January 2018
Issue Map
January 2018
Unstoppable You
Newsletter Article

Being a Lifelong Learner

Learning is a lifelong process; it is a distinguishing feature of being alive. But what does it mean to be a lifelong learner in today’s nonstop world and rapidly evolving information field? It certainly requires a more conscious and empowered approach than in the past, but it means more than that. To heed the words often attributed to the French philosopher and novelist Émile Zola: “If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.”

You, too, are called to be an artist with a life to live out loud; a life where you notice and welcome learning into your life in all its forms. It is the call to be a lifelong learner.

Approach life with curiosity and wonder

Learning opportunities are all around you when you bring an attitude of wonder and curiosity into your life. Think of all the learning opportunities that surround you every day. Perhaps

• you notice there are more homeless people on the corners than usual as you walk along a city street and wonder what is changing

• you hear politicians talking about plans for a new initiative in your community and decide to learn more about it

• you notice a grove of oak trees and wonder how something so tall can be standing

• you and your best friend have an argument, and unsure of your facts, you do a bit of research

• you realize that you are not handling conflict well and want to do something about it

• you are part of a conversation about a new business strategy and its potential implications for a team you are leading; you listen carefully and ask lots of questions.


Calls to learn come from everywhere: inside, outside, from the past, from the future, or they just tickle your innate curiosity. You can choose to ignore the calls, actively defend against them, or explore them with wonder. Any of these responses might be valid for a specific situation. Over time you may realize that you tend to react one way or another. Is something deeper influencing how you react?

Curiosity and wonder are the hallmark qualities of a lifelong learner, and they are not new to you. They dominated your life when you were very small and you thought the world was endlessly fascinating. You tried everything you could until you encountered the word “no.” How you experienced that no may still be affecting your curiosity and wonder today. If you believed you needed to avoid being told “no” by not making mistakes and staying in a defined role—that the adults around you wouldn’t love you if you ventured into the unknown—then your first reaction to something new may be to turn away from the learning opportunity. This defensive reaction made sense for you as a child, because your life depended on the approval of your parents or caregivers and your developing ego was at stake. But this attitude will hold you back today!

An alternative view of no is that adults are saying “no” to behavior, not to you. Parents who use no in this way affirm the wonder and curiosity of the child—her ego and big self—while keeping her safe and developing her ability to self-manage in increasingly complex life situations. Psychologists say that this is a no without the personal shame of making a mistake or failing. This constructive use of no sets the stage for a life full of exploration and self-confidence in the face of opportunities to explore, learn, and change. Many adults are still dealing with negative effects of the early, more shameful no. It shows up as a need to be perfect, fear of trying something new, reluctance to ask questions, and even hesitation to show excitement, joy, or wonder.

The good news is that these rapidly changing times are an opportunity for you as an adult to either recapture or recommit to the natural wonder and curiosity you were born with. But it takes skill in addition to curiosity and wonder to navigate the increasingly complex, rich learning landscape.

Respond to subtle calls to learn

Almost every experience is an opportunity to learn. But some are more difficult to recognize than others. As a lifelong learner, you are more tuned in than others, so you are more likely to learn when situations like the following occur.

Your view is different from others. It’s easy to miss the learning possibilities when your viewpoint is different from others and spend time and energy thinking about what you will say and how to defend your perspective. But as a lifelong learner, you are more likely to mentally step back and make an emotional connection with the other person by truly listening, asking questions, and checking for understanding—including why the view is important to the other person. By taking a learning approach, you know that listening and asking questions doesn’t mean you agree or endorse what the other is saying. Instead, you offer your perspective as an alternative view, while also learning about other ways to think about the issues and why people believe what they do.


Any routine experience. Much of what you do every day is probably routine: You act automatically, don’t think much about what’s happening, and see what you expect to see. Routine is important, and your brain seeks to automate as much as possible. But as a lifelong learner, you know that sometimes routines outrun their usefulness and can even obstruct learning.

As an experienced learner, you take some of your routine experiences off automatic. This means that you watch what you are doing and why. You notice the results and how they affect others. You even check your physical stance and feelings as you act. You think about what you would like to change or do differently—for example, those weekly meetings, conversations you have with your children before or after school, your dinner rituals, how you play soccer or take a run, the magazines you have been reading for years.

Surprise opportunities. Many changes happen because opportunities to learn appear without warning—changes in work structure or roles, a customer who cancels a big order, making a mistake that could damage an important project. As a lifelong learner, you may initially feel threatened or defensive and hope the change will go away. But you value these as signals more than threats or irritations and reframe your reactions as calls to learn.

Your life purpose and need to develop. As a living, complex being, your needs and purpose are always shifting, calling you to learn, develop, grow, and change. Like everyone, you contain many mysteries that even you cannot fathom. But you can get better and better at monitoring what is happening in you as your life unfolds. And you can also look into yourself to discover your deeper purposes and values so that they can play a bigger role in your choices and learning.

What are your thoughts on lifelong learning? What do you do to support your own learning efforts and those of your clients and customers? Share your ideas in the Comments section below.

This article is excerpted from Unstoppable You: Adopt the New Learning 4.0 Mindset and Change Your Life by Pat McLagan. Read more online or order your copy today.

© 2018 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Pat McLagan’s life and career are all about helping people improve their performance and development. Her book On-the-Level: Performance Communication That Works focused on shared responsibility communication, Change Is Everybody’s Business helped readers learn about their role in change, The Age of Participation: New Governance for the Workplace and the World looked at the systemic issues of participation, and The Shadow Side of Power: Lessons for Leaders looked closely at leaders’ use of power. In 2017, she will publish a book with ATD to help empower learners in all learning situations. She has received awards for thought leadership, worked all around the world, and served in professional leadership roles. Her focus has been helping people unleash their power and work toward a higher purpose at work and in life.

1 Comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
This is a great concept. In this fast changing world how we learn and how to prioritize our learning is critical. In the disruptive environment it is extremely difficult to focus on learning in big chunk.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.