7 steps to be a life-long learner – Exam isn’t the destination

The “life-long learner” is a pretty sexy title.

Over the past few years, I have received feedbacks, from both trusted and the anonymous sources, that self-improving seems to be one of my characters.

As a normal human being, I was flatted;  As an analyst, I can’t control the skepticism: Is this a filtered bubble?

What does it really take, to become “life-long” learner? – Let me tell you my version:

Learning doesn’t equal to passing exams

Recently I have just gone thru a piece of an unpleasant learning experience. It was a government-sponsored exam aiming for testing my knowledge in a certain domain.  I was provided with a handbook with over 60 pages.

The final outcome is great – I aced the exam. However, the overall experience was awful at best. Stressed, fear(of failing the exam), frustration(over less than ideal simulation test result), self-doubt(my my own identity), all of these negative feelings has crowded me, and I was forced to temporarily give up those roles that I am proud of, a husband, a parent and a dedicated employee, during that 2-day exam prep period.

Upon reflection, it has triggered the negative learning experience I had in my life growing up –  memorizing a lot of things and aim for a high score in the exam in the exam.

Learning things like this is dreadful.  Getting a good score on the final exam is important.  However it should be the outcome, not the guideline dictating all the steps along the way.

What is the right learning experience?

I decided to take the time to think, reflect and organize my thoughts in order to write this post – a bit longer than usual.  It can be breaking down into the following seven section:

  1. Experience is what matters the most
  2. The drive: balancing your 2X2 quadrant
  3. Choose your own “T shape” learning channels
  4. Money should not be your constraint
  5. Practice! Use it or lose it
  6. Reflection: continue optimizing
  7. Community: avoiding the one-man show

Experience matter the most

Experience is our best teacher.  We are learning either thru our own experience (ex. try and error) and learning thru others’ experience(eg, books or other media).  The latter one is usually much more difficult.

A recent example-  I was recently invited to a “board game Friday” – a group of colleagues just play a board game together during lunchtime every Friday.  The organizer always brings a new game, and he usually starts by explaining the rules in length, based on his own experience.  I never felt truly understand it and usually quickly lost my attention.  Once we are starting to play, it won’t take me long to figure out the rule and how to navigate it, by simply making a few errors, or observe how others play.  In short, in this board game example, it is much easier to learn thru own experience, than from other’s experience.

On the flip side – “easy” doesn’t always translate to “right”. The evolution theory is built upon “learning from others” – most of the animals can learn from own experience as well, but only human can learn from others.  Learning from others, in the form of observing, reading, writing, teaching, reflecting, help and contribute to the human evolution.  At the end of the day, Team works always win over individual excellence.

It needs to have a balance between “learning thru try and error” and “learning thru others”.  There is established framework claiming that 70% learning on the task(learn thru self), and 30% thru others (20% from peers and 10% from formal training). This optimal mix should be tailor to yourself.

The Drive: Balancing the 2X2 quadrant

Everything happens for a reason.  Why are you choose to learn this?  It is always a good idea to start by being honest with yourself, and understand what truly drive the behavior.  In many situations, it can be implicit and happens unconsciously.

Research shows there are four main type of motivations


The top left corner – “positive” + “internal” driven is claimed to be the most sustainable drive for your learning experience.   Curiosity is a simple example that fit into this category.

Not everything in the bottom right corner is “bad”.  For example. Deadline is another one that leans toward “negative” and “external driven”.  It is THE most effective way of driving actions not only myself but also quite a few of my friends.  Despite being stressful, we often learned the most during the short period leading toward the deadline.

Knowing this, we can even set up our own time constraints, for example, making a public commitment to others.  It just needs to be handled properly to avoid burning out. In my case, I try to balance it out for no more than once per month.

Here is my own ideal mix of the drive for learning.  How about you?


The Channel: T shape

Reading in the most traditional way of learning from theories. In the modern world,  watching a video and listen to podcast/audiobook are become viable, and more and more prominent, driving by the shorter attention span of the modern lifestyle.  Classroom or organized training is the other formal way.

Each learning channel has its unique benefit.  Backed by technology, listening to podcast or audiobook became more and more popular in recent years, and it will make your commute much more meaningful when stunk in traffic.

What “T” shape means is :

  • Pick the main channel that is proven to be the most effective to you, and invest the majority the energy on it.
  • Remain open-minded and leave a small portion of your available resources to other channels

This will help you avoid being a” jack of all trade and master of none”

For me is reading (books) and produce long-form content like writing blog, because I like to have the ability to see the big picture, and dive into detail when needed.

Resource: Money should not be your constraint

Think about managing yourself like a company:   US public companies on record spent over 3% of their total revenue in “Research and Development”. Tech companies usually spent over 10%.  Assuming you are making $70,000 a year, did you spend at $2,000 every year to improve yourself?   If you are in tech, is $7,000 annual budget learning surprising you?

Furthermore, you are also likely to get sponsorship from your employer.  A healthy company will support their employee to develop themselves, as it is a win-win situation for both parties.

Practice – “use it or you will lose it”

When I started my career a while ago, my boss used to tell me “In order to truly learn a skill, you really have to do the same thing over and over again, like 35-40 times, making it your second nature.”

Practice, or repetition with a purpose, transferred to knowledge from the book/podcast/course/words from others, to your brain.  The process isn’t always fun – it takes time and willpower, both are more scarce than money.

That is also the reason that you can’t and won’t learn everything you wanted. Ideally, you will focus your energy to make consciously repetition to those things matter to you(self-fulfilling) and to the world(marketability).

Reflection – take the time to ask yourself, then adjust

Most of the time, practice isn’t enough.   Reflection is the next step to help us move the needle.  Other people like to call it “self-correction”, basically it means we need to be able to find out what works, what doesn’t work, and then make appropriate follow-ups.

Reflection happens unconsciously more often.  For example, when I find myself struggling to find a large chunk of uninterrupted time for reading, naturally I started to buy more audiobooks. Therefore I can listen to the same content during my daily commute.

Conscious reflection can be real but still necessary.   In the business world, the leadership usually set up strategy at the beginning of the year, and have multiple check-in points throughout the year to check-in and make adjustments.  The same rule should apply to the individual development.  Set up multiple reminders, and ask yourself:  How did the learning process go? How can you make it better?

Community – one-man show isn’t sustainable

It takes a village to raise a child.  The same rule applies to learning as well.  Being part of the community with the shared goal of learning similar subjects has a series of benefits.  This post listed my own experience in detail of how I was fighting the loneliness by actively participating community event.

However, it doesn’t need to be this formal. The function you’d like to develop might not have an active community in your local area. You can try the following two options:

  • Start your own community: by simply finding another folk who shared the same interests as you, you can simply set up a regular check-in with this person to update each other what you have learned.  In this way, you are holding each other accountable (ultimately holding yourself accountable) to learn the subject.  The best way to learn is to teach others.
  • Just Google it. Very likely there is a community out there virtually.  Particularly If you are learning technical skills, the leading company usually maintain an online community, providing an environment for their “fans” to learn from each other.  Example:  SAP ,  PowerBI


This following video is inspiring to watch. I just don’t understand how he comes up with the magic number “20”.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MgBikgcWnY&w=560&h=315]

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