The future belongs to those who seize the abundant and free opportunities to expand their skills.
Tom Friedman, in his book Thank You For Being Late, argues that lifelong learning has become an essential mindset for everyone who wants to survive and thrive in the global economy. The forces of technological development and global communication have diminished the value of a fixed set of knowledge. Flows of knowledge, argues Friedman, are where value and opportunity can be found.
I had just landed my first job, and I was looking for wisdom in how to succeed. One of the best pieces of advice came from Harvey MacKay in his book Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive. He said that to succeed in the workplace, you needed to work on your public presentation skills. The best way to do that, MacKay continued, is to join a Toastmasters club. So I found a club, joined, and stuck with them for four years while I was in Winston-Salem (a hearty thank you to the wonderful people of Northwestern Toastmasters!).
The group was invaluable in helping me learn more about crafting my thoughts, being comfortable in front of a room, and working with others to achieve goals. As I grew in skill, I discovered a new career opportunity as a technical trainer. Eventually, those skills became foundational for another career transition to ministry.
That group of Toastmasters exemplified the value of a commitment to lifelong learning.
Tom Friedman suggests that lifelong learning is even more valuable today. Here’s how he frames it.
Up until 20 years ago, knowledge itself was power. Expertise was exceptional, information was tightly controlled, and transmission of technique was labor intensive. In that world, your stockpile of knowledge and skill was what counted the most. You could accumulate a body of knowledge and coast upon its dividends for a long time.
But in our era of instant and abundant information, knowledge is a commodity. Data flows freely. What matters most, Friedman asserts, is participating in that flow:
“To succeed now, we have to continually refresh our stocks of knowledge by participating in relevant flows of new knowledge.”
When we shift from thinking about a body of knowledge to thinking about a flow of knowledge, then we start to view lifelong learning in new and exciting ways:
1) Learning is not just about receiving, but it is about participating.
It’s about getting your hands dirty and doing something with the learning. It’s about playing with the learning, picking it apart, testing it, and applying it in new ways. And if we really want to participate in the flows, it’s about sharing what you have learned.
2) No longer do we find a career; now we invent one.
The exponential changes in the world are destroying old industries, but they also allow us to assess our skills and combine them with new skills in interesting ways. Friedman puts it this way:
“Today’s American dream is now more of a journey than a fixed destination.”
3) You can start now.
Tools are free and readily available online – all it takes is effort on your part:
“The future will belong to those who have the self-motivation to take advantage of all the free and cheap tools and flows coming out of the supernova.” (Supernova is Friedman’s word for the interconnected cloud of data that the internet has created).
One of my favorite repositories of online learning is Open Culture. There they have free access to over 1200 online courses from the world’s top universities. Check it out. I’m sure you’ll find at least one course that piques your interest.
So – what are you doing to sharpen yourself? Where are you participating in learning communities? What are you learning and what are you contributing? What are your favorite online tools for learning? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments below! Also, be sure to check out the introduction and index to this series of reflections on Friedman’s Thank You For Being Late