I recently worked my way through Edmund Morris’s first two Teddy Roosevelt biographies, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex. Roosevelt wasn’t without flaws, but he was by nearly all accounts fascinating and intellectually voracious. He published his first book, The Naval War of 1812, at 23 and continued to write on everything from conservation to politics and biography. According to Morris, at certain periods he was rumored to read a book a day, and all this reading and writing arguably made him both charismatic and uniquely equipped to engage the host of topics he did as president: national conservation efforts, naval expansion, trust regulation, and a variety of others.
Roosevelt was what we might call a “lifetime learner.” Learning became, for him, a mode of personal enjoyment and a path to professional success. It’s a habit many of us would like to emulate. The Economist recently argued that with all the disruptions in the modern economy, particularly technology, ongoing skill acquisition is critical to persistent professional relevance. Formal education levels are regularly linked to higher earnings and lower unemployment. And apart from its utility, learning is fun. It’s a joy to engage a new topic. Having an array of interesting topics at your disposal when speaking to colleagues or friends can boost your confidence. And it’s fulfilling to finally understand a difficult new subject.
But this type of continuous and persistent learning isn’t merely a decision. It must become a habit. And as such, it requires careful cultivation.
First, developing a learning habit requires you to articulate the outcomes you’d like to achieve. Would you like to reinvigorate your conversations and intellectual activity by reading a host of new topics? Are you looking to master a specific subject? Would you like to make sure you’re up-to-date on one or two topics outside your day-to-day work? In my own life, I like to maintain a reading program that exposes me to a variety of subjects and genres with the goal of general intellectual exploration, while also digging more deeply into a few areas, including education, foreign policy, and leadership. Picking one or two outcomes will allow you to set achievable goals to make the habit stick.
Based on those choices, set realistic goals. Like many people, each year, I set a series of goals for myself. These take the form of objectives I’d like to achieve over the course of the year (e.g., read 24 books in 2017) and daily or weekly habits I need to cultivate in accordance with those goals (e.g., read for more than 20 minutes five days per week). For me, long-term goals are tracked in a planner. Daily or weekly habits I monitor via an app called momentum, which allows me to quickly and simply enter completion of my habits on a daily basis and monitor adherence. These goals turn a vague desire to improve learning into a concrete set of actions.
With goals in hand, develop a learning community. I have a bimonthly book group that helps keep me on track for my reading goals and makes achieving them more fun. Similarly, many of my writer friends join writing groups where members read and edit each other’s work. For more specific goals, join an organization focused on the topics you’d like to learn — a foreign policy discussion group that meets monthly or a woodworking group that gathers regularly to trade notes. You might even consider a formal class or degree program to add depth to your exploration of a topic and the type of commitment that is inherently structured. These communities increase commitment and make learning more fun.
To focus on your objectives, ditch the distractions. Learning is fun, but it is also hard work. It’s so extraordinarily well documented as to be almost a truism at this point, but multitasking and particularly technology (e.g., cell phones, email) can make the deep concentration needed for real learning difficult or impossible. Set aside dedicated time for learning and minimize interruptions. When you read, find a quiet place, and leave your phone behind. If you’re taking a class or participating in a reading group, take handwritten notes, which improve retention and understanding, and leave laptops, mobiles devices, and other disrupting technologies in your car or bag far out of reach. And apart from physically eliminating distractions, consider training your mind to deal with them. I’ve found a pleasant impact of regular meditation, for example, has been an improvement in my intellectual focus which has helped my attentiveness in lectures and ability to read difficult books.
Finally, where appropriate, use technology to supplement learning. While technology can be a distraction, it can also be used to dramatically aid a learning regimen. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) allow remote students to participate in community and learn from some of the world’s most brilliant people with the added commitment of class participation. Podcasts, audiobooks, e-readers, and other tools make it possible to have a book on hand almost any time. I’ve found, for example, that by using audiobooks in what I think of as “ambient moments” — commuting or running, for example — I can nearly double the books I read in a year. Good podcasts or iTunes U courses can similarly deliver learning on the go. Combine these tools with apps that track your habits, and technology can be an essential component of a learning routine.
We’re all born with a natural curiosity. We want to learn. But the demands of work and personal life often diminish our time and will to engage that natural curiosity. Developing specific learning habits — consciously established and conscientiously cultivated — can be a route to both continued professional relevance and deep personal happiness. Maybe Roosevelt had it right: a lifetime of learning can be a success in itself.