Lifelong learning is the new prescription for surviving the fourth industrial revolution. As hierarchies become networks, robots augment and replace humans, and governments and companies struggle to find ways to re-skill and up-skill their constituents, we are told the answer is to stay curious and keep learning. Except, we have not been taught how. Our institutes of higher education are designed as mere pressure chambers for the acquisition of knowledge. Besides, companies are designed to consume your skills and knowledge, not to create or renew them. That is up to you.
The combined effect of this on professionals is that they have a limited store of knowledge and keep running without stopping to renew themselves intellectually. While we run just to stay in place, we are in fact slowly moving backwards; we are becoming obsolete even as we do our best to keep up. This is a depressing race, headed straight for oblivion.
But it need not be. Let’s try a different approach. How can we remain relevant by becoming a lifelong learner and mastering the art of it?
First, rekindle curiosity. Curiosity is a natural and inexhaustible human resource. Start with making time to engage with yourself and your energies. In The Artists Way, Julia Cameron suggests two tools: “Morning pages", which is stream-of-consciousness writing, longhand, that will provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize, and synchronize the day at hand; and “artists date", making time for yourself, once a week, to do something “enchanting" on your own, something that nourishes you. I find both very useful in finding meaning and direction from within.
Second, use your workplace as the playground for your learning: Wanting to learn is not enough. Knowing how to is the key. As professionals, most of our learning is likely to happen in the workplace, and we have to understand and accept that. If you have stopped learning, move on. Most people get stuck in their comfort zone and, by the time they realize it, they become irrelevant, and it is too late. Knowing how to learn is important for the renewal and survival of companies.
Third, view your work as a series of performances. Ask yourself: “Which of my activities define my reputation at work?" Regardless of your profession, you will home in on a few specific activities. It could be delivering keynotes or board presentations, writing thought-leadership articles or writing beautiful code.
Performance could also be a team activity. Each activity is considered a unit of performance in the series.
Fourth, you need deliberate practice. It is not enough to repeat an action or a routine. Each repetition should be a cycle of deliberate practice, which has three interlocking parts: Intention, action and reflection.
Before starting a cycle, set your intention: Why you are engaging in it and what do you want to learn from it? Next, engage in intense focused action for a while: 90 minutes is good and three hours seems to be the limit. Follow this up with a brief period of reflection either on your own or with the support of others to tease out what works and what could be bettered. This sets up the next cycle.
Personally, I create a mental analogy for my performance. For example, I equate keynote presentations with TED Talks and board presentations with Shark Tank pitches.
Next, I yield to my desire for novelty. If I’ve already done a talk before, I will ask: “What can I change to keep it interesting for me?"
Remember, deliberate practice is the uncomfortable, methodical work of stretching your ability. If I take 15 minutes for the talk, I will try doing it in 10 without compromising quality. If I use slides, I will try doing without. This sets the intention for my practice. Setting your intention makes you intensely present during your next performance. You can no longer take the outcome for granted and you will feel less sure of yourself, but as you work your way back up, you will arrive at the next level of performance.
Mastery is an outcome of deliberate practice that has built up momentum.
Fifth, reflect and evolve. No reflection, no evolution. Reflection is the act of determining what to retain and what to reject for the next performance. It requires feedback, ideally from a coach or from a peer who excels in your activity and can give honest, precise feedback that elevates your performance. Most of us get no feedback, so we must rely on our own internal “truth meter".
Finally, we know that in any skill, it is possible to get to the basic level of competence in as little as 20 hours, excellence in 10,000 hours and mastery in 20,000.
So, kindle your curiosity, identify your key performances at work, engage in deliberate practice, and then take it to the next level. And, before you know it, you will find that you have mastered the art of lifelong learning.
V.R. Ferose is senior vice-president at SAP based in Silicon Valley