Life Lesson: Be a Perpetual Learner
One of my favorite college courses was a poetry class taught by a published writer and 18-year-old in a 60-something-year-old body. One of our assignments was to write a two-line epitaph each in 10-syllable rhythm. What I would want others to know about me when I could no longer tell them. I penned:
Predominant intention in this urn
She always knew how much she had to learn
~ Barbara Hoye Poole, 1975
My professor pulled me aside after class the day after our submissions. “Yours is my favorite, Barb. If you can live this intentionally, you’ll achieve what so many do not. It is truly the key to a life full of wonder.” Equally flattered and inspired, I carry my self-prescribed epitaph around decades later.
I’ve tried to be a lifelong learner. Dance and cooking lessons to professional and community education. Confession: I’ve always struggled with fear of making mistakes, even for the sake of learning. And I’ve had more clients than I can count who were afraid to “goof up”.
GE’s former CEO, Jack Welch, said, “I’ve learned that mistakes can often be as good a teacher as success.”
The success stories I love are when people tread unknowns, fall down, freeze or thrash about. Then they get back up, push through, hit a goal, and the juices of confidence flow. Stuff happens. Employers love these stories. “Don’t just tell me you’re a quick learner. Show me how. Better yet, show me a time when it was hard, and you did it anyway. Make me care!”
Two clients’ stories:
1) Heather. Tuned in to mistake-related revelations. As a software developer and hopeful entrepreneur, she watched her former college classmate poised to start his first software development company. He wanted everything to be perfect. Realty check: it never is. He took so long to make the software flawless that Google launched a competing product first. And it was free. Oops.
Lesson learned: Launch your idea before someone beats you to the punch. Time is not your friend. Heather went on to do just that, and has a strong software product niche and profitable business.
2) Jon. Adopted the mindset of a trapeze artist. A financial planner and bright guy, Jon lacked confidence stemming from his stutter and ADHD. At one point, he was given a book about Winston Churchill. A life-changing moment. Churchill himself said, “Failure is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” Churchill knew this lesson firsthand. He had dropped out of school at age 12, suffered from depression, was a poor student, and had a speech impediment. He was also a gifted political writer, peacemaker and painter. He authored 12 books, served in Parliament and as Prime Minister—and painted.
Lesson learned: Jon became the trapeze artist, still experiencing failures (recession hits, divorce). He soared ahead. He served on boards, wrote a blog and moved up the corporate ladder. He reached heights he didn’t think possible.
Failures inevitably shape learning. Albert Einstein took 10 years to answer the question, “Is light a wave or a particle?” Michael Jordan missed 9,000 shots and lost 300 games in his career. The point? They became experts through their mistakes. Childhood brings important learning.
But life is a classroom. I’m trying to show up each day. Right now, I’m in a live-lab class of career professionals who discuss that the way people find, get and keep work is changing. So one of our key messages is to strive for learning, unlearning and relearning.
The average person will have career changes and multiple jobs before the age of 40. Today’s work world is characterized by change. The model of lifetime employment is long gone. This demands a passion for lifelong learning and skill updating.
Is that the key? Nothing’s forever. What do we take away from what we learn? How do we use it? How do we make it better? Do we know when it doesn’t work for us at all? I look at my well-worn scrap with my epitaph reminder. And try to figure out what I need to know next.
What’s holding you back? How might you swing forward in 2011. Please share your comments!