If you are like me, you probably take it for granted that consciously engaging in lifelong learning is worth it, well, just because. You are intrinsically motivated to learn and therefore don’t need a list of potential benefits of lifelong learning. It is its own reward.
Fair enough. But I think it is still worth being clear with ourselves about why we engage in lifelong learning. (You know how much I like asking “why?”) Knowing the reasons can help with clarifying our learning goals and planning; it can help keep us focused at those times when maybe learning does not seem like its own reward, when we need discipline; and, finally, it can arm us with some arguments to bring others into the global community of lifelong learners.
So, with those goals in mind, here are five key areas in which I think lifelong learning provides tremendous benefits:
Let’s start with an obvious one that might win over those less inclined to put the required effort into lifelong learning. I’ve made the point numerous times here on the blog as well as in 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner that we now live in a learning economy. Jobs that require relatively static knowledge – from assembly line work to book keeping – continue to shift to machines. (As Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly put it, “Productivity is for machines. If you can measure it, robots should do it.” )
Most of us will end up switching jobs numerous times. Many of us will switch careers at least once. And even those of us fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to stay in the same job over a long period of time will almost certainly see the nature of the work we do shift rapidly. To thrive economically, you simply have to keep learning.
I’d argue, too, that this learning is more than a matter of building skills and knowledge within the narrow scope of a profession. It will be increasingly important to be well-rounded, to have a sense of perspective, and to be able to leverage a variety of learning experiences into generating new ideas and ways of doing things. Harsh as it may sound, the ability to do this (at least for now) is what separates the average human from the average machine, at least when it comes to raw economic productivity.
Which leads to my next major benefit area…
I use the term “intellectual” broadly. It doesn’t mean that you need to be a bearded professor with elbow patches and a pipe or a turtleneck-wearing, cigarette smoking French poet. (Funny how smoking – not such a smart thing to do – and being an intellectual have traditionally gone together.) Rather, I mean that lifelong learning increases your knowledge and – just as importantly – your ability to use that knowledge in diverse and meaningful ways.
Lifelong learning opens up and enhances your mind.
It fuels creativity and innovation.
At the same time, lifelong learning is an approach to living life consciously and deliberately, rather than being guided purely by instinct, emotion, and the desires of others. It is nothing less, I’d argue, than personal philosophy in action.
As the venerable Wikipedia states it, cognition is “a group of mental processes that includes attention, memory, producing and understanding language, solving problems, and making decisions.” There is a wealth of both scientific and anecdotal evidence at this point that actively continuing to learn throughout life is beneficial for all of these processes. My own belief is that if you combine active learning with exercise, good diet, and adequate sleep, your mind will perform like a finely-tuned engine in a Grand Prix racer (though feel free to pick your own metaphor).
Bottom line: the process of lifelong learning helps to keep your brain working well, and as we continue to live longer and longer, this is a benefit that is hard to ignore.
Think of it: a huge percentage of what you know came from watching and listening to your parents, experimenting with and testing out new ideas or skills on friends, family, colleagues, and strangers, failing or succeeding in front of others, gauging reactions, adjusting and adapting. All of this is part of the process of lifelong learning, and it is – and always has been – highly social (yes, even before blogs, Twitter, and Facebook).
Learning sparks social engagement – we often connect with others because we want to learn from them and with them – and it is also an outcome of social engagement, often without our even realizing it.
There are numerous personal benefits to all of this socializing.There is evidence, for example, that people with strong social connections tend to be happier and live longer. There are also organizational and societal benefits. Organizations that learn and adapt are moire sustainable over time. The same goes for societies. And, as John Dewey and others argued long ago, lifelong learning is particular important as an element of democratic societies. Your learning efforts, in other words, support the greater good.
As with the term “intellectual,” I use the term spiritual in a broad sense. Learning, I believe, feeds the spirit. It gives us purpose, it gives us focus, it fuels our sense of fulfillment. Bob Dylan famously wrote “He not busy being born Is busy dying” (from “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”) You could easily substitute “learning” for “being born” in this line (though, of course, it wouldn’t make for as good a song). Philosophers since well before Dylan have felt the same. (What, after all, is a philosopher up to if not lifelong learning?)
This last one brings me back around to the point I made at the beginning: most of you who read this blog, and particularly those of you who have read this far in this post, embrace lifelong learning simply because it feels right. It is part of who you are. It helps give your life meaning. It is its own reward. The other benefits of lifelong learning are important but secondary.
P.S. – Please comment and share. Also, if you are – or aspire to be – a serious lifelong learner – I encourage you to sign up for my newsletter to get a weekly reflection question.
P.P.S. – For additional insights into the benefits of lifelong learning, you may want to see Lifelong Learning: Why Do We Need It?
I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.