We spend so much of our formative years
learning memorizing facts and theorems we immediately forget once we close our textbooks that we often confuse the concept of learning as a chore.
But committing yourself to lifelong learning doesn’t have to be an assignment with a due date, and it definitely doesn’t have to happen in a classroom, although it can! With a slight shift in perspective and a little effort, we can recommit to lifelong learning in ways that are fulfilling and fun.
Know Your Why
For the past several years, I’ve signed up for a programming course. I have never completed the introductory lesson. In fact, I have very little interest in actually learning how to code. Sure, it sounds like a useful skill that would look good on my resume. But I wanted to learn coding solely for monetary reasons. But I wasn’t really gaining anything from it, other than an inbox filled with increasingly urgent reminders to Finish Lesson One.
The worst part of failing to follow-through is that I wanted to learn something new after graduation. I just didn’t want to learn how to code! I was forcing myself to do something I thought I should be doing. But I should have focused my time and energy on something I wanted to pursue and would be able to apply (and enjoy) without a major career change. Before you commit your time, energy, and money into learning a new skill, think about why you want to learn it.
Nurture Hobbies Outside of Your Professional Life
Many of us are making career changes during uncertain times in an unforgiving economy, and lifelong learning will certainly give you a competitive edge. But you don’t have to pursue something even remotely related to your career. Burnout is real, and you should nurture hobbies outside of your professional life to give your brain a reprieve. Learning should be a mode of entertainment, enjoyment, and a path to success — personally or professionally.
If you’re extremely passionate about a particular pastime, like baking, writing, or photography, just remember that you don’t have to turn your hobby into a side hustle. It’s totally okay to enjoy learning something for what it is, without the pressure to make a profit. The best thing you can gain is the satisfaction of doing the thing.
Can’t seem to settle on a pastime you’re passionate about? Learn about a subject you’re guaranteed to never get bored with: yourself. Read your natal chart, or find out your enneagram type. A little soul searching can improve your relationships—with others, the world, and yourself and will help you discover new (better) modes of learning.
Seek Connection and Application
Social media platforms have become lifelines for human contact and can be great tools for community building and sharing bite-sized pieces of information. But oftentimes, that connection turns into isolation and we end up mindlessly scrolling. When this happens, we might be consuming a ton of information, but we’re not really learning anything from it.
Dedicate a fraction of the time you spend on social media to exploring a topic related to the communities you already participate in. If you’re a makeup fanatic, learn about the ingredients in your cosmetics. Follow #fitness? It’s likely that you’re interested in nutrition, as well. Learn how to cook a satisfying meal after learning how to deadlift with proper form. Being able to apply what you’re learning through discussion or practice is not only fulfilling, but you’ll quickly learn from your mistakes, which will encourage you to learn more!
If you’re more into traditional learning structures, Coursera’s exhaustive list of classes reads like a university’s course catalog. It offers classes with foundational and specialized courses in everything from Ancient Greek Philosophy to Statistical Engineering.
And if you prefer to nurture hobbies that get your eyes off a screen, try your hand at calligraphy or flower arranging with Brit+Co’s DIY classes. Slow, repetitive movements and working with your hands is therapeutic on its own, and when your brain goes “offline,” it gives you a chance to work through problems subconsciously, which can lead to breakthrough ideas and aha moments you would have otherwise been distracted from whilst scrolling through an Instagram feed of baby animals and aesthetic architecture.
Learn How to Learn — and Unlearn
Simply choosing to be open to the possibility of learning something new is an easy way to, well, learn something new. Being aware of the small decisions you make every day — opening promotional emails rather than taking five to read the investment newsletter you subscribed to or walking the same route to the train every day — will help you notice when you’re succumbing to passive habits, rather than welcoming change.
It makes sense to revisit your favorite news sources, authors, or influencers. But you should also seek information contrary to your current beliefs. It will help you expand not only what you think, but how you think. Becoming aware of how you construct a thought is just as important as the conclusion you reach.
If you only read long-form nonfiction, pick up a classic novel. Maybe you only listen to morning talk shows. Listen to a female-led podcast. If you only eat a specific dish from your favorite restaurant, order something you’ve never heard of. And then learn about how it’s made! Surrounding yourself with the unfamiliar will expand the possibilities for learning while helping you unlearn unconscious biases, stigma, and bad habits.
Practice Progress — Not Perfection
I kept a 176-day streak on the language learning app Duolingo and “lost” it last week because I went camping. Yes, I’m annoyed that I didn’t just complete the 15-minute lesson so I could continue my streak. (It’s only 15 minutes!) But I quickly got over it because I used my time in more fulfilling ways, like hiking and stargazing.
Missing a couple of days of practice didn’t derail, or negate my progress. Cumulatively, I’m so much further than I was 176 days ago; I know how to order food at a restaurant and ask where the bathroom is in a new language!
It’s unrealistic to commit to something every day, for the rest of your life. Priorities change. Set goals in terms of progress, rather than completion. Break down your goals into micro-tasks, which is a good practice in accountability and habit building. Better yet, reframe the “to-dos” as “get-tos.” I like to remind myself, “I get to spend time learning my partner’s native language and culture, which strengthens our relationship.”
Remember Learning is Cumulative — Not Curricular
Your setbacks and accomplishments don’t define you, but your actions, reactions, behaviors, and thought processes do. I know you’ve all heard this a million times before, but stop comparing yourself and your timeline to other people! These comparisons will only make you fixate on what you haven’t accomplished, rather than celebrating the progress you’ve made. You have literally nothing to gain from comparing yourself to others, and much to lose — namely your pride and passion.
Stop wishing you were the person at the party everyone loves chatting with. Be the person who enriches others’ lives because you’re able to share your passion and knowledge with them.
Lifelong learning takes effort, intention, and daily action; the small decisions you make today affect your tomorrow, your next week, and next year. Life — and lifelong learning — is cumulative, not curricular.