How to Keep Learning at Work

Ed Burdette
Oct 1, 2019 · 8 min read
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‘Be a lifelong learner.’

I met someone at a work conference who said this to me once. He said it earnestly, and I could see that he was following his own advice.

But that doesn’t mean choosing to keep learning is easy. It takes a strong motivation.

When it comes to learning beyond school, generally there seems to be two kinds of motives we might have for doing it.

One is to look around at work and see that change is happening. It’s to notice that the tools and approaches we work with are always changing, and that anyone who doesn’t change with them will eventually be left behind.

We could call this the ‘fear motive,’ and it’s one of the most powerful in the world. From workers at their jobs to high school athletes to children in school, many of us do what we do because we’re afraid.

But another reason we have to keep learning is different. It has to do with seeing something we want and going after it.

Maybe we know someone at work who has followed the path of continued learning, and we see what good things it creates. Or perhaps we’re truly excited at the prospect of working more effectively by putting new technologies to work. Or maybe we just enjoy learning for learning’s sake.

In each of these cases, we’re drawn toward continued learning because of some good we see in it.

Once the reason for learning — the ‘why’ — is figured out, then we move on to consider how we’ll pull it off. On a practical level, what can we do to make learning more likely?

Here are five practical steps:

Be A Beginner

When we’re young, we are constantly in a state of not knowing and needing to be taught.

We don’t know how to eat. We don’t know how to sit up. We don’t know how to walk. We don’t know how to buckle our seatbelt.

We are inexperienced, and as a result we are always needing help and needing to learn.

As life progresses, we learn how to get through the day and take care of ourselves. Our orientation toward learning can change.

Whereas before we had no choice but to depend on a teacher for help, now we can get by on our own. We don’t need to be helpless and dependent, and it feels good not to!

But no matter how much we learn, there will always be more ways we can grow and develop. There will always be more that we don’t know than what we do.

And so, we face a choice. One option is to stick with what we know, what we’ve done, and how we’ve done it. It means finding something that works and then keep doing it over and over.

Another option is to wade out beyond the familiar, into places where we’re less sure of ourselves, where we don’t know, and where we might fail.

When we choose the second option as adults, we’re reminded how hard it is to learn something new, and how uncomfortable it is.

A few years back I was struggling to learn an unfamiliar computer program. I kept running into walls, and had to ask a much younger, just-here-for-the-summer student intern for help. Over and over. It was frustrating and humbling.

Learning as adults inverts the normal order of things. It puts us ‘below’ people we are used to thinking of ourselves as being ‘above.’ There’s a cost to continued learning in life.

We feel this cost when we go back to school, and find out we’re the oldest person in our class by more than a decade.

We experience it when we work on a project using a skill we’re learning, and have to do it for free because we’re not good enough to get paid for it yet.

We know this cost when we have to adjust to an unfamiliar culture so that we’re in a position to learn what we really want to.

Becoming a beginner again is not easy. We want to be done with it.

But only beginners know that they don’t know, and that they need help, and do what’s necessary to get it. Only beginners can reset and undo to the extent needed to pick up a new way of doing things.

And so, beginners we will be!

Hang Out with Learners

One day I saw my friend Mike wearing a Seattle Mariners baseball cap. This was strange, because he doesn’t have any ties to the team or the area.

But he explained that the cap was part of an assignment he was doing in a training program at a school in Seattle.

Now, Mike is someone who has been in school for years, in all kinds of programs. If anyone would be done with learning, it seems like it’d be him.

But here he is, traveling across the country so he can learn and grow even more. He’s not just open to being a learner, he’s hungry for it and completely unembarrassed. Once Mike invited a counselor friend to live with his family and bring up any issues she saw. He would get phone calls in the middle of the day telling him to come home now so an issue that needed attention could be addressed.

Mike is someone who is committed to learning. He’s someone who encourages me to keep learning too.

When we’re kids, peer pressure (which gets a bad rap) actually helps us learn: our peers are in school, so we are too.

As adults, it mostly works the other way. If we enter a training program and take time to learn, we’re probably the exception.

This makes learning as adults even harder, but not if we put ourselves around people who are committed to growing personally. When we’re around people like that, doing things like admitting our weak spots or talking about how we’d like to develop is ok — in fact, it’s desired.

If the strangeness of learning new things is too much, find some other folks who are already doing it and spend time with them. Finding a community like that can make all the difference in our own learning.

Recognize Your Limits

There’s a story of a man seeking wisdom, who travels to Tibet to learn from a famous monk. When he finally arrives and tells the monk about his life and what he wants, the monk begins pouring him some tea.

But instead of filling the cup and then stopping, the monk keeps pouring hot water into the overflowing cup. Eventually, the man tells him ‘Stop! The cup is already full!’

The monk replies that the cup is like the man’s life. It’s already full, and yet the man wants to keep adding more. If he really wants to put something new into his life, the monk says, he’ll first need to empty space out for it.

This sentiment strikes at the heart of the norm of busyness. If we want to add to our life, first we’ll need to subtract.

In agrarian societies, the metaphor of pruning has been useful in explaining this. When a plant is pruned, it’s purposefully cut back, sometimes drastically. Rather than destroying the plant though, this actually makes its fruit better in the long run.

If we want to learn, that means we are looking to see some ‘new fruit’ growing in our life. To give that the best chance of happening, some pruning will probably be needed.

In preparing for learning, what can you prune away?

See What Becomes of Learners

It’s clear that there are costs to learning as an adult. It takes time, attention, humility, tenacity, and often money to grow the ways we want to.

One way to counterbalance all this challenge is to look at people who have gone before us and been committed to developing throughout their life. Where did they end up?

So much of continued learning is about hope. We hope for something new in our life: a new position, job, career, appreciation, or relationship.

But can it happen? Is our hope misplaced, or is change to become a truer version of ourselves possible?

Looking at those who have committed themselves to the painful path of growth gives us an answer. We can see the people they’ve become, and ask about the people they’ve been before.

Just think about the enormous difference the choice to keep developing can make. It can turn years where we might otherwise try to ride on capacities we already have into transforming times. Not to understate the challenge of change, but seeing the results of these hard-won battles in the lives of real people can be pretty amazing. They weren’t just born that way — they grew into it!

Learning People

When I was in high school, all the students were required to study a foreign language. I picked German. Not only did this give me an appreciation for Lederhosen and gigantic pretzels, but it also showed a different way of understanding the world.

For example: in German, there are two ways of saying that we ‘know’ something — two completely different words.

One of them means to ‘know’ like we know a fact. In that sense, we know that there are fifty states in the U.S.

But the other word means to ‘know’ like we know a person. We would use this word if we said ‘I know my friend.’

Two different kinds of knowing — so different that they use separate words!

German isn’t the only language that draws this distinction, and it points to a reality that we can easily forget: Knowledge of people in relationship is not like knowledge of facts and figures.

As we choose to learn in our work, it’s possible to over-focus on knowing facts at the expense of personal knowledge.

And yet, here’s a question: who or what is our work made to benefit? It’s people. People are the beneficiaries of our work.

Teachers work for students, doctors work for patients, plumbers work for residents, and the list goes on.

No matter the technology, or program, or approach we use, the point of our work is helping people in some way. Everyone’s work is like this.

In an increasingly technical age, it’s possible to miss the people and focus on the tools we use. But to miss the people is to miss the point!

Our learning should include understanding, working with, and prioritizing people. It’s a way to grow into valuing who our work is with and for.

Learning beyond our years of formal schooling is not the norm. To do it involves swimming against the current, and costs us in other ways too.

Yet the benefits available can be huge; enough even to outweigh all the costs.

Which of these five approaches would be most helpful to keep your learning moving forward?

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