Book Preview: Section on “Being a Lifelong Learner”

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At one point during the writing of Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, I took a break from writing stories and analysis, and focused on writing down discrete things that I had learned related to professional achievement in a nonprofit setting and about personal well-being and self-care. Later I went back to writing more standard prose, but off and on I added to the lists. After a while, I thought I had exhausted every lesson, trick, or insight I’d learned. Then a few more came. In sum, there are 403 lessons across 14 categories. Yikes!

A few of those learnings appear at the end of the final chapters of the book. Others are the basis for stories told in the book, and appear in some form. Many didn’t make the final cut, but may be of interest to readers.

So, I am going to publish my favorite lessons in each of the 14 categories over the coming weeks. For anyone who sends me proof that they have bought the book (which will be on sale in about one month), I will send the entire list in any category they request. If anyone sends me proof that they have bought three or more books (say, one for themselves and two for friends who are involved in nonprofits in some way), I will send the complete list of 403 lessons by email.

As mentioned above, this list is about being a lifelong learner, which I find to be an important factor in growing as a professional and also in being a reasonably contented person. I chose to start with this because Cindy Shore responded to a request on my Facebook page to request a topic to start with. Thanks, Cindy!

This is one of my shortest lists, with only 14 lessons total. Below are my favorite six, prefaced by a few reflections on the importance I have come to attach to being a lifelong learner.

As I go through life, the thing that I have come to associate most with achievement, happiness, personal and professional growth, and ability to work well with others is curiosity.  While other traits such as wealth, physical attractiveness and raw intellect may be more celebrated, I have found that people who are continually trying to learn new things, develop skills, deepen their knowledge, and try new things are those who get the farthest in life and have the best time doing so.  

I first heard the term “lifelong learner” from David Lawrence, the Florida-based children’s advocate who previously was the publisher of the Miami Herald.  One day when a colleague of mine and I were meeting him in a diner for a cup of tea, he was sitting there reading a book.  He told us that he read one book per week, and had done so for decades.  I suppose I thought that at some point, people like him would know enough that they could stop learning and focus on writing, teaching, and pontificating.  What I realized was that once your curiosity diminishes, so does your ability to work well, teach, and relate effectively to others.  

Norm Tonina, a former colleague and a mentor, used this term in another way.  In highly charged personal conflicts, people tend to harden their positions, become self-righteous and indignant, make conclusions about other people’s motivations, and become fixated on a single acceptable resolution of the situation will be.  I have certainly fallen into that trap.  Norm said that a powerful way to navigate such situations is to remain curious.  Be open to new information, different interpretations of what is motivating others, and creative resolutions that haven’t yet occurred to you.  Like most people, I have found that advice hard to apply at times.  But when I have, it has often worked wonders.  

Unlike some traits, it is not something you are born with, but it can be developed.  Being a lifelong learner is something that you can develop, mainly through an orientation to life supported by a series of habits.  

  1. On a regular basis, put yourself and your immediate family in situations that are unfamiliar to you and around people who have significantly different experiences, values and beliefs than you do.

  2. Throughout your life, always engage in at least one thing that you are an amateur or beginner at.

  3. Be on the lookout for useful ideas, values and principles in religions, philosophies, spiritual practices, ideologies, and other belief systems that you do not subscribe to.  For example, even for those of us who like to have a glass of wine, many of the teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous are brilliant and worthy of study and practice.

  4. Surround yourself with, regularly expose yourself to, and support art that touches you and takes you to different, more reflective, playful and joyful places.

  5. As you go through life and learn things through trial and error and by developing habits that serve you and breaking ones that don’t, create your own list of lessons learned (as I have done as I worked on my book), add to it as you have new insights, and share it with people.

  6. Be open to the existence and appearance of the super-natural (especially if you don’t tend to believe in such things) and to other phenomena that do not neatly fit into your current belief systems.