Having a lifelong learning plan might sound complicated, if not impossible, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve talked about learning before and how I firmly believe that learning is critical for everybody and should continue in one way or another throughout your entire life. But how do you actually do it? What are the elements of a robust personal learning plan, and how do you implement it? These are the topics I will explore in this article.
Knowledge—The Root of Everything
What is knowledge? Well, I wish I had an easy answer, but philosophers have been struggling with it since the time of Socrates. The dictionary defines it as “facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.” That’s not difficult to understand, but let’s play a little game.
If I ask you if you know about black holes, what would you say? If you say yes, it means you already have defined for yourself what it means to know. But what does it mean?
Does it mean having some anecdotal idea that black holes exist? Or maybe knowing everything that humanity has ever discovered about black holes? Or, how about also knowing what you don’t know or can’t explain? Which is it?
As you can see, the more you ask these questions, the harder it gets, and I am not about to go down a rabbit hole of a thesis on epistemology. I just wanted to point out that knowledge as a concept is not as clear cut as you might like to think.
But regardless of its form, knowledge involves the accumulation of information and skills through education or experience. Education, of course, means formal education and self-education or training provided by others, such as your parents, mentors, and so on.
Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist and pioneer in many fields related to child learning and the constructivist theory of knowing, split knowledge into physical, logical-mathematical, and social.Knowing that you don't know enough should be the biggest motivator to learn more. Every day. Click To Tweet
Different Kinds of Knowledge
Physical knowledge is acquired first, as you grow up. When you hit your head on the corner of the table for the very first time because you can walk now, that’s a learning experience. We never stop learning about the physical because it surrounds us from day one. Later, we are exposed to logical and mathematical situations and then to the social aspects of life.
As you move through life, circumstances force you to learn new things. You get in touch with new objects, and you must understand them and be able to use them. You face unique problems in life that require you to learn logic and decision-making. And, inevitably, you live in some society that throws new social issues at you all the time.
That is the kind of on-the-job life learning familiar to all of us. It’s inevitable, although some of us pay more attention than others, and accumulate different volumes of this type of knowledge. But what about deliberate learning? How do you put all that “default” learning aside and ask yourself: what do I want to learn and why?
Three Stages of a Learning Plan
Learning Plan Stage One—Research
I am sure that during your life, at least once, something intrigued you so much that you wanted to know more about it. It might be as simple as a word you heard, and right away, you rushed to the dictionary or Wikipedia to search for its meaning. With that action, you learned something. But that initial curiosity is what pointed you in that direction.
So stage one of deliberate learning is interest, and interest is tricky. There are things you are intrinsically interested in and have always been. They’re always there in the back of your mind. They could be sports, the Universe, animals, or music; it’s all there—something that pulls you in all the time.
But there are other things as well which perhaps you haven’t tapped yet. They, too, might become attractive to you, but because you haven’t been exposed to them, you don’t know.
So, as the first step towards your learning plan, every year, you should select one or two new things to research. You won’t dedicate the rest of your life to it just yet. Instead, you will dip your toes into it as if it were a body of water that is unfamiliar. This kind of experimentation can lead you to a blah place at one end of the spectrum, or a wow place at the other end, and everything in between.
But without constant exposure to new things, you prevent yourself from expanding your horizon and learning about what else is out there.
How To Find Stuff To Research?
So how do you choose what to research? I have a few thoughts about that. I think, first and foremost, you should try to go for something that you’ve never tried before. Something as different and as foreign as you can imagine. And this could span any of your life’s dimensions, such as physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual.
To make things easier, you could begin with people who you’ve always regarded as your role models. What do they know? What are they good at? In which area of life do they operate? Those are all hints toward something to try.
You could begin with an area of your life where you feel unbalanced. For example, let’s say you’ve never been good at math. Okay, I feel you. But many aspects of math are interesting. You don’t have to go for advanced calculus or something else high-level. How about just reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Games? That’s fun.
There are many aspects of almost any discipline that you can at least tap into. Biology, botany, psychology, philosophy; they might all sound boring, but there are aspects of all of them that are truly enjoyable.
So, step one is to find something new every year to research. Because you don’t know yet if this will be interesting enough, don’t over-commit. Don’t buy courses and pay tons of money on textbooks. Instead, find free resources and set them up in your schedule.
By slowly exposing yourself to these new things, you will eventually discover something that is of genuine interest to you. And even if you don’t, the mere act of getting some knowledge in these untapped areas will open up your brain to new possibilities.
Learning Plan Stage Two—Learn
Learning is the next level after research. To learn, you must identify two things:
- Skills that you lack and that you have determined that you need
- Stuff you’ve researched in the past that have become a real interest
The first part is pretty clear, but keep in mind that to know what skills you lack, you must develop the self-awareness and ability to reflect accurately and accept what you are not good at. Drop the bullshit and stop protecting your image. And I’m not talking just about your job here, although that’s a part of it.
For that matter, your job probably takes care of your learning one way or another, through training. But your skills go beyond your job. They also go into the emotional and social areas of your life. Are you a good communicator with your spouse? Are you empathetic to your children? Do you make friends? Are you good at sex?
All of those are still skills, and you need to sharpen them as time goes by.
The second part, your interests, comes from stage one. As you researched various topics and developed that sense of curiosity about them, some items will rise to the surface. Some will pique your interest so much that you will have a genuine desire to know more about them. Now it’s no longer just research; now you need to know more.
Practical or Theoretical Learning?
It helps to connect this interest with something practical, but understand that it doesn’t have to be. Many hobbies start like that, and for all intents and purposes, they often don’t have a convenient application to life except in making one happy. And that’s just fine. A part of learning is also learning the things that make you happy and fulfilled, not just those things that make you money or upgrade your status in society.
So once you’ve done your job at taking stock of the skills you have and those you lack, plus any interests that come from your research, the next step is to schedule learning.
I know I throw the word ‘schedule’ around a lot, and people tend to hate it. But that’s the reality of learning—like everything else in your life, it must be deliberate. You cannot only count on critical situations to force your education. You should not go for your MBA the day after you get fired because of t’s too late. Instead, you should learn ahead of time and get your MBA early, when you have options.
Learning in crisis mode is patchy and doesn’t render long-term results. You need to create your learning plan with intent, not with a knife at your throat.
Not only do you need to understand what you should learn, but also why. How does it help you? What does it do? Can you connect to a future self who already knows this and understand how that person is better?
Learning Plan Stage Three—Mastery
If research generates interest and pure learning sharpens your skills and interests, mastery is the next level. Here we are no longer dipping our toes in or trying the water with our hands. Here we dive right in, head first, and swim to the deep end to look for treasure.
In your life, there are always things that you must master. You cannot achieve mastery across the board, of course. During the research phase, it was all about having the broadest horizon possible to allow curiosity to flourish. Mastery, on the other hand, requires a narrow focus and concentration.
Here you must identify one or two things in various areas of your life in which you must become a master.
In the context of your job, it might be the primary differentiating skill in that industry. In your marriage, it could be communication or sex. As a parent, it could be empathy. For you, as an individual, it could be being healthy.
All of these are things have a significant impact on your life when mastered, and you must spend extensive efforts every year, increasing the level of your knowledge and practical wisdom in that area. This means spending more time and more money. It means having access to higher-level resources. It’s a commitment, and it requires discipline.
Just as with step two, this step also requires you to understand and set up your life priorities and have the awareness to put them in the right order. Once you know what is essential in your life and why, you must immediately ask yourself what you can do to be better in that context. That will tell you which part of your life you need to master.
Wisdom – The Practical Side of Your Learning Plan
So, your annual learning plan will include three separate steps, classified as follows:
1) Researching—trying things out, small commitment, free resources, less time, broad view.
2) Learning—things you like already or need, higher commitment, more time and money, more focused view.
3) Mastering—in the most important aspects of your life, highest commitment, more resources allocated, super-focused.
Until now, we spoke about knowledge, but knowledge in itself doesn’t do a lot for you except make you feel as if you know things and give you the ability to hold your ground in a conversation. Learning, though, is also about applying this knowledge in the real world. That’s when wisdom comes in. Because knowing things is one thing, but knowing what to do with them and when to do it is wisdom.
If you are a master joke teller and take on a job for SNL, that’s a good idea. However, if you start telling jokes at a funeral, you might not be very wise.
My point is that learning must also have a practical side to it. There will always be things that you know that won’t have any practicality and might only serve as a conversation starter. But most of the things you learn will have some application in the real world.
This means that a practice plan is also an integral part of your learning plan. If you want to become a writer, learning about grammar, sentence structure, and character arcs is paramount. But just doing that won’t make you a decent writer. Practicing writing, on the other hand, will.
Practicing Your Learnings
It’s the same with any skill. If you cannot listen empathetically and are actively trying to learn how to be better at it, read a few articles or books on it. Then, set yourself up to practice. Open up difficult conversations and put yourself in the middle. Only by practicing will your knowledge turn into wisdom. Authentic learning requires both.
As you implement this practice plan, a few things will happen. You will experience failures and victories. Victories are great, and they prove that you have learned well. Failures, though, are also useful because that’s where the real world meets theory. Now you begin to learn how theory translates into reality, and the first few times, you’ll hit your head. Don’t let that turn you away from learning. Keep going; failure is a part of it, and it will always be.
Next, you will have to seek out feedback from those who know more than you or those affected by your new learning. Ask questions, and don’t be afraid to get critical feedback. That, too, is a way for you to sharpen your awareness and understanding. Since your wisdom affects those around you, their feedback is critical. Ensure you actively look for it; don’t merely assume or put the burden on others to give you feedback. It’s your responsibility.
Teaching—The Ultimate Form of Learning
The final stage of learning is teaching. When you know something well enough and feel confident enough to share it with someone else, you can teach. Teaching entrenches your learning and gives it a higher level of solidity in your mind. If you develop a proper learning plan for yourself and pair it with a practice plan, you will soon become confident in sharing your information with other people. As scary as this sounds, you become a role model for others.
And you will, just as most people do, experience some level of the impostor syndrome along the way. After all, only a short time ago, you didn’t know these things. What makes you an expert on them? Well, if you put in the time and energy and develop a passion for a subject, you will quickly become good at it. Then you can be a teacher to those who are bad at it. Later, when you become great at it, you will teach those who are good at it, and so on. There is always someone who knows less about any topic than you, and that’s your target audience. Your audience is not the masters of those subjects; those are your teachers.
But don’t underestimate the power of teaching; Aristotle once wrote that “Teaching is the highest form of understanding,” and he was right. Try it out, and you’ll be amazed.
Test it out on your kids or someone else in your family who has a similar issue that you had before. Perhaps you can share your knowledge via social networking platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter. Either way, remember that teaching enhances your learning. Receiving questions from others around the subject will expose you to things you haven’t thought about before and force you to think more deeply and uncover new dimensions.
So don’t hesitate to share what you know. It helps the ones that you have helped, and it also helps you.
Lifelong Learning Plan Recap
Let me do a quick recap of how to set up your lifelong learning plan. Remember that you need to revisit this plan and adjust it every year. Each year, your needs and requirements change. Your context shifts depending on how your life progresses. Make sure you keep your learning plan fresh and relevant.
- Learning Stages
- Practice Grounds
- Real-life experience
- Reflecting on failures and victories
- Feedback from trustworthy partners
- Sharing your knowledge
Other Resources on Lifelong Learning
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- Do you have your own lifelong learning plan? How did you do it?
- What is your favorite form of non-formal learning?
- What are some of the most unexpected things you’ve learned as an adult?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!