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Lifelong Learning versus Personal Development

It’s hard to get away from personal development social media and websites these days. Motivational quotes are posted at all hours on facebook and twitter, in the hope that a particular quote will strike a chord with someone somewhere. I have struggled to find myself within this personal development world. I have a written a few personal development blog posts in the past, but I’ve always known that it isn’t for everyone, and some people are actually quite tired of seeing motivational blogs. Again, turn on twitter, facebook or linkedin, and it seems everyone is having a go at it these days.

I have had a strong interest and passion for personal growth since listening to a Jim Rohn CD 6 years ago, and whilst wanting to be part of the field, I have never wanted to come off as another personal development blog. It seems slightly modest to suggest one has all the answers, and to give people instructions what to do. I know I have come off like that in the past, and have always felt uncomfortable writing like that. However, last week I finally felt like I had found myself, or at least a place I wanted to be.

It happened whilst reading the Wikipedia article on ‘The Great Courses’. For those who don’t know (and I’m sure there are a lot of you), The Great Courses are a company that produce lecture series, from the top lecturers in America. When I last checked their website, they had over 600 courses, on many different subjects. I’ve been listening to their courses in my car for over a year now, and though some are better than others of course, on the whole they are a joy to listen to, and a wonderful learning tool.

So, there I was on The Great Courses Wikipedia page, where it states “Most series are developed for adult lifelong learners”, and in that sentence I discovered a term that I connected with. I’m not a fan of labels, but a lifelong learner is something I felt like I was as soon as I read it. I have an insatiable desire to learn. It has grown stronger as I move through my thirties, which I hope makes up for the lack of desire to learn during my academic years.

Lifelong learning has a different connotation to me than personal development. I won’t be running away from personal development at all, and I fully embrace it, but lifelong learning has a much more open meaning. It hints at a continuing fascination and enthusiasm for the world. It can of course be geared towards a development goal one has, but it does not have to. It can be learning for the pleasure in learning itself. It can be learning because you have a keen interest in a particular subject. For instance, The Great Courses lecture I am currently listening to is ‘The Irish Identity’ by Marc C. Connor. Now whilst I’m enjoying learning about the Irish revival, and especially of the literary titans of W B Yeats, James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw to name a few, I do not expect to personally benefit from this knowledge in any way. However, I am enthralled in learning about this period of Irish history, and it is opening my mind to literary works and figures, I would not have come across without it.

The personal development world on its own will show you how to become more confident, richer, healthier and a better speaker. These are all fine to be pursued but they won’t necessarily help you discover who you really are and what you really love in this world. Lifelong learning can help you with all the things personal development will do for you, but in can also bring you pleasure in learning itself, and help you in any areas that are not easy to display.

Whilst lifelong learning does not have to have a means to an end, I am certain that it will lead to personal growth. And this happens in spite of the fact you are not looking for it. Your world opens up with every new thing you learn. If I come back to the lecture series I am currently listening to ‘The Irish Identity’, just by listening to this series, I have opened up a world where I have discovered J M Synge, Lady Gregory and The Abbey Theatre. And once I read more of the works of these people and places, my world will continue to open up still.

One of my favourite books is ‘How to read a book’ by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. The aim of the book is very clear from the outset; it wants to make you a better reader, but in the modern sense, it is not a personal development book. The reason they want you to become a better reader is not so you can become richer or more successful, but to increase your understanding of the world. To help you learn what the great thinkers of history wrote about a certain subject and how those ideas can help you in this life. After I had listened to the Jim Rohn CD, I bought a copy of How to read a book (which he recommended) and the book sparked an interest in reading classic literature, that has been with me ever since. Not only is it a great joy to read the great books (as well as increasing your understanding of the world), but I genuinely believe that what also comes with this level of understanding, is a greater sense of happiness. As with the lectures I listen to, the great books can open up your world right in front of you.

Of course, lifelong learning does not have to be about great books and lectures. It can be musical instruments, languages, sports, cooking, travel, wildlife and photography. Not only am I invested in learning a foreign language (Polish) but I am also learning the guitar from the very basics, despite having played for over 20 years. Lifelong learning through activities is also a way to expand the horizons of your world, and bring you a profound sense of discovery and joy.

Personal development will always be a part of my own journey, because I would be telling a lie if I said I did not want to create a more financially secure future, with more time to focus on the things I want to focus on. However, I know that where I am in life materially is absolutely fine, and that further material gains, do not necessarily equal a happier future. The world is something I can reveal and create through my love of lifelong learning, and whether intentional or not, it is the best personal development one can invest in.

Believe me, when a man has squandered his true joys,
he’s good as dead, I tell you, a living corpse,
Pile up riches in your house, as much as you like-
live like a king with a huge show of pomp,
but if real delight is missing from the lot,
I wouldn’t give you a wisp of smoke for it,
not compared with joy.”

– From the play Antigone by Sophocles (496-406 BC)

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