Lifelong learning is a gift that keeps on giving.
It is a folly of the education system that we give up on learning soon after we graduate to the rest of our lives.
It happens to the best of us. We would rather do nothing than learn again. Yeesh. Talk about boring, right? Wrong!
What is lifelong learning?
Lifelong learning (as per a white paper on adult education published by the Department of Education and Science, Dublin in 2000) is the “ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated” pursuit of knowledge.
Rather than being the crude hoarding of information, lifelong learning is the cultivated gathering, analysis, and application of information.
It is not just a lifestyle tool, but a lifestyle methodology. It is a lens through which we can define our understanding of the world, aided by the continuous journey of educating oneself. Lifelong learning aids employability, but more than that, it aids you as an individual.
Characteristics of lifelong learning
The key to lifelong learning is to think of learning not as ‘downtime’, but as ‘uptime’.
Replace the notion that learning is a chore, and make the effort to look forward to it. The best way to do that is to develop learning patterns and resources which do not tax you, but stimulate you. Start small, and build up to things which will take more time and energy on your part. Additionally, do not look at learning as simply an expansion of information. In this day and age of constantly being bombarded with information, learning has to go beyond that.
It has to be the critical consumption of information, such that you are not stockpiling facts, but creating opinions and exploring the possibilities of the subject(s) you enjoy.
Begin with determining what you are interested in. Do you like books or movies? Do you prefer listening to reading? Do you log on to YouTube, but avoid Netflix? Are you a people person who prefers joining a club, or do you like the structure of a classroom better? The answers to these questions can help you figure out where, and how, you can pursue your own method of lifelong learning.
How to invest in learning
With the internet on our fingertips, there is no end to the variety of platforms where we can keep expanding our understanding of education.
I started listening to BBC podcasts (all available for free on their website!) because I had an hour-long commute to my university campus everyday. I often felt as though the two hours of back-and-forth were being misused. That changed because each episode of the particular podcast listened to was 40 minutes of stories, ideas, and commentary; all of which made me feel inspired and oriented. In a creative writing program, both of those are extremely conducive to the creative process. All this because I googled “free podcasts” one random evening! It really is that easy.
Like books, but do not have the time to read? There are audiobooks aplenty on the internet, which are cheaper than physical copies of books. Audible by Amazon is stocked.
Love a good movie? Find documentaries and YouTube channels which use unique narrative methods which tap into your love for visual storytelling. My favorite YouTube channels are Contrapoints and PhilosophyTube, both of whom create high-quality videos about culture and philosophy.
Interested in academia, but do not have access to resources like JStor? There’s a ton of longform media platforms which commission some amazing writers to transform complicated theory into easy-to-read articles. The New Yorker gives you 10 free articles a month.
Enjoy watching videos, but don’t have the time to sit down and watch them? Podcasts are similar to radio shows, and are a unique and valuable marketplace of ideas which can give you the freedom to engage with knowledge while doing boring day-to-day tasks. I am the biggest fan of BBC’s In Our Time, which has a couple of decades’ worth of episodes!
You could even subscribe to newsletters like Brainpickings and the Alipore Post, both of which send out a ton of amazing curated content across art and media for free. And the list goes on! There are in-person classes, online interest-based courses, clubs and societies which curate events, and even Instagram accounts you can follow. There is no end to the ‘where’ and ‘how’ of lifelong learning.
How to overcome your learning block
Until recently, on any given day, I would spend several hours being vacant. By this I mean that I would not be doing anything in particular with my personal time, like when I was commuting or having lunch. Or I would be doing something which was so ingrained within the monotony of my everyday that I no longer needed any brain cells to perform it, like cooking. And no, I am not talking about the times when I am purposefully relaxing, and taking some me-time. I am talking about those times – could be a random fifteen minutes, or a long couple of hours – that I simply lost because I didn’t consider them unused.
Either way, my mind would remain blank for long periods, and the blankness was seeping into the rest of my life. And if you, like me, have dealt with this blankness your entire adult life, I have bad news… giving up on lifelong learning is, by far, one of the easiest ways to stagnate.
As someone who has invested a lot of time in my education, I have learned that the vacancy in my daily life can be leased out to anything that might keep my brain occupied. Essentially, I am working on figuring out the secret to managing, and more importantly, implementing my time effectively. This is a bag of tricks I wear on my sleeve to ensure that I am continuously learning.
More than time management
Here’s the deal: whether you have a 9-to-5 job, or you are a freelancer, time doesn’t need to be managed to invest in continuous learning. Time just has to be discovered. What I mean when I say ‘discovered’ is that you need to take a good, long look at what you are doing at a given moment. What are you doing? What is the mental labour involved? Can this little niche of time be leveraged to multi-task? We often chalk up stuff which involves improving ourselves to ‘downtime’, which means it never finds fruition. We need to enhance the priority of learning, and find ways to successfully add it to our life.
If you look at lifelong learning as adding another layer to your lifestyle, it is not very different from consciously cutting back on that second spoon of sugar in your coffee.
Take for example my father, who at age 52, chose to overcome the craving he felt for learning at that late stage in life by taking an Urdu class. Learning a new language gave him the ability to appreciate new literature as well, opening up a whole new world of ideas and learning. He made time for his daily class by rearranging his schedule only slightly, and it was well worth the effort!
Why do we give up on learning?
Although learning is a building block of human life, we are introduced to it in our schools and colleges in a regimented and controlled form. The use of discipline and controlled environments does not foster an enthusiasm for learning. One cannot crave growth when it is introduced in a limiting manner. Moreover, education is not seen as an end in itself. It is considered a stepping stone towards a profession. If we cannot use what we have learnt to choose and support a career, then it is seen as wasteful, rather than as an asset. Thus, when we leave institutionalised education, we do not feel the urge to keep learning beyond what can help us professionally.
Far too often, I have seen young (and older) people give up on learning more, and learning better. The lack of enthusiasm gives way to a lack of desire to discover new avenues of education. Further, when it comes to exploring possibilities which involve expressing themselves publicly, people tend to fear becoming another underwhelming brick in the wall.
Ashwini Mavinkurve, a senior manager in corporate sustainability at a leading automotive company in India, is a lifelong dancer who started Bharatanatyam training at age 6.
Ashwini recently decided to start posting her dance videos on social media because she wanted to explore the possibilities of the platform, and overcome her fear of being ‘mediocre’.
She says, “…The starting point [is] to push beyond that nagging feeling that holds you back. I wanted to stop being wishful and start channelling my energy better. So I decided to shed my inhibitions and start putting up my dance videos!”
Even workplaces ought to encourage the development of hobbies and lifelong learning. By investing in personal, as well as professional upskilling, companies can motivate employees to venture beyond their singular job profiles. An employee who is not limited by a one-track mind can open up the professional space in new and exciting ways!
What are the benefits of lifelong learning?
So what are the returns of investing in lifelong learning? It’s simple:
- It stops you from stagnating. As we grow older, we need to constantly upgrade our outlook towards ideas and stories, and use them to critically analyse and shift our perspectives.
- It helps you expand and recontextualise your skill set. Your abilities need to be flexible and dynamic in order to keep pace with the world. A close friend on my post-graduate creative writing program decided to take up theatre classes to inform his fictional writing, especially with regard to character development. This not only got him better grades, but he also became a better writer because of it.
- It develops your personality. Lifelong learning can impact who you are, and how you express yourself—both privately and publicly. Giving yourself the advantage of nuance is giving yourself an edge over the masses.
It gives you the ability to think critically, express responsibly, and make your work more textured and refined.
And most importantly, do not believe (not even for a second) that you need to fill every empty waking moment of your life. Keeping some time aside for frivolity is not frivolous. It is just as important to take time off to unwind and relax as it is to engage with new ideas and knowledge. The ideal balance is found when the two operate in synergy with one another, giving you the chance to live your life and time in a well-rounded manner.
Your growth is a product of offering yourself the best—whether it is opportunities to learn, or the ability to chill. Go forth, learn, and grow!