cause and effect

Partners Viewpoint Lifelong learning mindset


Lifelong Learning Mindset

I know many of you are taking some time off now so I thought I would reflect on the time we take away, and specifically, from what we are trying to get away.

We know education is important. Many of us are born with very little. We have little wealth, few career prospects, little family support and no fallback of any kind. All we do have is our health and access to a school. And we start that long slog. And it is hard.

But we relentlessly pursue education since it is the only reliable way to the middle and upper middle class. And for the best, a path to great success and wealth. Education is the one great equalizer in the world. With the right education and attitude, a kid from the most impoverished slum in the poorest city in the world can command the attention of the board of the most elite company in the greatest country in the world. It happens every day.

We, therefore, spend years studying to get into the right high school, university, MBA, PhD program etc. We do this because we know any education is valuable and the right education is life changing.

Yet, we act like being educated is an absolute measure with a clear end point. For many an MBA or PhD is that end point. Once we achieve it, we assume we no longer need an education. It’s done. The time to enjoy life and have some fun has arrived.

And that is what many of us take a vacation from. We take a vacation from education or the experiences that teach us things.

Even though we read in the papers every and books that lifelong learning mindset is important, that personal and professional development does not end with formal education, that is the way most of us act. We are programmed to act that way due to the media.

How many adverts have you seen on television, the internet or print that promotes lifelong learning? Most adverts are about escaping to some magical world away from the pressures of life. And even if we start our lives knowing we need lifelong learning attitude, we slowly become brainwashed by the ads, the behavior of our peers, and so on.

Nobody wants to be that person reading a tome on critical thinking at the beach. Yet, there is nothing wrong with that person. That person will likely be a CEO one day.

Adult life truly mirrors high school. In high school, we want to spend time having fun with the cool kids who are too cool to get an education. Yet, it’s the determined kids who reap the rewards. Just like in high school, grit and determination is a lead indicator for success in one’s early 20s and 30s. How one keeps educating themselves, a consistent lifelong learning mindset is a lead indicator for success in one’s 40s and 50s. We know this deep down to be true. Yet, somehow we are seduced by slick advertising to think otherwise.

We all know brilliant management consultants who were managed out. We all know brilliant bankers who lost their jobs. We all have incredibly hard-working parents, aunts and uncles who have been let go, passed over for promotion in favor of a candidate with much less experience, or seen their careers slide.

Many had the right degrees, the right number of years of experience, and the right connections. So what happened to them?

In some cases, it was just bad luck. But in most cases, people failed to equip themselves with the right skills. They lacked a lifelong learning mindset. It could be a lack of the right communication skills to convince an employer to take a bet on them. And in other cases it was the wrong technical skills.

Too often we view education as an event. And once we experience the event we move on. We plan our lives after education to do other things, but not to keep learning. I remember talking to a manager I knew at PwC who told me he wanted to only work on projects that require his current skills. He said he knows enough and has no interest in learning new things. What do you think happened to his career? He basically decided to make himself irrelevant a few years down the line.

In life, like during my MBA and most others, we are all marked on a curve. So rather than looking at how well educated we are, and how much of a vacation we truly deserve, we should look around and see how our competitors are doing. If a few peers with a lifelong learning mindset keep educating themselves they will raise the average.

And the truth is that a small group will always have a lifelong learning mindset. Especially within an environment that attracts high performers, like management consulting. They will keep educating themselves. They will view their degrees as the start and keep moving forward. And if they move forward, you have to move forward as well or you will fall behind the curve.

A lifelong learning mindset is a big commitment. Education after a degree is hard. There is no formal prize like a degree when you are reading about strategy, problem-solving in your free time or learning to build databases for big data on a weekend.

No one even knows you are making this sacrifice. There is no professor mapping out a curriculum. There is no counselor helping you to complete the degree. There is no obvious marker of success. There are no understanding students and, often, even family or anyone in the same boat as you to help you along.

Unlike a degree which signifies you have learned something, which leads to you having less to prove when you educate yourself you have to demonstrate the skills to prove to colleagues you have developed a new skill. This makes it a lot harder. And if you can demonstrate the skills, you gain new respect. With a degree, you will gain lots of credit even if your skills have not changed much.

And the myriad of things to learn keeps changing after your degree. You have to learn about new sectors, critical reasoning, presenting, speaking and working within teams. It is pretty much an endless list and the list is unique for each person. And the true prize is a promotion and impact you can make. In a formal degree, the prize is usually the degree and it is celebrated as such even though it does not mean much yet in terms of impact.

I believe a lifelong learning mindset is crucial. I am often asked what do you think was the most important reason you managed to achieve the things you achieved. And to me, it is clearly a lifelong learning mindset and being willing to pay the price it comes with.

I am always learning. It’s the one thing I keep doing. It’s the one investment I keep making. I routinely cancel and postpone fun plans, like going to a restaurant or a party, but I never stop learning new skills.

So my advice is not to stop taking time to rest but, as Bill Matassoni, former McKinsey worldwide head of marketing and one of FIRMSconsulting mentors says, you have to change twice. You have to adopt a lifelong learning mindset and be willing to pay the price it comes with. You have to accept that education is an ongoing process. It’s a daily process. You have to have a lifelong learning mindset. By all means, make sure you get enough rest. But make ongoing education a part of your life. You can do both.

If you find this message useful, please share it with your friends, family members and/or colleagues.

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