“Every man is his own Pygmalion, and spends his life fashioning himself. And in fashioning himself, for good or ill, he fashions the human rights and its future.” This quote from I.F. Stone appears at the beginning of one of those handful of books that had a tremendous impact upon me – A Handbook for the Lifelong Learner by Ronald Gross.
I discovered this book back in the late 1970s. A few years earlier when I was working towards my undergraduate degree, my college experience had ignited within me a passion for learning. As I neared graduation, I applied for and was accepted into the graduate psychology program at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. However, the birth of my first child and the need for income for my family delayed my graduate work. I continued to harbor the desire to continue my studies, yet my family grew. At a certain point I realized that focusing on my government career was my better path rather than returning to school. At a certain level, I grieved that decision – letting go of my dreams of pursuing further degrees — but I have come to learn that there was a wonderful perfection in all of these experiences.
Yet at the time, I could not let go of my personal intentions around furthering my understanding of life and the world. I might not be working towards a psychology “degree”, but I was still working towards understanding my own psychology. This was my personal mental state of affairs when I discovered Gross’s book. He offered me a conscious path to continue my studies outside the confines and structure of the university environment. In fact, he pointed to a path that had much more personal freedom, one that allowed me the flexibility to bob and weave towards my developing knowledge around my own personal interests rather than the dictates of the formal school setting.
Gross championed a lifestyle of personal growth and development, offered tools to be more mindful in creating the direction of one’s learning and offered a plethora of sources for personal growth under his description of “the invisible university”. His educational options opened my eyes to new learning possibilities— and this was way before the days of the internet and the overwhelming resources now available to the personal learner.
One interesting side story that occurred at the time was that Gross’s book and my excitement around lifelong learning led me to writing a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, the Birmingham News, extolling the virtues of our local libraries. A few days after the paper printed my letter on the editorial page, I attended the grand opening of a new library branch near my home. When I mentioned my name to one of the library representatives who was greeting visitors, he immediately knew who I was from the newspaper article and took me around to introduce me to all of the appreciative library officials. I discovered that unbeknownst to me, my letter had had a positive impact upon budget discussions they were having with the city who had been considering reducing their funding!
Through the years, I have continued to the passionate about learning and growing. We are always learning new things whether we are conscious of that or not. As we move through life, interacting with others, working our jobs, soaking in content from the media and so on – we are just naturally recipients of new information that we synthesize into our knowledge banks. The question becomes this: are we passive or proactive participants in our learning? To a degree, we are obviously always learning a lot in a passive way just by virtue of our life experiences. But bringing our conscious intentions into the equation can shift our learning in a positive direction in two important ways.
First, being conscious allows us a greater degree of awareness as we receive the input of life in general. What kinds of messages are you taking in through your personal interactions with others? Are your friends, family and coworkers – including contacts online – serving to grow you positively? Is the information you receive from your media sources (Internet, books, TV, etc.) taking your life in the direction you want to go? When I first asked these questions years ago, I discovered that there were a number of passive resources that I was frequently interacting with that were feeding me with negativity, doubts, fear, distrust and so on. I realized their messages were not the ones I wanted to learn. Slowly I began to surround myself with more positive influences.
Second, being conscious allows us to purposefully create our own learning and growth intentions for our lives. I am continuously retooling my learning goals. As I accomplish one goal, another is set in place for the next wave of growth. Life is such a wonderful gift and there is so much we can experience. Sometimes the choices can seem overwhelming! Yet taking the time periodically to ponder the question “what knowledge or skill do I next want to attain?” is time well spent. Gross’s book (as well as a later one Peak Learning) includes additional ideas around how a lifelong learner can determine one’s personal learning goals.
In the recent past, I established many goals around learning including how to set up a website, using WordPress, publishing books, growing one’s “author platform”, writing scripts for videos and others which have all been accomplished. Even though I am still learning in these areas, I am currently consciously developing other skills and abilities. I’m a great fan of The Great Courses audio and video programs – I’m currently learning about jazz music as I drive around! I have several more in queue to review when I complete this one. Most days I am practicing playing the guitar using an app on my iPad. For the past few months I have been working through Rosetta Stone Spanish lessons. This past week I have been learning how to use the CyberLink PowerDirector video editing program to assist in posting online videos based on scripts I am preparing. All of this is so much fun! I truly love learning and am blessed with the resources that surround me. My only challenge is to stay focused on a manageable number of goals at a time.
Bottom Line: Here is what I want you to see – we all have basic needs which must be met (consider Maslow’s hierarchy). But as our “lower needs” are met, we open the space within us to pursue “higher needs”, to become all we can be – to become self-actualized individuals. It is in this place of pursuing the joy of life that something in us calls to “taste life in all its fullness” – to learn, to grow, to experience, to understand. If we’re not careful, our lives can become so busy reacting to what comes our way that we fail to take the time to chart our own course – to be the master of our own learning.
There is no doubt that you are a lifelong learner. The question really is are you a conscious lifelong learner? What are you learning right now? Are you growing in the direction of your dreams?