A couple of months ago a review of my bookshelf left me uninspired and, to be honest, a bit baffled. Beyond the fact that I wasn’t compelled to read a single book on the shelf, I realised the ratio of self-help books and guides for professional growth far outnumbered anything that would set my mind alight, spark curiosity or leave me with an appetite to learn more.
No, instead I had a colourless collection filled with the likes of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion; and Growth Hacker Marketing.
Since when had I decided to allocate my free time outside of work to polish up on negotiation, persuasion or exponential growth?
It seems that my propensity for work-related reading isn’t uncommon.
As our self worth and identities become ever more intertwined with our work, we tend to prioritise activities that determine professional growth and success, over activities congruent with our own passions or interests.
Perhaps we can all relate to this anecdote of a software executive shared by Rob Cross in his article for HBR, “I had a business trip cancelled and free time out of nowhere. I went home on a beautiful summer day and as I pulled into my driveway realized my family was scattered doing their things and that I had no friends to reach out to or hobbies that I had once loved. I sat in the car for more than an hour thinking about how I had gotten to that point.”
Investment in our professional growth is critical for career development, but at what cost? Is it really important to diversify our learning, enrich our minds and accrue knowledge on topics that don’t pertain to work?
As I found out in researching this article, perhaps the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
Marjan Laal writes in The Benefits of Lifelong Learning, “Through academic learning, educational adventure travel and our renewed sense of volunteerism, we expand our awareness, embrace self-fulfillment, and truly create an exciting multidimensional life.”
To lead a multidimensional life, we must explore diverse topics with the intention of acquiring broad knowledge and skills — not that which is single mindedly concerned with professional growth.
As professional success is considered paramount in our society, it’s easy to render the accrual of this knowledge useless, but studies have shown “that doing something you are passionate about outside of work rather than in it benefits both your career and your personal life” (Jachimowicz, He, and Arango).
Consider an industrial designer. Reading about Japanese woodworking techniques or watching a documentary on the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude may feel inconsequential to their trade, however this diverse knowledge may lead to new opportunities, conversations, concepts… or simply a sense of joie de vivre through learning something new.
In a practical sense, lifelong learning and breadth of knowledge makes us more resilient to the certain changes we will encounter in life and work. It also builds our transferable skills, “which can be utilised in a variety of contexts, across industries and sectors” (Upskilled).
When it comes to lifelong learning, we can consider concepts of psychological well-being, and our Chronic Happiness Level.
As explained by Robert J Vallerand in his article, The role of passion in sustainable psychological well-being, “Psychological well-being, broadly defined as happiness, life satisfaction, and self-growth, represents one of the most important aspects of efficient psychological functioning.”
Chronic Happiness Level is according to Lyubomirsky et al, “a quantity that is more enduring than momentary or daily happiness, but that is also somewhat malleable over time, and thus amenable to meaningful pursuit.”
Studies on both of these concepts found that intentional activities can contribute to sustained psychological well-being and happiness. The caveat, however, is that these should preferably be activities congruent with one’s values and interests. By repeatedly engaging in activities that elicit positive emotions, we will experience greater happiness.
For me that means a little less psychology of persuasion and instead learning about and engaging in yoga, hiking, and tiny homes.
What sparks your curiosity? What could increase your chronic happiness level?
As we are reminded by Dhaval Patel in his article for Entrepreneur, as adults we are generally not handed opportunities to ‘find ourselves’. We must initiate these opportunities. Just like regularly engaging in an intentional activity, Patel suggests a hobby will enable us to “find the time and space you need to really connect with yourself and continue growing as a person.”
Imagine a chief technology officer, responsible for optimising technical assets and maintaining a company’s network among other things. It might seem unlikely of them to spend their spare time exploring a love of cooking and drafting articles for their small-time travel blog. However, these just may be the things that constitute a multidimensional life, sustained happiness and life satisfaction outside of their corporate identity.
It could also be argued that their depth and diversity of knowledge simply makes this person more engaging and interesting in interpersonal situations.
Not only does lifelong learning increase our likelihood of engaging with new communities, inclusion within a community provides learning opportunities and a deeper sense of purpose (the people we surround ourselves with also impacts our physical health and as much as 95% of successes in life).
Marjan Lall describes this coexistence of learning from and teaching others as “When we are learning, we are engaged in life; we are engaged in those around us. And when we share what we know, we help others learn and further enhance our relationships.”
Cross and his colleagues found, after studying high performers for over two decades, that those who have initiated and maintained authentic connections in groups outside of work were happier and scored higher on measures of well-being.
We can develop these connections and engage with the community by joining clubs or organisations, hobbyist groups, taking classes or undertaking volunteer work. Each provides an opportunity to learn through experience and the wisdom of others, and share our own knowledge and passions with diverse but like-minded people.
Where lockdowns, distance and immobility are a factor (like much of 2020), we can connect digitally via platforms that foster authentic online connection like myhaventime teams.
Lifelong learning both enriches our mind, but can also be seen as something more altruistic… “A process of conscious continuous learning that goes throughout life and directed towards providing both the individual needs and that of the relevant community” (Abukari).
Consider your passions and interests and how they could be leveraged to contribute meaningfully within your community or amongst family, friends and your workplace.
For example, my love of yoga could be formalised through teacher training and then shared with the community through classes or mindfulness services in the community. An interest in tiny homes could see involvement in sustainable living workshops with my local council, or even inspiring a friend or family member to live with more environmental sensitivity.
How can you direct your passions, interests and lifelong learning towards the betterment of your community?
In life we are presented with an abundance of opportunities to learn. Whilst many of us learn with an objective of professional growth, we’ve discovered that diversifying and broadening our interests and investing time pursuing unlikely passions can be advantageous for our psychological well-being, happiness and personal growth.
We have found that engaging with our community can be mutually beneficial - providing an opportunity to learn from the experience of others, whilst sharing our own perspective, skills and knowledge for collective learning and the benefit of others.
Whilst at the beginning of this article I was quick to disregard the dry professional development books on my office shelf, I’ve come to realise they too have their place. What I need, however, is to establish a balance between learning for work and learning for enjoyment, driven by an insatiable curiosity and deeper purpose beyond professional success.
I’ll get to Never Split the Difference one day, but in the meantime I’m off to the library to pick up something I won’t be able to put down.