This article was updated on 12/8/2023.
A lifelong learner is someone who uses both formal and informal learning opportunities to foster continuous development and improvement of the knowledge and skills needed for employment and personal fulfillment.
One of the best parts about college or any school experience is the actual process of learning. From understanding how something works (the human body, the universe, a foreign language) to why people do what they do (history, sociology, psychology), that "aha" moment is what keeps many students motivated to study and stay in the classroom.
But what about after school?
The good news is that learning doesn’t have to stop with the completion of a degree. Through continuous learning, whether that’s professional development courses, advanced degree programs, or self-study, adults can further their careers and continue to grow as people. And while that’s reward enough, being a lifelong learner offers additional advantages in the real-world job market, too. After all, curious, intellectual people only enhance any organization they join.
Being a lifelong learner can mean different things to different people, but at its core, it’s about cultivating curiosity and gratifying a thirst for knowledge.
Or, as Kristen Griffin, vice president of Student Services at University of Phoenix (UOPX), puts it,
lifelong learning is the ongoing education of the self. Because it’s on a continuum, this type of learning is self-motivated and often self-taught. It’s about turning the act of learning in a classroom into a daily mindset and habit. It’s about having a fierce desire to gain knowledge and skills whenever, wherever, and however.
Getting a formal education in a structured setting — a degree from a university or a certificate from a job-training class, for example — is one way to pursue lifelong learning, but it's not the only way.
In fact, if you want to develop your personal relationships, advance in your career, and stay ahead in our always-on, always-changing society, it can't be the only way. That's where lifelong learning comes in.
Lifelong learning is the ongoing education of the self. Because it's on a continuum, this type of learning is self-motivated and often self-taught. It's about turning the act of learning in a classroom into a daily mindset and habit for personal development. It's about having a fierce desire to gain knowledge and skills whenever, wherever, and however.
Learning environments come in various forms. How about learning at a museum or through an online class or a self-help book?
The point is there's no wrong way to be a lifelong learner. You don't even have to be someone who likes school. You just have to commit to putting in the effort and being open to new challenges and ways of thinking — every single day.
The benefits of being a lifelong learner are as vast and varied as the ways to become one: increased competence and confidence, a sense of purpose and satisfaction, an ability to adapt to change and overcome challenges, greater employability, and so on.
Here are 10 steps you can take to begin the rewarding, never-ending process of personal learning.
Griffin says that lifelong learners are people who seek out opportunities for continuous learning to enrich their lives, including personal and professional development. She shares the following tips for personal development and adult learning.
Being a lifelong learner has nothing to do with what you put on your LinkedIn® profile. It's not reflected in what can be seen in an online bio or resume because lifelong learning is about what's inside you. A positive attitude of “I can and I will,” not “I can't and this will never be,” is essential.
Lifelong learning represents a desire to actively seek out opportunities for growth, not being complacent and waiting for them to come to you. It's about having the self-motivation to be willing to put in a sustained effort to learn.
Developing a lifelong learning mindset starts with knowing yourself. How can you improve your current skills? What knowledge can you continue to build? Have your friends and family commented on a talent you have? What are your strengths and weaknesses, both personally and professionally?
Do you fear public speaking … or are really good at it? Do you love staying up-to-date with computers and software… or are you kind of a Luddite? Identify the areas where you think a few extra skills or knowledge could go a long way and then see if there are classes that can help you fill in those gaps. Set a learning goal and attack it.
You can't be a lifelong learner if you have a fixed mindset, but you can be with a growth mindset. With a growth mindset, you believe your intelligence and life skills can be developed with concerted effort and thoughtful feedback, not that they're innate and immutable. You care about the hard work you put into learning, not about how smart you'll look when the course is over.
Here's what every lifelong learner believes: If you have an idea of what you want, there's always a way to get there.
Most people have a can-do attitude about something. If you get excited about a series of fantasy novels and learn everything you can about their author or the universe in which they’re set, that’s an example of a lifelong learning mindset. Seize that feeling and apply it to other areas of your life, from career development to new hobbies.
Learners need to be open-minded. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it's what sustains a lifelong learner. You have to be open to new experiences, good and bad, and what they can teach you.
In a way, being a lifelong learner means having constant FOMO—not fear of missing out on a social event, but of missing out on the opportunity to learn and do something new outside your comfort zone.
Curiosity is at the heart of all questions. Always ask questions — of yourself, of people you know, of the internet. When you don't understand something at work, are confused by what a friend is saying, or don't understand a news reference, ask.
Curiosity yields questions, asking questions yields answers, and gaining knowledge is what lifelong learning is all about.
Change can be uncomfortable because your ego may want to protect itself from what's new and challenging. But discomfort is necessary for the growth that comes from lifelong learning — that whole “two steps forward, one step back” thing.
Every hiking trail begins with someone trampling through uncharted territory. Imagine you are that first adventurous soul, and that all the hikers in the future will be grateful for a marked trail. The more you confront resistance to new things, the easier it gets.
Reading is key to adult education, raising lifelong learners, and is the best way to gain new perspectives, think differently, learn how others struggle and thrive, and expand your ideas of what's possible.
Think of reading as a tree, with the reader moving from branch to branch. You start with one book, then based on what you learn, you read another book, and soon, you're reading four or five books back-to-back.
Novels, essays, memoirs, poetry collections, blog posts, magazine stories, newspapers, and articles — read it all. If you're going to start your lifelong learning journey anywhere, do it by choosing something to read.
Reading widely and frequently is the best way to glean a wealth of knowledge. But if you’re not a natural reader, don’t give up! You don’t have to finish every book you start. You don’t have to make it a chore. Simply read what interests you, stay open to finding new interests and work reading into your daily life (think 10 pages before bed or a chapter during your lunch break).
Health and wellness work hand-in-hand with becoming a lifelong learner. When you feel your best, you're at your best and most receptive.
Think of it as a holistic approach to learning and life: How you do one thing is how you do everything. The better you take care of yourself (eating right, sleeping well, getting regular exercise), the better you'll perform mentally.
You can't fill a house with your furniture if the previous owner's furniture is still there, right? That applies to lifelong learning. You have to declutter your work environment and your mind to make room for the new you. Cleaning your workspace, and priming it for productivity, will remove distractions and help form a lasting connection in your mind. It says, “Cleaning my workspace means learning.”
Becoming a lifelong learner doesn't mean turning your life upside down overnight. Start with small, simple, and gradual changes, like being more conscious of how you spend your time. Rather than scrolling on social media over breakfast, read a long-form article you've saved.
Listen to a productivity podcast instead of music or watch a documentary about a business innovator instead of sitcom reruns. Have a coffee chat with someone whose career path you admire, rather than a drink with a co-worker who enables your unhealthiest habits. Over time, micro-changes become macro-habits.
The isolation brought about by the pandemic can prompt productive questions. What do you want to learn? What skills do you want to improve? What's something you should do more of because it will bring you joy?
The pandemic hasn't stopped you from answering and acting on any of these questions. Think about how good it will feel to emerge from the pandemic with a new skill or a new area of knowledge.
Lifelong learning isn’t just a fulfilling personal trait. It can offer real career advantages as well. In fact, according to the Chief Learning Officer blog, companies, "shop for workers based on skills rather than official qualifications or job titles."
That means the more skills you gain, whether through official channels like degree programs and certifications, or self-directed modalities, the more valuable you become to employers.
As the Chief Learning Officer blog puts it, "generic experience and flexibility cannot compete with serial mastery."
Terms like "continuing education" and even "lifelong learning" can feel overwhelming but following this path can happen one step at a time. If you're looking to start down the path of becoming a lifelong learner, there are several ways to gratify a lifelong learning mindset. These might include:
In addition to pursuing your interests independently, teaming up with a career advisor can be an effective way to fill in knowledge gaps or pursue rewarding educational paths.