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Why we need to keep on learning - just give it 20 hours

Updated: May 3, 2020

I was at a workshop last week and another attendee commented on my age (I'm 64) and said they were gratified to see someone of my increasing years was still learning.

I was a little taken aback.

Learning is what I do for a living and it's never struck me to stop at a specific age. And this got me thinking about the important role serendipity plays in learning.

Have you ever read a journal article or a book but found yourself being drawn instead to the following article or the book next to the prescribed text on the shelf? You hadn't planned to delve into either, but you did. And that's where learning magic can happen. And it was this serendipity that led me to the 20 hours idea this weekend. (I can't now remember what I was originally searching for.)

A serendipitous approach to learning overcomes our tendency to narrow our learning focus. We often see our careers as single track. I've studied accountancy, I'm a qualified accountant and I'll stick with accountancy and get better at it. We have qualifications to back up our specialisms, issued by prestigious-sounding institutions. (OK, I went to the University of Essex in the 1970s, which had a colourful reputation at the time: more student unrest than student academic achievement.) And we think we can't operate in other quite unrelated areas.

But I want to argue that's wrong for two reasons.

One: we have far greater access to knowledge, ideas, and expertise than ever before. All you need is an internet search and you can get to grips with ideas, how to do things, and work out which people, books, or texts are worth following up. At the start of my working life, all of this was held in mainly university libraries. Today I can easily access great learning from Harvard or Stamford online or via a simple search. So, access isn't a barrier. 

Two: we think we need expertise. Professions put up barriers to entry. Of course this is justified sometimes. The classic argument about preferring an experienced and qualified surgeon operating on you, rather than someone who feels like having a go, is relevant here. But we may not need a high degree of expertise to get to grips with a body of knowledge or skill. Instead, we may need a basic grasp. That's where the 20 hours comes in.

Here's the idea. First of all, think about an area or skill at work you're unfamiliar with. Then try this:

  1. Get to the guts of it: Break down its elements and find the most important things to get to grips with first. 

  2. Self-correct: Use existing resources to learn enough so when you make a mistake you can correct yourself.

  3. Remove barriers to learning: Identify and remove anything that distracts you from focusing on the skill you want to learn.

  4. Practise at least 20 hours: 40 minutes a day for a month.

I've decided to give this a go and chosen Adobe InDesign. I don't want to be an expert graphic designer. I want the basics. So that's my February challenge: 20 hours on InDesign. 

What's yours? 


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