A simple glance of what lifelong learning really means
February 4, 2018
It’s your first day of school. Everything is novel to you. It’s fearful and uncomfortable, but at the same time, you’re curious. You observe, you explore, you experience, you experiment, and you learn.
We all went through this process. But at a certain point, we stop learning. In general, the majority stop learning once they get out of school. “We’ve grown up. We’re not a student anymore. It’s time to do something big,” the stories—or to put it better, excuses—people create to mark the end of their journey of learning.
But there is a small group of people—like you—who believe in continuous improvement. It means learning never ends. Not after school, not when you get a job or promotion, not when you become a parent or grandparent, not when you’re old. The only time you stop learning is when you’re lying on your deathbed.
When you stop learning, you stop living.
I’m not trying to convince anyone to hop on the train of never-ending improvement. Instead, I’m writing this with three objectives in mind:
With the recent success of Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk became known as one of the most successful and innovative entrepreneurs of our time. To accomplish that much across four different industries—software, transportation, energy, and aerospace—isn’t an easy feat, if not impossible. And Elon Musk has done these in his 40s.
We can’t argue that Elon’s intelligence, audacity, and resilience have played a critical role in his success. Without intelligence, one couldn’t build and lead organizations of this size single-handedly. Without audacity, one couldn’t confront the big industries that haven’t been changing for decades. Without resilience, one couldn’t withstand the challenges along this tough journey.
However, intelligence, audacity, and resilience are not uncommon in the realm of entrepreneurship. Many great entrepreneurs possess these traits, but not all of them accomplish these enormous feats.
Part of the reason is that not every entrepreneur wants to achieve what Elon Musk has. But beyond that, there’s something special and unique about Elon that made him stand out: his willingness and ability to learn.
According to his brother, Kimbal Musk, Elon read two books a day when he was 16, and these books spanned across multiple topics from fiction, science, philosophy, business, engineering, and more. I read two books in a month (you can check out my reading notes here), but to Musk’s 60 books, the amount of knowledge and wisdom acquired are just incomparable.
The key doesn’t only lay in how much information Elon consumed, it’s also how he absorbed the information and how he implemented these insights afterward. In fact, reading is not learning. Learning requires execution and feedback. Learning is a process.
Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great was king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon after succeeding his father, Philip II, to the throne in his twenties. During his ruling years, he created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from Greece to northwestern India.
He was undefeated and commonly considered as the most successful military commander in history. However, the Macedonian kingdom quickly fell apart in less than a decade after his sudden death. From the onset, we are inspired by how great a conqueror Alexander the Great was without digging deeper into how and why the entire Macedonian kingdom ended up in pieces.
When Alexander set out for Asia, he appointed his general, Antipater, to be the ruler of Macedon and never set foot on the land again. He was filled with the desire to conquer new lands without spending the time to build a foundation for his empire and plan for an heir. Alexander died suddenly at the age of 32 and even on his deathbed, when asked who his empire should be left to, he replied “to the strongest” which sadly wasn’t the case.
Alexander was indeed a great learner. He became a student of Aristotle at the age of 13. And he didn’t stop learning even when he became king. He studied and adopted the culture of the new lands he conquered and learned from many philosophers he encountered in his campaigns.
But at a certain point, Alexander stop learning and adapting. He didn’t transition from an experienced general to a great king. He was great at leading battles but never good at delegating responsibility to rule a kingdom. Yes, his empire grew larger every day, but that is also the very curse that divided the entire kingdom when Alexander died.
It’s common for us to believe that we don’t need to learn anymore. But the moment we have these thoughts is exactly the time when we need to learn and improve the most.
Learning comes in many forms. It’s common for people to refer to reading books, watching tutorials, and attending seminars as a form of learning. Indeed, these are part of the learning process. However, they are not complete. The sad truth is, many schools and organizations still emphasize these passive learning methods over everything else today.
To learn effectively, we need to cover all three primary forms of learning:
These three forms of learning are what makes the learning process complete. By combining observation, execution, and reflection, we get to consume knowledge, understand concepts, and utilized insights on a much broader scale.
The combination of the three forms of learning also brings us to the concept of continuous improvement. Instead of just information consumption without further action and interpretation, we now act upon them and review the results we get from them. By repeating the process over and over again, we get a feedback loop that helps just to learn and improve continuously.
One of the most popular concepts is known as Kaizen, spread from the Japanese culture. In translation, Kaizen means “change for the better.” Many see this as a productivity strategy, but in my personal opinion, it’s more of a philosophy whereby we continuously refine our approach and systems so we can improve.
Learning is a process, not a race.
The Kaizen philosophy is then distilled to a process where organizations implement to improve their management and operations.
In Kaizen, we’re not aiming to be perfect. In fact, people to practice the philosophy of Kaizen don’t believe in the idea of perfect. Making changes is hard, making enormous changes with the goal of achieving the delusional state of perfect only makes it harder. A better approach wouldn’t be focusing on making small improvements and gaining small wins—then, repeat the process.
If Kaizen teaches you only a lesson, it would be this: Learning is a process, not a race.
Learning in every subject matter comes in three different stages. I first heard about this from Ido Portal in an interview hosted by London Real.
The three stages of learning are different from the continuous improvement model. Instead of a method to get better every day, these are the stages we go through every time we implement the model in a new, unfamiliar field.
It’s important to understand these three stages because they answer a few burning questions we all have when comes to learning and mastering a new thing, skills, or knowledge.
We can’t get away from the question “how do I get good?” when we talk about learning. We all want to do better, and we all want to reach a stage where we master what we do.
The only way to get good at anything is first to get bad, and get bad again, then get better (but still pretty bad), and better again. Then finally, you get good.Mastery starts from the willingness to suck at first.
This may not be the answer you want to hear. But this is the truth. Don’t try to find another way around because there is no other way around. Every expert was once a beginner.
It's difficult to get started, not because circumstances are hard and people are judging us. Often, no one actually cares about what you do and how well you do. It's our ego that kills our drive to start learning and doing. Our ego wants us to think that we should be good—before we even try.
Slowly, you will find that things become easier and more comfortable as you learn and practice. Yes, you pick up new skills as you go, but what really makes a difference is that you shut your ego up every time you put in the time to be bad.
In 1979, Bill Walsh was hired as the head coach and general manager of the San Francisco 49ers. And in just three short years, Walsh turned the 49ers from being the worst team in football to a Super Bowl victory.
The year before he arrived, the long-suffering 49ers went 2-14. The team was demoralized, broken, filled with negativity, and operated with a culture of losing. In Walsh’s first season, they lost another fourteen games. Yet, two years later, the 49ers won the Super Bowl championship, and Walsh became the “genius" coach.
The question is, how did it happen?To transform the 49ers, Bill Walsh wasn’t focused on winning. Instead, he got the entire organization to buy into what he called the “Standard of Performance.” In other words, it means what should be done, when, and how. Instead of aiming to win the championship, Walsh’s only mission was to instill these standards at the most fundamental level throughout the entire organization.
In his mind, if the players could take care of the essential details, the score would take care of itself. And indeed, that’s the truth.
When you begin to learn something new, it’s easy to get confused about where to start. Then along the journey of learning, it’s common to think that we need some shiny objects to do better when they are simply distractions. In both cases, the best solution is to focus on the fundamentals.
Many top achievers attained their success by ruthlessly focusing on the fundamentals—even if it bored them to hell—and allowing the marginal improvement—even if it’s only 1%—to propel them to success. While on the other hand, most of us can’t even sit down to finish a single book.
There's no secret to getting great. All you need is to focus on the fundamentals and keep putting in the work.
Practice. Repeat. There’s no shortcut.
Now you’re great—better than just good. You explored, and you perfected your skills. You learned from your experience, and you slowly mastered what you did. Then you stopped learning and started to stagnate.
We need continuous practice to stay at the level of mastery. However, we don’t really get better anymore simply because there is very little room for improvement. We repeat what we’ve mastered every day to maintain our level of competency.
And then it’s time to move on. At a certain point, you need to be willing to give up what you’re great at, so you can start learning and practicing what you’re bad at. It’s uncomfortable to move away from the things you do best and step into stuff you have zero clues about. It’s painful, but it’s the sacrifice you need to make in order to grow.
The truth is, lifelong learning and continuous improvement don’t just equal to mastery. Instead, it’s about the act of learning, improving, and refining itself. You don’t stop when you master one thing. You move forward. You explore new fields. You don’t stop learning.
No. Not reading, not getting a teacher or buying a ton of courses.
Instead, start reviewing your beliefs and reflecting on your behavior. Consuming more information doesn’t mean learning when you don’t know who and where you are, and what you truly want in life.
To give you a better direction, here are a few best ways I think everyone could start learning once they get clear about themselves and where they want to go:
I get it. It’s scary and uncomfortable. It’s like you have endless to-dos when you think about continuous improvement. But it’s learning that makes us human. A monkey—and most animals—learn just enough to survive. We too are animals. But we’re slightly more than that because of our ability to learn.
The good thing is that you have all the time you need to learn just about anything you want. With the abundance of information and the ease of accessing it, learning becomes so much more effortless today.
You can think of the entire process as a paradox because at the end of the day, we don’t carry anything away with us. But that is the very thing that makes the process meaningful—and by learning, we get to leave something behind when we left.
The previous section was supposed to be the end. But now, you may be wondering: “Great! I’m with you for continuous improvement. But I want my spouse, kids, team members, [insert anyone else here] to practice this too. How can I convince them?”
The quick answer is that you can’t convince anyone. I can’t change your beliefs or behavior (who am I to do so?) unless you’re motivated to change. So, you can’t change people around you to believe in and practice just because you think it’s good for them.
But you can influence them, and make it easy for them. There are three things you could do:
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