Take a moment to consider how much you’ve learned this year. How your conceptions of hygiene, social etiquette, workplace interaction, daily commute and holidays have changed. Maybe your own job has been transformed — as the world order was turned upside down, it might have been declared unnecessary or perceived as essential. Either way, what this pandemic showed us, as if we needed any more evidence, is that our ability to learn (and, if necessary, unlearn what we took for certain) is what gets us through life’s biggest challenges.
The old premise “I’ll spend X years studying and then…” (fill with unrealistic expectations as you will) no longer makes sense in this ever-changing, unpredictable and highly ambiguous reality of ours. Which is why lifelong learning might well be one of the few future-proof skills.
“We think too much of education as having a beginning and an end. We need to think about learning more iteratively and in milestones.” — John Leutner*
This is obviously not a new idea; Leonardo da Vinci was an insatiable learner, as probably were most of those who left a permanent mark in History. But as our relationship with age(ing) has become more complicated, the idea that a person can keep learning and performing to a high level past her fifties, forties and (truth be told) even her thirties has been repeatedly put into question.
Which is why role-models, not only for late peaking, but for a general attitude of continuous learning through life’s many seasons, are important. Like Pat Brown. Or Julia Child.
Julia Child was a beloved cook, author and TV host, responsible for introducing french cuisine into the american household. She didn’t start out as a chef, though. Actually it wasn’t until she turned 37 that she enrolled in the famous cooking school L’École du Cordon Bleu, out of mere curiosity. She took it seriously enough that within less than three years she started up her own cooking school, “L’École des Gourmettes”. It was 1952, and in 1961 “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” came out and remained the bestselling cookbook for five years. TV came next and the rest is history.
This could be just another tale of someone who found her true professional calling later in life and had the stamina and resources to still turn it into a fruitful career. That can be partly true, but the thing is, she didn’t need a career. In fact she had one, working for the government, and she quit it after she got married (and before taking her first cooking classes). Also, she could have stopped after becoming a chef. Or a teacher. Or a writer. The fact that she didn’t, that she relentlessly kept on studying, searching, practising, observing, tasting, and evolving her skills makes me see her as more of a lifelong learner.
“Even if we were never able to publish our book, I had discovered my raison d’être in life, and would continue my self-training and teaching.” — Julia Child**
Ever since she set foot in France, she was passionate about learning everything there was to know about the culture, the rituals, the places, the people. She would visit markets and talk to sellers to find out more about the ingredients, the tools and the ways of cooking.
As she became more proficient, she developed something of a scientific obsession: she wanted to understand the processes behind the recipes, test them out incessantly and make sure they were infallible. At some point she conducted a series of continual experiments on risotto to figure out the right water-to-rice ratio. The fact that she was making French cooking accessible to the average American cook never left her mind and guided her work:
“In order to really understand chocolate, I invited a Nestlé chemist to 103 Irving Street, and asked him all about the chemical composition of American chocolate, the best way for a home cook to melt it, and so on.” — Julia Child**
She also evidenced a constant openness to new possibilities, which allowed her career to expand beyond her wildest dreams. When the idea of hosting a TV show first came up, she didn’t even own a television set, but that didn’t stop her. To uncertainty she responded with preparation. Her husband helped her build a working station similar to the one she would be using in the TV studio and she rehearsed each step over and over, taking notes of things to remember on air.
“(…) if your goal is to help people develop as creative thinkers and lifelong learners, (…) rather than offering extrinsic rewards, it’s better to draw upon people’s intrinsic motivation — that is, their desire to work on problems and projects that they find interesting and satisfying. — Mitchel Resnick***
As the world keeps changing at an unprecedented speed, competencies such as curiosity, problem solving, openness to new ideas, and the ability to take (calculated) risks might make a huge difference in the way people react and adapt to whatever comes next. Giving them a chance to discover and work on projects and ideas that fuel their imaginations and motivations might be a good starting point. Never (and certainly not in Julia Child’s time) were so many resources available anytime, anywhere for the curious learner. What would you like to learn?
*Xerox’s former Head of Global Training, cited in There is life after college, by Jeffrey Selingo
**My Life in France