had a governor on the engine that prevented it from going as fast as it should. When I first got it, the novelty of riding in it was enjoyable. That is until I realized that my friends could outrun me on foot. In limiting my speed to a safe level, that governor took away all my interest in driving the go-cart.
Now contentment acts in much the same way – it works as a force pressing back upon our ambition. Whenever we begin to have an idea or desire to do something more, contentment presses back, and we start to realize that things are good enough as they are.
If you’ve seen the movie the Matrix, contentment acts like the Oracle and sort of talks us out of whatever it was that we were starting to believe about the possibility of what we might one day become.
So, first, you must become dissatisfied to overcome the complacency of contentment.
Learning isn’t easy. But it’s not that hard. Most of the time, it’s just an inconvenience, but additionally, it forces us to do something against what we have been conditioned to do. Technological progress has given us things that make our life easier. That’s the purpose of technology – to make things faster, easier, and more efficient. But in doing so, it has created an environment that has rewired our neurological circuits.
While the internet has given us all of the information we want, the technology itself (the hyperlinks, the images, the ads on the page) have all contributed to a decline in our ability to intensely focus on a subject. Nicholas Carr discusses this in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
The reason learning is difficult is because it requires our brains to do things that they have been programmed not to do. To sit down and read for an hour requires certain neurological powers that our technological society has robbed from us. To focus on a subject and follow an extended, linear line of argument like you get in a book is foreign to us because the technological tools we use each day have conditioned us against that very skill.
The good news is we have another superpower at our disposal. Neuroplasticity shows that our brains can change. Our neuro-circuitry, which has been conditioned in ways which make learning and reading challenging, can be re-wired. It just takes effort, time, and consistency to make that happen.
One of the biggest excuses that we give when it comes to making time for personal development is that there’s no time. Life is too busy. We say things like, “when I get home from work, I need some time for myself – to be entertained, or to watch my favorite series on Netflix – instead of spending that time working more.”
There’s no doubt that time is precious and the reason it’s precious is due to its limitations. There are only 24 hours in a day. And that amount applies to everyone on the planet. You can’t make more time. You can only rearrange or reprioritize the time you have available to you. You have to be willing to make some sacrifices if you want to learn. And this leads to the idea of priorities – what’s important to you.
You might say, “My entertainment is important to me.”
Entertainment is pleasant and enjoyable. We all need entertainment in our lives. The question here might be “how much?” Do you need to binge-watch your shows for 3-4 hours a day and all day on weekends? That might be a little out of balance. Prioritization means knowing what the most important things are for you, and then putting those things in order. In a sense, it’s about how to live in balance, and a life of balance must include learning.
One way to find time is to get up earlier each day. I recently watched a video on the 5 AM club and the discipline of getting up at 5 AM every day to read, focus, and learn.
You might say “I could never get up at 5 AM.” Here’s a question for you. Would you get up at 5 AM every day for 10 million dollars?? Would you change your life and get up every day for $10,000,000?
Most everyone would say sure.
Well, it’s not a question then if you can get up early, it’s just a question of what would it take to motivate you to get up early. I’m not saying that getting up early will get you 10 million dollars, but the point is that you can get up early if you wanted to do it. The lack of time isn’t an excuse for not developing the habit of continual learning.
How To Build The Habit of Continual Learning
But why is it so important? Learning isn’t necessary to live in this world, but it is necessary for success in this world. So, how can you develop a habit of continual learning?
1 Understand the Value of Continual Learning
Why is it that some of the most successful people in the world are continual learners? Is it merely a coincidence? Here are some examples:
American presidents were avid readers as well:
In fact, a study of 1200 wealthy people found that all of them had reading as a common practice. And they don’t read for entertainment. The study showed that they all read for self-education.
Continual learning is a constant among successful people. You might argue with that, but the research backs it up. It doesn’t mean that if you commit to a life of continual learning that you will become Warren Buffet, but it pretty much means that if you don’t develop the habit of continual learning, you will never become Warren Buffet. In other words, continual learning doesn’t guarantee your success; it just puts you into an elite category with the other successful people.
2 Find Ways to Cultivate Your Curiosity.
Learning is as much an attitude as it is a discipline. And it begins with some simple questions. Why? How? What?
Have you ever watched a toddler when they are experiencing something for the first time? Their natural curiosity can overwhelm them. They investigate and play with and question. I remember the questioning from my children when asking me the “why” question over and over in their effort to understand something and get to the bottom of their curiosity.
What happened to us?? How did we lose that desire to learn? How did that natural curiosity disappear? Maybe we learned too much in school – just enough to think we know it all. Maybe we’ve gotten too cynical. Maybe we’ve just been stuck in the ruts of life.
Get out of it!
There’s so much to learn, and when you learn something new, you start to get a grasp of all that’s out there that you don’t know or understand. We live our lives with these “black boxes” – things that just happen, that we take for granted but don’t understand. How does a smartphone work? How does a nuclear bomb work and what are the devastating effects? What does it mean to live? How can we agree on what’s right and wrong, good and bad? Philosophy, anthropology, theology, medicine the list goes on and on. There’s so much to learn, but it begins with a shift in our mindset – a change in attitude.
3 Develop Practices for Continual Learning.
Beyond understanding the value and changing your perspective on learning, you need to establish some practices – you need to develop some habits. This means doing something on a regular basis that puts you on the path of learning. You can start by writing a personal development plan, but beyond that, you need to take the steps necessary to form an intentional habit.
As they say, it takes 66 days to develop a habit. Here are a few tips:
- Read a book a week. Now while you may not think you’re capable of reading a book a week, I’m going to share with you how I do it. As the Pareto Principle tells us 20% of the book gives 80% of the content, it’s just a matter of knowing where that content is located. Here’s what to do.
- Read the introduction in its entirety – this explains the purpose and the basic outline of the book
- Read the first and last paragraph of each chapter – this gives an overview and summary of each chapter
- Read the first sentence of each paragraph – this gives you an idea of the flow and argument of the book
- Read the last chapter – this gives you another summary of the book
Now while you might say that’s cheating, let me tell you where I got that technique from… my professor during my Ph.D. work. He told me that in doing Ph.D. work, you can’t read it all, but you must find a way to get the content out that you need. This was just one way of doing it.
So if Ph.D.’s are doing it, it’s ok for you. Want to know where to start? Here’s a list of some of my top books on the planet – focus away from the fiction (though you can and should read fiction also).
- Commit time to learning. To accomplish #1, you need to set aside time. Start with a regular time each day (or 5 days a week) where you can give 15-30 minutes to reading. You can do it in the morning or the evening, just do it.
- Find a partner. When we read or learn with someone else, it keeps us accountable and helps with our motivation. If George W. Bush did it, maybe it could even help us. Join a book club, find a friend, put it out there on the internet or social media…whatever works for you, but get someone to join you on the journey. It also helps to talk to someone and digest what you’re learning.
Continual learning as a skill can be a huge benefit in your life, and it stands as one of the common elements among some of the smartest and most successful people in history. It isn’t as much about IQ as it is about hard work. So join in the Great Conversation, learn, grow, and become a better you!