Here in the Boston, Cambridge we are lucky, there’s a college around every corner. Harvard, M.I.T., Wellesley, Boston University, the list goes on and on. Our streets, libraries and local coffee shops are clogged with passionate students shelling out 40k (plus extras) a year for the privilege of earning those coveted diplomas.
I hate to be a bubble-burster, but some of them may be overpaying. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge proponent of education, and a degree from a top-flight school still counts. But we’re seeing a sea change in the kind of learning the marketplace is demanding. That start-up in Silicon Valley or Williamsburg, Brooklyn cares more about your passion, social-media skills and ability to keep learning than it does about that little piece of paper from your alma mater. And established companies are realizing that they need people who have their pulse on emerging knowledge, innovation and markets. In a nutshell: these days the learning curve stops at the grave and starts very early in our careers.
So whether you’re a leader, manager, employee or freelancer, it’s time to start actively learning to maintain career momentum. Please, no groans. I’m not talking about homework and pop quizzes. I’m talking about igniting your curiosity, following your bliss, and exploring the infinite possibilities of real-world, social media and online learning.
Here are 5 steps to jump start your adventure in learning:
- Take inventory. What are your strengths, and more importantly, what are your weaknesses and limitations? This is both in relation to your organization, and to the larger world of work. Write them down. Be honest. This inventory is your roadmap to action.
- Know your options. You need to know what’s out there: where are the on-line courses, social media, and real-world, non-digital opportunities to learn? Stay focused on two things: first, what will help you bolster your strengths, up your performance, and grow as a leader; and second, what excites you. Which leads me to:
- Follow your passion. We all remember sitting through classes that bored us to tears. Invariably we did poorly in those subjects. There may be some basics you need to know for the specific demands of your work. Nail those. Then turn to what turns you on. Follow your natural curiosity. Obviously, this can’t be the extinct birds of Borneo? Or can it? If some subject or endeavor really stimulates you, it may well contain nuggets of applicable, actionable wisdom. Make a list of what excites you. Find online communities of like-minded people. And watch the sparks fly and the learning start.
- Put first things second. Once you’ve got the learning bug and know where to go to find your fix, start thinking in terms of your current project. At the end of the day, delivering sustained, stellar performance is what learning is all about. Find that piece of the project that most ignites your passion, and dive into the learning pool in search of actionable knowledge, skills, and insights. Look at your current project through this learning lens. Today.
- Teach to learn. Teaching is an amazing learning tool. Find someone whose curiosity dovetails with yours, but where you have more knowledge and/or skills. Mentor this person. Pass on what you know. Engage. Give back. In the doing, your own know-how will be refreshed and replenished. And you will learn from your mentee. I guarantee it. His or her questions will force you to expand your knowledge, and her beginners’ minds will deliver fresh insights. You will be renewed. A variation of this is to find a peer and become learning partners. Two brains are better than one; your curiosity and hers will spark new explorations, your passionate exchanges will strengthen you both.
Lifelong learning used to be a cozy catchphrase popular in retirement communities aiming at the PBS/NPR demographic. No more. Today, it is an imperative for a sustained, successful, fulfilling career. And that’s the most important lesson of all. Every single generation. Every one of us.
A version of this post was first published on Forbes.com.