• September 2010

Dr. Alice Waagen asks, "Are you a member of the lifelong learning club?"

By Dr. Alice Waagen
Founder and President
Workforce Learning

When my son was seven, he asked me, “Mom, what do you do all day at work?”

I remember smiling to myself, because I then worked for a large corporation and knew I’d never really be able to explain what I did all day in a way that would make sense to him. So I simply said, “I teach business people how to manage.”

He looked at me, confused. So I tried again. “I teach people how not to fight with each other. And I teach them lots of other skills, too. Teaching is definitely a big part of my job.”

His eyes grew wide, and with alarm he responded, “You mean I have to keep going to school even after I graduate and go to work?” Apparently, he was looking forward to the day when his education would be finished. No more classrooms, no more books, and no more teachers’ dirty looks.

Not only would that day not come, he realized. But his mom was (deep breath) a teacher!

Are you a member of the lifelong learning club?

I am one of those people who admits to being a card-carrying member of a small but persistent club of folks out there called lifelong learners. Others in the club know who you are. If you can’t think of a time when you were pursuing more knowledge or a new skill, you are a member of the team.

We all have our reasons for wanting to learn more, know more, and be more. To me, learning is simply my way of becoming a better person. It is a challenge I take on with gusto, and it honestly thrills me to start from zero knowing nothing about a new subject and setting the goal of somehow mastering it.

In fact, one of my favorite new books on motivation is Dan Pink’s
Drive. He cites mastery as one of the three critical components of human motivation.

Not that I always succeed in my learning ventures.

Try as hard as I might, I still struggle with anything mechanical. I continuously jam parking meters rather than use the fancy computer version, and I would never attempt anything more complicated with my car than filling the gas tank.

I truly believe that knowing where your limits are is part of being a good learner.

Five Cardinal Rules for being a good learner

Over the years, I’ve developed a set of rules that I use before venturing out on a quest for knowledge. Try these the next time you want to tackle a new skill:

1. Begin with humility. One reason that children learn more rapidly than adults is that they can serve as an empty vessel that will be filled with anything new. Follow their lead. Throw out all preconceived notions on the subject you’re trying to learn. Open up. Allow information to go in unchallenged, let it rest, then challenge or test it with the critical thinking part of your brain. And remember: If you start with mental roadblocks, learning will take longer and require much more effort.

2. Know your learning style. There are numerous learning style assessments on the Internet, including www.engr.ncsu.edu, www.ldpride.net, and www.learning-styles-online.com.

Take as many as you can. They will give you a good picture of how you process new information. If you find yourself, like I am, a poor audio learner, avoid any audiotape learning programs.

3. Focus, focus, focus. When in a new learning situation, avoid distractions. Do not attempt to multitask, for that allows shallow learning and poor retention. Turn off your Blackberry, step away from the computer, and use your entire mind to focus and absorb the new maternal.

4. Teach someone else what you are learning. Having to explain concepts to another person causes you to reconstruct your own learning, thereby cementing it in place. Over dinner, tell your spouse and kids what you learned today. You may be surprised what they teach you about what you learned—and what you didn’t.

5. Actively seek out your next learning adventure. Having mastered one skill or knowledge area, see what new challenge awaits you in the future. It’s a fascinating process, and once you are hooked, you too will be certified member of the lifelong learn club.

As for my son

He is now an adult, in graduate school, pursuing a career in health care. I am happy to see that his early anguish at continuous learning has been replaced with a desire to continue his studies. We talk about it often, and neither of us can envision a life without being able to learn new things.

So I leave you with this question to ponder: What do you wish you could learn about? Make a list of at least three things, and I challenge you to go out and find a way to master at least one. When you do, or if you need any help in the process, don’t hesitate to contact me at alice@workforcelearning.com.


About Alice Waagen

Alice Waagen, Ph.D., is president and founder of Workforce Learning LLC, a leadership development company she founded in 1997. In the past three years alone, more than 125 leaders from 24 organizations have graduated from Alice’s unique leadership-development workshop series.

Learn more about Alice’s work at www.workforcelearning.com.

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