When you’re a kid, nothing spells your doom quite like those ubiquitous “back-to-school” ads running through the full month of August. Even now, they still have the capacity to conjure that sinking feeling that heralds the end of lazy summer days and a return to normal operations. Once again, I am 9-years-old, going with my mother to get a new school uniform – in my case, an ill-fitting plaid skirt, starchy white shirt, uncomfortable saddle shoes and knee-high white socks. This ritual chore was only marginally offset by the acquisition of a new set of notebooks and pens with which to greet the coming year. For stationery nerds like me, there is always consolation in the crisp new pages of an unused notebook, or the perfectly sharpened point of a fresh pencil.
But education doesn’t have to end just because we’ve stopped going to school. The classroom is all around us. Several years ago while feeling particularly burnt out by work, I made the conscious decision to reframe my focus from “What do I need to do today?” to “What can I learn today?” A minor shift in emphasis, but it made a big difference in how I approached my work and life. There’s an energy to be found in the learning of anything new. If we’re bored, it usually means we’ve stopped paying attention or stopped learning anything new. You might be able to get some new training within the job you currently have, or you might need to go outside of work to reignite your passion. But one thing we know about people who live active and engaged lives is that they tend to keep on learning new stuff, even as they age.
Fail Again, Fail Better
Back in 2006, Ken Robinson gave an excellent TED talk on the subject of education, entitled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” It remains one of the most watched videos on the internet, and it’s well worth a look if you haven’t seen it already. His central thesis is that our current models of formal education are simply outmoded, and do not properly prepare children for the world they will inherit. Children, he says, are ferocious natural learners. And one of the things that makes them such good learners is that they are not afraid of making mistakes; they are not afraid of being wrong. As adults, we are terrified of being wrong and looking foolish – and this greatly inhibits our enjoyment of life and the ability to learn new things. What would we do, or attempt to do, if we didn’t worry about looking foolish, or what was “age appropriate?”
To become a lifelong learner is to adopt an attitude of curiosity about the world we live in. A “growth mindset” believes that we can grow our brain’s capacity to solve new problems. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck did a lot of research on learning, and she posits that people tend to have one of two mindsets – fixed or growth. Individuals with a “fixed mindset” believe that their intelligence and abilities are innate and fixed. They don’t think they can improve with work and effort. People with a “growth mindset” believe that they can improve themselves through work and practice. Part of this involves granting ourselves permission to do something poorly at first – maybe even to fail hopelessly at it. So teaching children how to handle frustration – essentially learning how to fail better – is a critical component of raising children who are resilient and capable of solving problems.
School of Life
Now more than ever, it is vitally important that we are constantly sharpening our skill set in order to stay competitive and relevant in a volatile jobs market and rapidly changing world. Skills that were cutting edge five years ago are likely out of date now, and the jobs that we will perform in the next decade or two may not even exist yet. What are some of the ways to develop new skills? Well, most community colleges offer a broad range of evening classes designed to fit around adult schedules. Sometimes it can be fun to have a group of like-minded people learn with you. But you don’t even need to engage in formal classes as most of it already exists for free online. Websites like Khan Academy, Skillshare, Openstudy and Codeacademy do an excellent job of sharing knowledge. Even Youtube has an amazing range of how-to videos that will teach you how to do just about anything. Of course, one of the greatest ways of learning is actually to teach what you already know. Teaching forces you look at everything with beginners’ eyes, which can provide clarity and a deeper understanding for yourself.
Our whole life is an education, or at least it can be with the right mental attitude. Sometimes it’s signing up for a class, learning a new hobby, or maybe it’s just trying something different – turning left instead of right. We know that physical exercise is good for our bodies, and so it is that “cognitive exercise” is also good for our brains. Staying cognitively active throughout life – via social engagement or intellectual stimulation – is associated with a lowered risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and depression. But the benefits don’t just stop there. As a lifelong learner, you’ll be more interesting, charismatic and young at heart. In the words of Henry Ford: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.”