Thursday, July 3, 2014

I’m Taking a Stance Against “The Pursuit of Lifelong Learning”

Let me explain.

First, I want to distinguish between “lifelong learning” and lifelong learning. The first is a phrase, the second a behavior. The behavior I have no problem with. It’s a prerequisite for staying relevant in a rapidly changing world. 

But I’m taking a stance against the phrase. To tell me I should “pursue lifelong learning” is a fact. It’s obvious and offers me no insight. Of course I should pursue lifelong learning. I should also eat right and exercise. But how?!

I really struggled with this question in my first year of college. At that time I was not a pursuer of lifelong learning. Don’t get me wrong: I still learned. But I did it reluctantly. I learned in 12-hour sessions which ended 20 minutes before the start of an exam.

But not everyone was like me. I remember watching with envy as some of my impossibly-enlightened friends spent the night after (yes, after) the exam trying to figure out how to solve that one exam question they just couldn’t crack in the allotted time. These superhuman specimens of study baffled me. The exam was over! Why were they doing this?! At the time, I thought the answer was self-discipline. In hindsight, I see it’s even simpler. 

They learned because they loved learning. 

The fact that they pursued lifelong learning was true, but that behavior was a symptom of a much deeper part of their identities. They were learners. Of course they spent their time learning.

With time, I learned to love learning too. It didn’t happen overnight, but as college progressed my motivation to study became less about the grade and more about the satisfaction I felt when I discovered something new. I was becoming a lifelong learner.

Today, I’m lucky enough to work at Udacity--where taking online classes is a big part of my job--and my identity as a learner has only grown with time. Because as you learn, you build new mental structures to which you can more easily affix new learning. New learning creates new opportunities to form connections across domains that once seemed separate and these connections let you find simplicity in topics which once seemed complex. In short: as you learn more, you actually learn to learn better! 

And if you love learning itself, this turns into an endless cycle. Because when you love learning, you do it. When you do it, you get better. And getting better makes you love it more. In short, a love of learning causes lifelong learning. 

If you find yourself struggling to find the motivation to learn (lifelong or otherwise), consider reframing the problem. Instead of “how can I get myself to pursue lifelong learning?” try asking “how can I get myself to love learning itself?” 

Neither problem is easy to solve, but the second sounds like a lot more fun.