Back in college I served one year as president of my fraternity. That was 33 years ago. It may come as a surprise to hear this, but that position was honestly one of the most educational leadership experiences of my life.
Once a month, my fellow undergraduate officers and I would meet with our alumni board of directors. I’ll never forget one of those meetings at our board chairman’s house across town.
After the meeting, the alumni board members cracked open beers and turned on Monday Night Football. I really wanted to stay there and watch the game, but I had to go back to campus and study for a test. I remember imagining how nice it would be to have graduated and not have to worry about studying or writing papers. I longed for the day when I would be set free from educational bondage.
That turned out to be a naïve dream. Learning is perpetual. Your need to explore, discover and research never ends. Oh, and I still have “homework” most nights.
I viewed the reality of lifelong learning from a different perspective in 2006, when I was serving as an adjunct faculty member, teaching business majors at a local university.
“I can’t wait for graduation,” a senior once said to me after class late in the spring semester.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“So I never have to study again,” she said.
Ah, the innocent gullibility of youth…
Not wanting to rain on her parade, I said nothing, allowing her to enjoy the excitement of her approaching graduation. It wasn’t the right time to tell her that her education was actually just beginning.
In order to succeed in a competitive marketplace, we have to keep learning. You must be a lifelong learner if you want to be a high-achiever or top producer. You have to keep learning if you want to stay a top producer.
Career-long learning is both formal and informal. Even if you’re no longer pursuing degrees, you could still find yourself in a classroom periodically just to keep up with the fast-moving profession economy in which you work. And don’t get me started on the challenges we face keeping up with rapidly evolving technology!
As a professional, much of your learning happens on your own. It’s your responsibility instead of the university’s job. You have to determine what you need to know and take the initiative to learn it.
Life is full of unexpected twists and turns. We never know what opportunity might come our way. By learning all you possibly can now, you set yourself up for unforeseen opportunities and increase the likelihood that you’ll respond appropriately to those opportunities.
If you’re an entrepreneur, lifelong learning allows you to continually hone your craft. You will become better at operationalizing new innovations. You will be a better manager, more innovative and more likely to be on the cutting edge. You will learn more effective ways to find new clients and generate new business.
Lifelong learning allows you to prepare for a polarized reality of today’s workplace. On one hand, you need to have a specialty – something that you do very well that few others can. On the other hand, you need to be a generalist – someone with a diversity of professional skills and experiences.
Regardless of your line of work, it is healthy to assume that all your competitors are vigorously trying to improve themselves. You need to continue educating yourself just to keep up, let alone to get ahead. Carve out time for your own self development.
Professional learning throughout your career is kind of like investing for your retirement. Just as you should set aside investment money before you pay bills and have fun, you need to set aside time “off the top” for learning. No matter how successful you already are or may someday become, you can always go further if you make a commitment to never stop learning.
Steven R. Covey taught us to “sharpen the saw,” meaning you take time out of your busy life for education, growth and renewal. Sharpening the saw is rarely urgent, so it’s easy to put off. When you have crises to solve and fires to put out, you tend to put saw sharpening on the back burner.
But it is important. Sharpening the saw is an extremely important but non-urgent activity. That means you need to schedule it. Reserve time for learning or life will just pass you by and you’ll never meet your potential. Don’t delay; put some learning time on your calendar now.