Lifelong Learning

This week we were responding to a request from a listener who has decided to go back into training as part of a career change. Their comment was that going back into learning as a mature student is a bit tricky. I have to say maybe not. We can certainly get out of the habit of learning and yet all the evidence would tell us that when we keep on learning we create new brain cells and stay younger for longer. As Winston Churchill put it…

…Never, never, never give up!

At what point do people give up and stop learning? Often working and learning go together.

When I was a child we had fireworks every November 5th. On the box was written the instruction “light the blue touch paper and retire”. Later this was developed to simply “stand well back”. Now, I think stand well back is what people sometimes do when they embrace the idea of retirement, they stand well back from life and for many this is the beginning of the end.

I believe that a fulfilled life is about learning, that learning is living and that, for most of us, unless we have engaging habits, living and learning is what we call working. It is engagement. I meet people in their 30s and 40s who have stopped learning and are in the process of becoming old. I also meet people in their 80s and 90s who are still young. The realisation is that age is a number and that we can be a 10 year old adult or a 60 year old child.

Everybody, every being, on the planet is involved with their own work, their work is their life. The other day the children laughed at me when I referred to a spider as a person. The spider, female in this case, from my point of view, has rights just like you and me. Some people become spider phobic and may even want to kill it, but for me, the spider, is doing what we are all doing she is living and doing her work, living her life.

All beings work. Everyone on this planet from ants to elephants work. Working is engagement in the process of living. Essentially this means, getting up in the morning and going about the business of finding food, creating shelter and safety and raising the next generation.

Working and living should be the same thing…

Some of us, perhaps all of us, also play as well as work. Dogs obviously, primates definitely, when I go for my early runs the horses are playing chase around the field, maybe even ants have their own down time and play as well. Essentially living and working are the same thing. We need to be engaged in our life because without engagement in the work/living process we die. Food and shelter are fundamental, they are our essential work.

However, compared to all the other beings on the planet, human beings are different in two ways. The first is that we have a much longer childhood, not maturing until we are twenty five years old, which is a hugely non productive, non working time, supported by parents and society, however this does allow for much longer brain development and evolutionary advantage. We also have money.

Money has a unique effect for humans. We no longer need to work like all other species. We no longer need to be doing our essential work. We no longer need to go and catch or grow our food. We do abstract things with our time, that we call work, and collect tokens, that we call money, for doing it. We then exchange these tokens for food and shelter, services and even safety. So, for many humans, the concept of ‘work’ has become very different and over away from the concepts of living. Someone who writes or paints or produces cars, widgets or computers is no longer doing the essential work of life, other people do it for them. People then pay those that do the essential work with the tokens.

The strange thing is that those among us who do essential work become ever fewer and fewer. We have moved away from essential work and nature to the point that if the majority of us were required to become essential workers again we would not have a clue how to go about it. The plethora of TV programmes about groups of people abandoned somewhere like an island and having to survive is testament to this. Both practically and socially because many fail.

Now then, when you live the ‘normal’ life of an essential worker, which must be within the rhythms of nature and season, it is a life long task. Any species that decided they had had enough and stopped doing their essential work would die, simple. Yet socially and financially human beings have created this strange state termed retirement, when they stand back from life, cease to learn and to be productive and yet survive. I guess I should qualify that statement with reference to the industrial world and the west. There are many countries where social welfare does not exist and retirement would be impossible.

There is a strong case for not retiring.

Reason not to retire

1: We know that it is in the process of engagement and life long learning that new brains cells are created and that people remain younger for longer.

2: When people become physically less active and more sedentary they develop more diseases both physical and emotional.

3: Those that maintain a working function maintain and develop social relationships and maintain a sense of belonging and engagement.

4: Productive people have a stronger sense of self and self esteem.

I could go on, and on. I guess the big one that has hit the western industrial world is that supporting retired people costs much more money than anyone ever expected and we can’t afford it. This is where the money token idea begins to breakdown and why capitalism is destined to fail.

I know from my own clients that the people who continue to work, and I see many people still at work in the seventies, even If that work is voluntary, yet regular and committed to everyday attendance, have higher levels of self esteem and enjoyment, have a stronger sense of purpose and value. They have stronger immune systems stay younger for longer.

At what point do we stand back from life, do we retire? For some people this begins at thirty, forty or fifty and for others it never happens. My definition of success and happiness is waking with a smile on your face feeling that you have something that you truly want to get out of bed for. That you have something to go and do that is both meaningful and fulfilling. For many this is called work, though many do not realise it until they retire. And, if it is not organised official work it can be a voluntary contribution to life or a lot of engaging habits.

Whether you trade you life energy for money, or the love of it, don’t stand back, remain involved and engaged in the process of life and living. I promise you that you will be happier and that you will stay younger for longer. It is all about mindful choices and never giving up.

Take care be happy and keep on doing and learning!

Sean x