The Lifelong Learning Trap

Raise your hand if you think that there has to be an instructor, a classroom, and a fee for lifelong learning to happen for you. Have you fallen into the trap of thinking that real learning (other than on-the-job training) can only occur in an academic environment? Or worse yet, that valuable and credible learning can only happen for those with or pursuing a college degree?

Like anything else, I need to know my audience. So imagine what your goal is, with regard to lifelong learning. I’ve heard a couple over the years, so I refer to them here. If you have one I’ve missed, feel free to let me know and I’ll be sure to provide an update.

I just want the piece of paper
This one is my personal favorite. I actually had a grad student tell me this when I was an Instructor for the University of Maryland. I’ll tell you what I told her. “I can’t help you with that.” Of course, I gave her the same tests as everyone else and she received her grade like everyone else. What I meant was, nothing I can do as the teacher will help improve her condition. What’s worse, that piece of paper will just get her into jobs that she’s really not qualified for. Even worse still? She’ll be over-qualified (with the degree) for jobs that she is better suited for. How is she doing now? I hadn’t even thought about it until I wrote this.

I want to improve my (current or future) job skills
Here’s a goal I can get behind. There are (at least) three good answers here:
1. Go to school for a related degree. Just because everyone thinks of this one doesn’t mean it’s not worth mentioning. Note: with a recession still happening, you can find some good deals out there on tuition.
2. Take specific skill-related courses. These can be from a college, or an organization that provides training and perhaps even certifications. Some companies will even pay for this.
3. Read books written by experts in your industry. This option has a couple of great selling point. Low cost, and it can help you be better prepared for options 1 or 2. If you haven’t been to school in a while (more than 5 years), consider reading a book every month, and within 6 months cut that time down to 2-3 weeks per book. Don’t count the total, just pick up and start the next one. Shave off an hour and a half of TV per week to make your goal a reality.
4. Bonus idea – join Toastmasters. Not only will you improve your communication and leadership skills, you’ll be better prepared for interviews and short-notice meetings. Not to mention that in addition to the certificates you earn for your progress, the Toastmasters organization will happily send your boss a letter highlighting your achievement for every award earned. I personally attribute my success in my last two job interviews to what I learned as a Toastmaster.

I want to start my own business
This is one of the tougher ones, and I want to be clear that you should definitely seek professional assistance (especially tax and legal advice) early in the process.
1. Know your Audience
– Decide how you’re going to succeed and in what area of expertise 
2. Read…alot!
– Specifics about your area of expertise (for professional speaking, I’ve read Money Talks by Alan Weiss, World Class Speaking by Craig Valentine and Mitch Meyerson and many other books)
Guerrilla Marketing, Guerrilla Marketing on the Front Lines, and Guerrilla Publicity – great tactics for low/no cost marketing for the small business
Nolo series of books – great info on business plans, trademarks, and a slew of other useful info. I’ve read and recommend Working for Yourself and The Small Business Start-Up Kit
– Million Dollar Consulting
Alan Weiss
– Trade or specific genre magazines – this is another long topic, so I may make it a separate post in the near future
3. Create a business plan
www.score.org – Score is a nonprofit association dedicated to educating entrepreneurs and the formation, growth and success of small business nationwide. They provide a variety of free and low cost support to entrepreneurs.
4. Network
– Where do I begin? Professional organizations, public service organizations, local Chamber of Commerce, … this list may not have an ending. If you read 10% of what I recommended, you should have at least a dozen good options for networking opportunities.
5. Start with step 1 again every few months.
– If it was easy, everyone would do it

As you may have guessed, I consider reading one of the most valuable skills my parents ever taught me. We don’t live in a world where having read tons of books will replace a college degree on a resume, but the knowledge you gain from the time spent will enhance your credibility, and make whatever skills and credentials you have stand out in the interview or on the day-to-day job.

Lifelong learning doesn’t mean perpetual servitude. What it can mean is simply changing priorities just a little to see things change for the better in your life. But don’t take my word for it, pick up a book and see what happens…

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