Why You Should Be a Life Long Learner


David Ogilvy, the father of modern advertising, once asked an employee what books he had read about advertising. The copy writer responded that he had not read any and that he preferred to rely on his own intuition. David then said, “Suppose your gall bladder had to be removed this evening. Would you choose a surgeon who has read books on anatomy, or one who relies on his intuition?”

Are you committed to life long learning?

I’m not just talking about formal education – as important as it is. Nor am I talking about your functional skills as an engineer, sales person, or financial expert, which most of us are committed to improving...

Instead, consider whether you are a student of the management skills and practices used most consistently in your work. Management practices like leading meetings, energizing and motivating others, solving problems creatively, communicating with integrity and asking the tough questions. What are you doing to become better at these foundational skills?

For some, like Ogilvy, the quest to curiously explore, discover, learn, and then effectively apply that knowledge seems almost second nature. For most of us, it takes a lot of work. And work at learning we should.

A study conducted by researchers at Stanford, the London School of Economics, and McKinsey & Company assessed the actual management practices of 4,000 medium-sized manufacturers around the world. The conclusion… better management practices are strongly linked with better financial performance.

What is the best way to learn these skills?

In a study of leadership, researchers interviewed some of the world’s top leaders. Remarkably, participants in the study talked consistently about of their commitment to learning as one of the most important factors in their success. However, their approach to learning wasn’t one dimensional.

These leaders learned from books and other sources of information, but even more importantly they actively learned from their problems and personal crises, by challenging conventional wisdom, and by surrounding themselves with mentors and even a few ‘devil’s advocates’ or insultants.

According to researchers, these leaders didn’t see learning as hard work, but a personal quest. Researchers commented that the participants in the study were “to a person, full of energy, curiosity, and confidence that the world was a place of wonder spread before them like an endless feast.”

Become a life long learner by…

  • Turning every adversity and trial into a learning opportunity. Ask yourself what you can learn from your most difficult and painful experiences… and then put it to work.
  • Studying anything and everything. Read widely. Read frequently. Keep a journal of the highlights of your learning and how you will apply it in your professional and personal life. Share what you learn with others.
  • Finding mentors, a sage, a true friend and listen to what they have to say. Join or create a peer group and learn from what executives in other industries are doing. Stop discounting your ‘devil’s advocates’ and start listening to what they are trying to teach you.

…and help others learn and adapt by…

  • Talking less and asking more. Ask lots of questions. Open ended questions with no right or wrong answer, questions that force others to think deeply. And then give them time to respond.
  • Building learning into your organization’s processes. Require your teams to use after-action reviews with every successful and unsuccesful project.
  • Coaching, not commanding. For people to be most effective they need to have freedom to make decisions that are welded with absolute accountability for the outcomes, not just their actions. When delegating to others, avoid assigning tasks and instead assign desired results. Give people the opportunity to fail and then to learn.

Learn and adapt. Learn and adapt. Over and over again!