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The mindset of a lifelong learner

The claim that machines or robots will steal our jobs has echoed through the decades from the earliest science fiction stories to more realistic developments today in smart electronics, artificial intelligence and automation. The claims that they will usurp millions of jobs may only be partially true, while the exact numbers are something we cannot definitively declare. In fact, the technological changes underway will create more jobs in different sectors if history is any indication.

The question then becomes not whether a robot or AI system will render you obsolete, but whether you will rise to the challenge of learning what it takes to stay relevant and employed. When you become a lifelong learner and focus on continual learning of new, in-demand skills, you claim the power to face the future of work successfully.

What Does it Mean to Be a Lifelong Learner?

Abandon the commonly held notion that learning is for children and young adults. You graduate high school, get a university degree and consider yourself done with education. In the past, this may have been sufficient to land and keep a great job until you retire. But the concept of being a learner has shifted. No more is the concept learn, do, retire. To be agile and adaptable, you need to learn, do, unlearn — learn, do, rest — learn, do, unlearn — repeat. This is the cycle of a lifelong learner.

Chart by Keith Keating and Greg Cira Designs.

Modern careers are like nonstop conveyor belts — you need to keep moving and learning no matter what the stage of your career. Being content is a mindset that puts us at risk. Consider how quickly industry, business and technology evolve — this is how our employees get left behind. Instilling lifelong learning ensures talent remains agile, adaptable and ready to fill the next organizational gap.

In today’s work climate, lifelong learning paves the way for current and future success.

In the most basic terms, a lifelong learner is someone who keeps acquiring new skills and capabilities well past their formal education years. It involves not only studying new topics but also developing an open-minded, positive attitude about the dynamic nature of the world. Personal development continues alongside professional development.

A lifelong learner looks for opportunities to expand their knowledge and understanding. While qualifications help with a career, curiosity and a growth mindset invites future possibilities.

Why is Lifelong Learning Important Now (More than Ever Before)?

The labor market has changed considerably in the past decade. Increased digitalization and globalization lead to extreme flexibility when it comes to hiring new talent. Companies choose part-time, project-based independent contractors or gig economy freelancers more than ever before. They shop for workers based on skills rather than official qualifications or job titles.

Add in the fact that needed skills regularly morph as tech advances, and employers’ focus on attracting talent rather than someone to fill a job makes sense. They need people who support their policies, processes and projects. If the same person continues to be agile and adaptable for the long-term due to their focus on lifelong learning, they become a much more valuable asset.

Lifelong learning matters more now than ever because generic experience and flexibility cannot compete with serial mastery. Even mastering one skill will not ensure employment for the long-term. The shelf life of skills is reducing year after year. If you abandoned learning after achieving mastery in one thing, you will likewise become useless in the labor force.

These truths hold for both personal and professional development. While career-based learning assists with finding the next contract work or position, adopting the same mindset off-hours provides benefits, too.

For context, think of personal development as the process of learning anything that strengthens your mind, improves memory and instills higher levels of self-confidence. This translates not only into greater happiness and contentment but also promotes the soft skills that are appreciated in the workplace.

Professional development, on the other hand, is learning marketable, transferable skills that boost your value in the workplace. Tech and processes change rapidly these days, and disinterest in learning how to advance their usefulness in your industry translates into disinterest in helping your employer. The outcome? You are first in line for layoffs or downsizing.

If you develop yourself personally and professionally well enough, and continue to do so for the rest of your life, you (or your brand) becomes the asset instead of the one skill you have to offer.

How to Become a Lifelong Learner

Understanding the benefits of both professional and personal development throughout your life does little if you cannot apply effective methods to become the best type of lifelong learner. The process involves attitude adjustments and the kind of effort you may not be accustomed to. In the face of sweeping and swift changes throughout global industries, however, it gives you the best chance of remaining relevant.

1. Develop a Growth Mindset

Research into IQ and neuroscience shows that lifelong growth and improvement are scientifically viable. Individual internal monologues may default to fixed mindsets, however. Definitive “I can’t” or “I will never” statements are often self-fulfilling prophecies.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, embraces challenges, change and critique on the way to learning goals. Accept that skill acquisition requires effort, that improvement is possible and that obstacles and others’ success are not reasons to stop your progress.

2. Take Responsibility for Your Future

Too many adults blame the educational system, their industry, the government or chance for stagnation and career struggles. When you own your decisions, actions and future results instead, you give yourself the power to make changes independent of whatever happened to you in years past or yesterday.

Lifelong learners seek out opportunities for their benefit and growth because they understand they have the power and responsibility to mold their progress.

3. Discover and Follow Your Passion

If you do not have a passion for your current career position, figure out what your passion is, and then do what it takes to incorporate it into your life. The luxury to launch your own business or quit your job and become a travel photographer, for example, exists outside the realm of reality for many people. Instead, find passion where you are now. What makes your career meaningful? What rewards do you or others receive that you can feel good about? Take time to look within and find the value that you provide or can provide in your work.

As a lifelong learner, personal development helps you discover not only your passion but how to incorporate it into even the most mundane jobs. You also cultivate new opportunities by learning additional skills and techniques, paving the way for possibilities in the future. Passion fuels learning more than anything.

4. Be the Linchpin

Become a company or industry linchpin that holds everything together and keeps things moving in the right direction. Instead of aiming for indispensability, make yourself invaluable. Through lifelong learning and growth, you can create a personal brand that stands for dynamic need fulfillment. Proactive skill acquisition is an essential part of the learning, doing, unlearning and learning more lifecycle.

5. Stretch Beyond Your Own (and Your Employer’s) Expectations

The feeling of career contentment the first time you land a good job is rather old-fashioned these days. Still, too many professionals focus on an end goal where they can finally say, “I’ve arrived,” prop their feet up on the desk and float toward retirement. This comfort zone gives a false sense of security, which you have to push beyond to become a lifelong learner. Contentment is the enemy of success when things change so rapidly across the majority of industries.

Courting positive stress in a controlled, beneficial way by taking a class, following tutorials and practicing new skills combats the harmful stress of trying to hang on to your job or find a new one when your abilities do not match expectations.

Steps outside your comfort zone can include deepening existing skills to help with future tasks, enhancing existing skills to make current tasks easier or more efficient, and genuine skill growth that can open doors to new roles and responsibilities.

As computers, AI systems, robotics and other machines get smarter and more capable, human workers have to do the same to stay relevant and employed. As a lifelong learner, you can excel at both professional and personal development and growth to make yourself invaluable in your chosen field. The combination of educational opportunities today and the right mindset of noncomplacency and responsibility gives you the power to build a future that more closely aligns with your passions.

Lifelong learners prosper in this new, increasingly flexible and dynamic global economy. Lifelong learners invent and reinvent themselves whenever they find or create the opportunity. This is not about job-hopping. It is about ensuring you can continue to provide benefits for your current job and position yourself as a valuable asset if you do have to find a new one.

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