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The X-Factor in Top Talent: A Desire for Lifelong Learning

Wiki defines lifetime learning as the “ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge.” At its core, lifetime learning is an expression of hyper curiosity where gaining and sharing knowledge over the entirety of one’s life is of high value.

Lifetime learners are self-motivated and self-directed individuals who apply their learnings towards making their lives, relationships, customers, and employees better. They are not flat-footed nor still but realize that life is dynamic and changing. Because of this realization, they have a hyper curiosity for learning, growth, and identifying new relationships between data and knowledge to help them remain current. The willingness lifetime learners have to create and contribute make them the most likely to be prepared, knowledgeable, insightful, creative, and able to help navigate the sea of changes in business and life.

Lifetime learning in the workplace: a case study

Studies have found that nurses who possess the characteristics of lifetime learners see better health and mortality outcomes than nurses who do not. A Delphi Study of nurses found that lifetime learning is simply the enjoyment of appreciating, reflecting, and questioning the past, present and future to gain knowledge and perspective on a recurring basis.

A meta-study of 22 journal articles exploring the correlation between nursing and lifetime learning found that lifetime learning positively affects not only the growth and development of employees professionally, but also personally and socially. In other words, keeping the mind active is essential in delivering high-quality care in professional, personal, and social situations.

Another study asked nurses to complete the sentence stem: lifetime learning is [fill in the blank]. The top four responses were as follows: like a baby, children, tree, or water (placed here in alphabetical order). These metaphors suggest that nurses view lifetime learning as dynamic, evolving, growing and flowing—similar characteristics to those that are most essential to providing the best patient care.

Lifetime learning vs. continuing education

While the term lifetime learning may be seemingly new, the attributes behind the idea have long been present; hence the encouragement of professionals to enroll in continuing education and ongoing certification requirements. If not for continual learning, growth would become stagnant and current trends, knowledge and discoveries would cease to exist.

It’s important to delineate, however, the difference between lifetime learning (the act of seeking knowledge from self-directed motivation) and forced learning (the act of learning through degrees and certifications to meet occupational requirements).

If you had a requirement to hire a new receptionist for your front desk, would you want to hire the candidate who naturally smiled or the candidate who relied on the power and strength of your employee manual that tells employees, “please greet all customers coming into the reception desk with a smile”? Clearly, candidates with the natural, self-directed greeting would be most valuable, and less effort for you as an employer. The same is true for lifetime learners. When seeking new hires, look for those who have invested a lifetime of their mindshare in self-directed and self-motivated learning. So the question is, how do you find the lifetime learners?

Questions to identify lifetime learners

At ePraxis, we frequently use a 3-stage waterfall question to find true lifetime learners. Here are the questions:

  1. What are the last three books you read on any subject? For books, you may substitute audible books, podcasts, or blogs. In the research, it matters little what a candidate reads, but rather that they read. You want to find, or be, a candidate that is interested in regularly working the muscle of the mind. Sadly, at ePraxis, we far too often hear the words: “I have not read a book since college.” Unfortunately, that pattern of neglect forebodes a future of narrow potential as educational institutions cycle books every five years to make room for newer discoveries of knowledge. If individuals have not focused on routinely learning, their knowledge may lack relevance. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “many people die at age 25 and aren’t buried until they are 75.” If you do not exercise your mind, you may lose it.

  2. What are the last three books you read to improve your career? This question aims to uncover the following: are they current and are they keeping up with learning? And, are they reading the core learnings of their field? When I speak with Vistage groups around the country, I frequently ask about the authors or books they are reading. Often I hear, Patrick Lencioni, Simon Sinek, Jim Collins, Peter Drucker, Clayton Christensen, Daniel Pink, Eric Ries, and most recently Gino Wickman. If you are looking to improve your career and keep current with the best business writings and authors out there, in addition to the authors mentioned above, regularly track—a website that ranks the top business authors every two years. Look at what’s trending and sharpen your mental saw and learn. Add some of these titles to your Audible account or buy the book. This will help keep you green, growing, and current.

  3. What is the last course, certification, or training that you undertook to improve yourself, either personally or professionally, THAT YOU PAID FOR YOURSELF? If the candidate responds, “oh, the company pays for everything,” that is not lifetime learning. That is forced learning based on the company’s goals and vision. Lifetime learning is self-directed learning, self-motivated discovery, and a key difference from those who have been forced to learn. Look for, and be, a candidate that loves to learn and feels it’s important to explore knowledge. At ePraxis, we look for the true lifetime learners that have made a lifelong practice of learning, growing, discovering, connecting, and creating. These are the individuals that will enrich you with their insights and add tremendous value to your company.

Advice from an executive headhunter

When clients ask for the attributes they should look for in hiring, having lifetime learning as a natural self-motivated, self-determined, and self-paced trait is at top of the list.

Fortunately, we can all learn to become lifetime learners, and it starts with a simple curiosity thread that builds and grows until it has woven an entire fabric of knowledge, linkages, and relationships. In my youth, I thought my career would be baseball and I took little interest in reading anything outside of the sport that I loved. With only a junior college scholarship offer for baseball I wisely switched my attention to learning something new. I had not read much in other books at that time, as I thought it might not be needed. Now with the immediate need to learn, I told myself repeatedly, I like to read, I like to read, and eventually, I learned not only to like to read, but I now love to read. So even those with no attention for reading, like my prior self, can take a keen interest in learning and ultimately change their future.

My advice for all who are seeking to improve their careers, increase their compensation, and find the creativity and passion for life again: learn something new and take a keen interest in a topic. Learn all that you can. Become a lifetime learner and you will be most prepared for this rapidly changing world we live in. I wish you every success in this endeavor. And, if you find a book that I must read, please share it with me, as I’m always striving to learn something new, fresh, and insightful that keeps me green and growing, and not ripe and rotten.


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