It was maybe a year ago when a fresh business grad came to meet with me to discuss job search strategy. One of his questions was, “I’ve enrolled in Six Sigma Green Belt training, starting next month. Can I add that to my resume?” (Here’s a handy reference if you are a rookie like I was.) Here’s what really amazed me about this interaction: most people who have just finished a credential have sworn off school for the foreseeable future, if not forever. Yet, here he was, already looking for the next skill set, the next learning opportunity. It was impressive, and the ultimate definition of “growth mindset.”
As someone with an undergrad, two graduate certificates and a Master’s degree, it would probably not surprise you to find out that I am a huge proponent of lifelong learning. Where I think many people go wrong is in their definition of “lifelong learning.” Because it’s a pretty wide definition.
To be, or not to be (about work)
I officially graduated with my MA in Interdisciplinary Studies this past October. As I neared the end, it seemed like everyone was asking me what job I was applying for, or what opportunity I would go after next. While there can definitely be some professional upsides, I would say generally that it’s a mistake to pursue any kind of educational experience for the sole purpose of a promotion in your current organization. For one thing, you can miss out on some seriously interesting stuff if you’re only pursuing what you’re “supposed” to learn, and for another, there may be no obvious link between your knowledge or skill set and the opportunities available at your current organization.
What a credential can do for you professionally is introduce you to strange and wonderful ideas. Let’s say you develop an interest and skill in something completely unexpected. Then, instead of the promotion people think you’re tackling, you are approached with new and interesting projects, or you start a part-time side hustle, or perhaps your professional connections grow and open up doors you didn’t even know were there. Plenty of “experts” claim they know the next big moves in the economy, but the truth is that life (and business) rarely fits a format of A + B = C, and mitigating factors fly out faster than the Millennium Falcon at light speed. So, if something has captured your interest and you can develop a marketable skill out of it, it’s worth exploring to keep in your back pocket.
“… you can miss out on some seriously interesting stuff if you’re only pursuing what you’re ‘supposed’ to learn …”
There is also an assumption that lifelong learning equals formalized education, but there is so much more to it than that. Paint Nites, brewery tours, cooking, karaoke, haunted village walks – all of them have the ability to provide you with cognitive value. A study published in JAMA Neurologyin 2014 noted that cognitive development in mid- to late life is associated with less cognitive decline overall. Even in your 50s or 60s, it’s worth challenging your brain to develop more cognitive flexibility. More to the point, the researchers weren’t just talking about taking night classes, or doing your daily Sudoku. They highlighted things like volunteering at a local school or getting involved in a social environment to develop new skills. Turns out, joining a bowling league or knitting group has the same benefits as brain games on your iPhone or taking French classes.
Show me the money … and time
Finances and time are perceived as major barriers for a lot of people who want to pursue new learning opportunities. Whether you want a PhD or to join the local pickleball league, it’s going to cost money and require that you carve out time for it. When it comes to both, the important thing here is to do your homework.
If this is really about getting ahead at work, ask around. A trend coming into 2019 is that more workplaces are looking for useable skills over formalized credentials. Sites such as Coursera, Udemy, LinkedIn Learning and Lynda.com all offer one-off courses at low costs. If you want the knowledge, but don’t need a certificate, you might consider auditing a course for free. Meetups or other local group-oriented opportunities are an inexpensive or free way to develop a skill in a collaborative environment.
If you do need a formal credential, can you achieve it through a local community college, school board or industry association? Check with your current employer on tuition breaks or available professional development money, and be sure to find out what your options are with bursaries, scholarships and student awards. You’d be surprised at which organizations offer scholarships, and what the criteria are (hint: many have nothing to do with grades).
Plenty of colleges and universities offer online and flexible-delivery formats to help people work around full-time jobs and family responsibilities. Plus, you can often piecemeal a full program together by taking one or two courses at a time, and not have to quit work to go back to school. Quite a few even offer flexible admission formats if you are missing academic pre-requisites, and ways to gain credit for experience if you don’t want to waste time taking classes on areas you’ve mastered in a professional environment, known as PLAR.
If time is a real concern for you, consider this perspective from Neil Pasricha on splitting your week into three 56-hour buckets. His book, The Happiness Equation, is a lovely read and has some additional tips on how to divide time efficiently. At the end of the day, lifelong learning is really about curiosity. You only get so much time on this planet, so why not use some of it to grow your intellect, your spirit and your sense of community? Sure beats another scroll through Facebook.