How to Become a Lifelong Learner
When I say “education”, what does it make you think of?
Kids? Classrooms? Teachers? Examinations?
It’s strange when you think about how we approach education in the Western world. You’re expected to spend much of your childhood in the classroom. Here you’re taught a whole range of subjects – some of which you may have little to no personal interest in.
After a decade or so of study you sit major exams. You then either enter the workforce, or go on to university to focus on a degree of your own choosing, which you may or may not actually enjoy. Once your formal education is over – that’s it. You’re expected to go out, get a job and work the nine to five until you retire!
That’s not at all how I understand education
My Story of Lifelong Education
Despite my qualifications as an engineer, I always envisioned a future where I would take strides to further my education. At twenty-one years old and living in Spain, my plan was to eventually go back to Ireland and complete a Masters degree. This was completely upended when I instead decided to make it my mission to become fluent in Spanish. I developed a love of learning alongside my passion for languages and have been challenging myself ever since. I’m now fluent in seven languages, and can hold conversations in many more.
The question I pose to you is – why should your education end somewhere between your late teens and early twenties? There is a lot to be said for lifelong learning and the personal development it brings along with it.
Why Should We Continue Our Education As Adults?
Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. – Whole Earth Catalogue/Steve Jobs
As a child, your education is mandated by the curriculum set by the schooling system of your country. You study Shakespeare’s plays, learn about the history of a particular world event and feel a sense of achievement when you finally learn how to calculate the value of ‘x’ in maths class! Yet, a lot of what you learn in your youth is hardly of any use to you as an adult. It’s easy enough to finish your formal education with a full understanding of Pythagoras’ Theorem, yet find yourself at a complete loss when it comes to filing your tax return!
The beauty of learning as an adult, is that it is largely self-directed. You study because you are passionate about a subject. No one is forcing you to learn – it’s a question of choice.
There is absolutely no reason why you should finish your formal education and call it a day. As long as you keep learning, you’ll continue to question the world and your place in it. It will make you a more observant and sharper human being as a result.
How to Get Back into the Study Headspace
It can be difficult to get your mind back into study mode when you have been out of a classroom for months, or even years. But the beauty of adult education is that there are so many choices available to you. You can go to university, do a degree and follow a strict curriculum, or you can sign up for an online course and complete it at your own pace. You can even take my approach of picking up a few books, watching videos on YouTube, and teaching yourself. There are many options out there that cater for any and every working schedule.
The key is finding a form of study that ties into your life and works for you.
Let’s take a closer look at the methods we can use to ignite our desire to learn, over the course of our adult lives.
Step 1: Find Your Passion
First things first – determine what it is you want to study and why you want to do it. Maybe you learned the piano at a child, quit as a teenager and regret the decision. One thing you should never do is believe you are too old to start again.
This kind of dangerous thinking is often applied to languages. Many people believe that because they never achieved fluency in their youth, they’ve missed the boat completely. This is not true in the slightest, and I like to think I’m a living, breathing testament to that fact.
Until the age of 21 I could only speak English. Yet I’ve continued expanding on my language skills into my thirties. If I can do it, there’s no reason why you can’t either.
So, find something that you are passionate about and it won’t be a question of wanting to learn, just when and how. It can be anything – from a practical skill like speaking Italian or becoming a master in cooking French cuisine, to an area of interest such as the Ancient Egyptians or Icelandic culture.
Sit down and ask yourself – “what am I interested in, and why?” Once you’ve identified what it is you wish to learn, you can take the next steps to implement your study into your schedule.
Step 2: Make Your Time Work for You
One of the main excuses I hear from would be language learners, is that they struggle to find the time to fit learning into their already established routine. I understand that it’s tough to fit in anything alongside full time work and a family – but if you truly want to learn, you’re going to find a way to make it work for you.
Examine your daily schedule with a critical eye and take any available opportunity to further your education. Don’t spend that half hour before bed vegging out mindlessly on Netflix. Put your brain to use! Practise that new song on your guitar or get started on the lemon meringue pie you wanted to try to make for dessert. Leave your show on in the background if you have to! Just get going. You’ll thank yourself for it later.
It can be difficult to flip back into study mode as an adult. You need to push yourself at first, to make learning a habit again. As you do this, you’ll subconsciously be building upon the skills needed to become a lifelong learner.
Step 3: Set Yourself Goals and Celebrate Small Successes
“Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.” – Greg Anderson
One of the methods I use to motivate myself to learn languages is to set objectives, or what I call mini missions.
I’ll give myself a specific time frame in which to achieve a given goal in a language (such as fluency) and establish small milestones along the way. These can include avoiding speaking English for an entire week or trying to speak Polish with a native after an hour’s worth of study! These mini-missions can be challenging – but they certainly keep me on track and motivate me to achieve my end goal.
Rather than getting lost by looking at the bigger picture, set your sights on these objectives. Give yourself a hearty slap on the back each time you manage to tick one of your mini-missions off your list! You’re getting closer and closer to achieving your goal and learning so much along the way.
The Do’s and Don’t’s of Adult Education
Do: Study for the Right Reasons
We are extrinsically motivated when driven by external rewards, such as money or praise. An example of this would be if someone pursued the goal of becoming a polyglot for bragging rights. This is a terrible reason to invest your valuable time into a project and I really can’t see how this method of motivation could keep someone continually inspired for life.
On the other hand, you are intrinsically motivated when you are truly interested in learning about a subject or skill, simply because you derive great pleasure from it. With languages I go for quality over quantity, which is why I actually spend most of my time improving my current languages, rather than learning new ones. I know this particular type of motivation will continue to encourage me with any form of education that I undertake in the future.
What is it about this particular subject of study that interests you? Evaluate your motivation – if you are approaching your education for the right reasons, over time it won’t even feel like work. You’ll rediscover the joy in learning and should have no problem with applying this method of study to any skills you wish to pursue throughout the course of your life.
Don’t: Use Money as an Excuse
Formal education can be very expensive, depending on where you live. I know my American readers are rolling their eyes and saying: “Good one Benny. Like I’d want to get myself further into debt.”
All I have to say about that is… thank goodness for the Internet!
I have outlined many free language resources on Fluent in 3 Months (Fi3M), but it doesn’t end there. Pretty much anything you’d want to learn is available at no cost on the internet, if you look in the right place.
Want to learn how to code? Codecademy offer lessons online covering both the basics and program specific courses. Another resource worth considering is Coursera. This website provides free online programs from Universities worldwide, in just about every subject you could imagine – from business studies, to astronomy and even highly specialised courses such as “Magic in the Middle Ages”.
Alternatively, you could consider paying a monthly subscription that gives you access to a whole range of courses online. The Skillshare site offers classes on basic photography and video editing, as well as the more obscure options of book-binding and knitting. A monthly fee of $10 USD provides you with access to any and as many courses of your choosing, or you can get your first month of premium access free by signing up here
As you can see, the option of online classes means you don’t need to spend mega bucks on adult education. There are many choices out there that allow you to go at your own pace, without creating too much (if any!) of a dent in your bank account.
Don’t: Focus on Too Many Things At Once
There is one danger with self-directed study. As there are so many options available, it’s quite easy to over-enthusiastically take on more than you can manage!
I attribute my success with language learning to focus. I never take on more than one project at a time. It is only when I reach a level I am satisfied with, that I choose to move onto my next venture.
We are lucky to live in an age, where we have so many opportunities available to us. Yet with this comes a paradox – that of choice. In a nutshell, the plethora of options that we have in life can be a little too much for us humans to process.
It is quite easy to become overwhelmed with all the choices out there, put off what you wish to achieve and waste time resting on your laurels until “the perfect opportunity” comes along. I hate to be the bearer of bad news – but there is no perfect opportunity. Where language is concerned, there’s zero point waiting to find the most ideal online course, or the “best” time to start pursuing your goals. You’ve got to make a commitment, jump in with two feet and give it your all.
“There is no denying that choice improves the quality of our lives. It enables us to control our destinies and to come close to getting exactly what we want out of any situation.” Barry Schwartz – The Paradox of Choice*
The key to becoming a lifelong learner is to pick a skill you wish to excel in and stick with it. Dedicate yourself to achieving your goals and along the way you will find the joy in learning.
Remember: It’s Never Too Late to Start Learning!
It’s very easy to tell yourself that you’re too old, too busy or can’t afford to study. It’s equally as easy to get lost in these excuses.
The thing is – there is no “best time” to start doing the things you want to do. I can tell you from experience, that the best time to start is now.
As my fellow countryman W.B. Yeats put so succinctly:
“Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.”
You only get one life.
It’s up to you to make it exceptional.