The shark never stops swimming

They say that if a shark ever stops swimming it dies. It’s the process of swimming that keeps it going, constantly moving forwards, searching for the things that will sustain it.

Yet as people we often seem content to rest on our laurels, in theory at least. The learning that sustains us, both as professionals and as private citizens, is boxed off into a special, limited space. We learn until we leave college, and from then on it’s work. We may take the occasional professional course or do a bit of online learning, but our education is seen as largely in the past.

Except that that’s not really the way it works. Especially in the modern age of interconnectivity and instant communication, we are always learning.

You’re learning now

You may not think it, but regardless of whether you’re a student, a professional or a bit of both, you are already, and constantly, learning.

You read books and magazines, listen to the opinions and information of others, hunt out articles that interest you. At work you read new procedures and policies, studying how they work, why they have been implemented, how they will affect you. You attend induction sessions at new jobs, go on seminars and away days, listen to presentations.

Just by being alive you are constantly learning.

The old ways

Perhaps the difference used to be more stark. Perhaps at some point, whether in the black-and-white world of the post-war boom or further back in the smog-laden depths of the Industrial Revolution, maybe then people really did stop learning when they left school. They learned for as long as they had time, then they went out and earned.

But I doubt it.

This division between education and work is a construct of an earlier era, one in which we thought we could divide the world into neat little boxes to bring it under control. But the reality has always been more messy and complex. These days we are ready not just to face that but to embrace it, to make the most of everything it represents.

Yet that old divide between the worlds of education and work still lurks over us, an unwelcome spectre at the intellectual feast. It keeps us from remembering that we are always learning, and from making the most of the potential in that.

Finding your own way

You can just accept this truth, note that you are still learning and more on. But surely it is far better to make the most of it?

On some level you will always be a student, so why not act like one? Find a notebook, any notebook, and keep it with you. Jot down the interesting things that you hear and read. The act of writing will help to fix them in your mind, and you can go back later to remember what you’ve learned. Use that notebook to reflect as well, to expand upon your ideas like a student would do, to connect together the pieces of your knowledge.

Seek out learning you wouldn’t normally. The shark grows strongest by swimming in the toughest currents – try to stretch yourself in the same way. Take that art class you’ve always dreamed of. Research another department’s skills and methods. Find out about your family’s past. Do something to build new intellectual muscles, not just reinforce the old ones.

Keep learning. Keep swimming. Don’t accept the old boundaries of study and work.

Be the best that you can.

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