When I matriculated at the University of Virginia for my undergraduate degree, I started as a first-year student, not as a freshman. As I progressed through school, I became a second-year, third-year, and fourth-year student. The grades were intentionally named that way. The idea was that after four years, students would be ready to graduate (hopefully) from the university, but they would continue their learning even after they graduated. The purpose of naming the grades in progression was to encourage all their students to have an attitude of being self-educated.
As a professional, you will need to cultivate a lifelong learning perspective. You will progress in your career better if you keep that attitude throughout your working life. You will also feel more fulfilled personally as a result of always growing in your knowledge.
Here’s a process for keeping yourself self-educated.
1. Look for Opportunities
Understand that life will not spoon feed you what you need to know. You have to become aware on your own of the things you need to know to progress.
When I was preparing to write my first book, Dear Boss: What Your Employees Wish You Knew, I realized that I had to understand the publishing business. So I read a book on the publishing process and I attended a Christian writers conference. Both were very enlightening and helpful to me in learning how to progress in the path I had chosen.
The most important thing I did in becoming a published author was to start writing. I forced myself to start writing once a week, and then I gradually upped that to the point that I now typically set aside at least three times a week for writing—unless I am on deadline for a book (which I am right now) when I wrote much more often than that.
The key is to determine the knowledge needs you have and actively look for opportunities to fill in those gaps. To be self-educated, always be on the lookout for good sources of information. You never know when they will show up.
2. Ask Questions
Find good sources of information and be willing to ask them what others may think are stupid questions. If you are going to be self-educated, you have to get over the fear of looking stupid. You must focus on learning. The only stupid question is the one that isn’t asked.
You will come across knowledgeable people who can provide you with good information. You have to get over the fear that you will bother them if you take up their time with questions. More often than not, the people you meet will be honored by your interest in what they know. As a result, they will likely be willing to answer your questions—although they may not be able to do it when you meet them for the first time. They may want you to set up a time for the two of you to talk later—which will give you even more time to ask them questions.
You will show the depth of your interest in the topic by the questions that you ask. It will show that you have thought about the topic if you will honor them with good questions. In fact, people will not be as impressed by the comments you make as much as the questions that you ask.
When I started a coaching relationship with one expert, I didn’t have any inhibitions to ask questions. I didn’t care if they were stupid questions, I was willing to ask anything and everything because I wanted to learn what his company knew. And I was paying him so I could ask all those stupid questions.
Do not be anxious about talking to knowledgeable people. In most cases, they will want you to compensate them for their time. If they really know their stuff, then the time and the money you spend will be more than worth the expense.
If you are not asking questions of people, then you must be listening. Do not talk about yourself. Use the opportunity for learning. If you are talking, then you are not listening. And if you are not listening, then you are not learning.
People will be glad to help you if you are first interested in them, so it is important for you to listen. They will think you are a brilliant conversationalist if you are willing to listen to them talk about something they are knowledgeable and passionate about. As a result, they may want to spend more time with you to learn about you because you were willing to honor them by listening. You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in proportion.
You may be surprised by the people who you may learn from, so be prepared to listen to anyone you are talking to. There is one person who I see regularly who I initially thought I could not learn anything from him. He works in a completely different field from me. But every time I see him, I listen. And every time I see him, I learn something.
Even if you don’t think you can learn something from the person you are talking to, you should listen to what they are saying. In fact, you should listen to what they say especially if you don’t think you can learn anything from them. You will likely be surprised by what you can learn from the people you talk to.
Be willing to seek out opportunities, ask questions, and listen. By being open to learning all the time, you will find ways to become self-educated.
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