I love to learn.
(I also love Dr Seuss. I have a quotation of his tattooed on my foot.)
Just like the internet is full of platitudes about the other threads I have begun to untangle on here (change; strengths and weaknesses; bravery and stupidity), the internet is also full of platitudes and clichés about learning. We’ve all heard the ones about how growing old is not to do with age but the loss of a learning attitude; how learning is lifelong; how learning is vital to growth.
Well, I’m not here to argue with any of that! Clichés become clichés because they’re based on truth, and I think this is no different. It’s all over my cover letters and CV at the moment – I’m passionate about learning and helping others learn. I believe to my core that ongoing CPD (continuous personal/professional development) is completely vital, both for happy healthy individuals and for the growth, success and viability of their employer companies. I want to know how to do things, and say things, and I want to practice, to teach and be taught, to let others learn from my experiences, mistakes, achievements and failures, and to go on to make bigger and better achievements and failures. It’s part of what I consider to be a life well lived; part of avoiding the dreadful hoax that Alan Watts talked about.
I also don’t like being told what to do.
What can I say?! I’m a walking oxymoron!
(Cue dad joke about calling me a moron…)
Aaaaanyway. I found myself thinking about this seeming paradox on the way home from a careers event I went to today. It was honestly great – the speakers were enthusiastic and inspiring, the delegates were friendly and asked great questions, and I got a lot out of going; two books (I have a problem, you guys!), a sense of reassurance that I’m not a complete moron (there I go again) for quitting my old job, and a lovely compliment from one of the speakers*, to name but a few. But at the same time, there were many moments (some fleeting, others not so fleeting) when I found myself dismissing what was said, closing my mind off, getting frustrated, or flat-out disagreeing. Now there’s some defence for me digging my heels in like this; the event catered to a wide range of people at all stages of their careers, and I went for the whole day; obviously, as someone who has worked in an entry-level career advice and guidance environment for the last five years, I am not the target demographic for a panel on how to write a good CV. I already know how to write a good CV.
However, as I’ve said, on the journey home I began to reflect on my reactions. As someone who is quite openly advertising my belief in, and love of, lifelong learning, am I being counterproductive by internally rolling my eyes when a kind, well-meaning person offers to give me advice on what kind of role I should be looking for next, or offers to help me revamp my CV (again)? Surely, a lifelong learner has a mind that is open, and an attitude that is humble?
I then proceeded to beat myself up for my own hubris the entire way home, natch.
Nothing like a bit of self-flagellation!
However, after some more reflection, and a timely reminder to be kind to myself, I remembered all the advice we were given today about claiming credit where credit is due (something that, generally speaking, men tend to be better at than women) and felt a little better about my internal frustration. I do know how to write a good CV – I’ve been teaching it for ages, and I have also been a hiring manager. I don’t need advice on my next career step – well, not in terms of what kind of job to look for, anyway – I found that out through a little bit of trial and error, and a lot of knowing myself and practising critical reflection. I’m allowed to let my eyes glaze over when someone (who is phenomenally successful and has a lot of credit to speak about such things) exhorts us to start our own businesses… I already know that I do not want to start my own business, and I know myself better than this person does (no matter how amazing she is). I’m allowed to claim the credit for the skills and expertise I have, and it’s good for me to know that my decisions are mine and mine alone. That’s actually what the aforementioned foot tattoo is about – it’s a line from Oh The Places You’ll Go (a truly wonderful book, which I cannot recommend enough), the particular stanza being: “You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose”. I can take as much advice as I like; engage with every learning opportunity I trip across… but still, the brains and the feet are mine. No one else can choose my path, make my decisions, or live my life.
It’s like another dad-ism, one which my actual dad loves – don’t keep such an open mind that your brains fall out. Now, I have issues with the application and expression of this sentiment in a lot of ways, but it popped into my head while I was thinking about this tension between an attitude of learning, and the dismissal of advice and potential learning opportunities. Here’s how I think it applies:
If you aim for ‘humility’ in a willingness to learn and take on every single learning opportunity that you ever come across, you won’t ever actually learn anything. I know that sounds counterproductive, but I’m becoming more and more convinced the more I think about it.
Bloom’s taxonomy, the theory of learning familiar to all teachers, outlines six stages of learning, like so:
The theory goes that true learning takes a learner all the way up to the top of the pyramid – you have really learned something when you can use it to create or synthesise something new. This is obviously a pretty in depth process! It’s complex; it takes time and investment from the learner. If I, as a learner, do not discriminate between learning opportunities, but blindly take on all advice, tips, and experiences, there is no way I will be reaching that pyramid pinnacle. I’ll barely be attaining the first rung, to be honest – the human memory can only cope with so much at once! And, at the same time, I will likely be repeating rungs instead of progressing in areas where I could be creating. In other words, if I can already teach someone else how to write a good CV to measurable success, that would be the third tier. So why would I spend my time and energy in the first two, instead of progressing through the final three and using what I know to create a kick-ass CV of my own?!
This is not to say, of course, that it’s not valuable to revisit the basics. It is – one of the speakers gave a very short panel on some basic voice and body techniques; something in which I’m already pretty well trained. She didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, but she did remind me of the importance of some of the things I was learning several years ago, and reminded me how to apply what I know practically to my current situation. (Side note – FOFBOC is both a great concept and one of the best words I have heard in ages!). It’s important and helpful to refresh what you already know – but that’s just it, it should be a refresher, not a whole new learning experience.
If we are not critical and choosy about the opportunities we grab and the people we listen to, we risk simply becoming an in-one-ear-out-the-other hollow pipe of meaningless noise, overloading on input. Lifelong learning necessitates taking the time to use what we have learned – and that means, sometimes, deciding that I know about this already. I can do this already. I’ll do it better the more I do it… but right now, in this given situation, looking at all the factors, this is not a learning opportunity. Even though it looks like one; because I am as sure as it’s possible to be that I will not learn from it.
So yes. I have granted myself a reprieve from my self-imposed punishment for my attitude today. I went to the event, and I got a lot out of it… and I don’t need help with my CV. Thanks.
* Caroline Goyder, author of the book ‘Gravitas‘ and erstwhile voice lecturer at my alma mater, RCSSD. When I approached her afterwards to thank her for her session (which was awesome) and mentioned that I was a Central grad, she immediately said “Oh yes, you look like you’ve been trained – the way you hold yourself, you’re very grounded and connected. Which course were you on?” I tell you, I danced away from that brief conversation with a glow! Authentic praise and compliments, people. They have impact.