Lifelong Learning - A 2023 Perspective
Dec 2, 2023
Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you have to keep moving.
Einstein’s metaphor is all the truer in today’s incredibly dynamic times, It is equally applicable to an individual, a small group, a large organisation, or even a sovereign nation. Only by continuously learning, adapting, and growing, can you avoid becoming obsolete. As a species, we humans already have boundless curiosity and countless questions, and we are constantly plowing through available answers to find even more questions. This in simplest terms is the human drive - and perhaps privilege - of lifelong learning. And it is more relevant and urgent today than ever before.
Two events in the last four years have dramatically reasserted this need of lifelong learning. The first one, of course, was the Covid-19 phenomenon. No other event in the last 100 years has reminded humanity of its frailty like this disease. For over two years, the entire human race shared the same hopes and fears, same problems and limitations, and humanity was forced to rethink its behavioral patterns. Not just small businesses but entire industries and economies collapsed. Some will bounce back, but in a very different shape. From remote work to remote learning and automation, the very texture of ‘work’ seems to be changing.
That brings us to the second event: the rise of AI, from being a mere thought experiment or occasional convenience to a mind-boggling enabler fast becoming indispensable in every industry. This massive upgrade was largely driven by Open AI's launch of ChatGPT in November 2022. I clearly remember the storm of feelings it generated in me when I first tried it myself. I was sitting with a couple of friends, and decided to check it out after seeing some LinkedIn chatter about the impact of ChatGPT. I was shell-shocked at its capabilities, and felt equal measures of dread and excitement. In India, content quality is hardly ever the top requirement for most businesses, unless you’re a 100-year-old magazine known for its distinct voice. We Indians are ardent believers of jugaad - ingenious shortcuts and making do - and ChatGPT was the ultimate jugaad tool. ChatGPT launched a revolution in AI-driven services. Almost anything you can think of can be done using AI. You just need imagination and algorithms (and perhaps access to LLMs).
If AI can do human work, what will humans do now? Upskilling used to be a faint buzzword in HR departments before the rise of Generative AI, but no more. Gone are the days when you could just do the same task every day, and go home feeling secure and satisfied. If a machine can do your job, it will, and perhaps should do your job. That is beyond doubt as the year 2023 draws to a close. So the big question now is, What will you do? What can you do? The future is uncertain for all, but it’s especially bleak for those who cannot or will not learn. Lifelong learning meant personal growth until a year ago, but now it could be the only way to survive.
Let’s say you are convinced and willing to start your new learning journeys. How do you go about it; how do you take off and navigate when the path and even the destination can change any time? We will do a much deeper dive into each of these aspects in our upcoming posts, (so watch out for them) but here are a few ways to plan for the new you:
Diversify: Learn not just more, but also different things. Pick up skills that expand your understanding of your work and your contribution in your overall industry.
Plan your time: Set clear goals for yourself and your new skills. We have all heard that absolute mastery of a skill can take up to 10000 hours, but latest research shows that 20 hours of learning are enough to start applying a skill. Learn a new skill, tool, or technology to a level where you can start using it, no matter how crudely. This is why now teachers and students talk in terms of ‘learning outcomes’.
Apply: Dive in, make mistakes, get your hands dirty. That's where learning lives. The whole point of learning something should be to apply it as quickly and as often as possible. Learning happens through neuroplasticity (brain’s ability to establish new neural connections), and applying is the best way to establish and strengthen your neural networks.
Fail: Failure is not the enemy of success, but a shy enabler; you just have to understand its lessons. So turn failures from being sources of shame to sources of wisdom. But at the same time, ensure that you make new mistakes every time.
Persist: Ensure that learning becomes and remains an enjoyable habit. Closely monitor your effort-motivation graphs. If you can learn for only 30 minutes a day, that’s okay, but those 30 minutes should happen at least 5 times a week. Don’t go all guns blazing only to find yourself exhausted and out of ammo within a week. This will also make it harder to restart. So start slow, go easy, and look for sustainable learning routines.
Learning has been an engine of progress and human civilization for many millennia. The sheer amount of knowledge and capabilities possible today means that lifelong learning is far more than fulfillment of specific goals and desires. Lifelong learning in simplest terms is evolution, and we shouldn’t ourselves, or our species, as having peaked. Many more surprises are in store; we should know by now that surprises aren’t the exception, but the norm. We are, and always will be, works in progress. Lifelong learning is the assurance of this progress.