Why We Need to Approach Life With the Mindset of a Student

There’s a certain irony in being an adult. We expect children to be veritable sponges when it comes to learning, living in a state of perpetual willingness to soak up and master a relentless tsunami of new ideas. We fully expect them to approach life with the mindset of a student. But when it comes to ourselves – there’s often a very different set of expectations.

I believe that the absence of the mindset of a student is one of the primary reasons why so many people are struggling against career headwinds and find themselves unable to retool into new careers or into self-employment. If we don’t commit to learning on a continuous basis, we doom ourselves to lack the ability to make needed life changes.

Why We Need to Approach Life With the Mindset of a Student
Why We Need to Approach Life With the Mindset of a Student
And for what it’s worth – I’m not talking about formal education here (though not necessarily excluding it) – but rather about bringing the mindset of a student to your entire life.

And we need to do just that. As we get older, we become entrenched. We need to believe that we “have it all figured out”. Closer to reality is that we live our entire lives as grown up kids, who understand little more than the last experience we’ve been through – if we even truly understand that.

It would be far better for all adults if we would impose the same expectations on ourselves that we do on kids, that we approach life with the mindset of a student – always open new ideas, always ready to embrace and learn something new.

The Current Addiction to Experts

In our techno-information driven world we’ve been trained to believe and expect that everything that exists or takes place in life is fully understood, explained and overcome by an expert somewhere.

Don’t bet on it.

In the vast majority of situations, the expert is brought in to explain events after the fact. You and I could do a reasonable job of that – what it mostly requires is knowing what happened and attaching a plausible explanation to it. In football that’s called Monday Morning Quarterback.

But have you ever noticed that when experts are brought in to predict the outcome of a situation they get it wrong at least 50% of the time?

That’s because reality has a way of even confounding the people the world declares to be experts. Anyone can be right about any situation on a theoretical basis. But in the real world, there are unexpected variables and complications that render the most expert of expert opinions little more than an educated guess.

We Think We Need to be Experts (or Pretend that We Are)

There’s an even bigger perversion of expert addiction, and that’s when we begin to believe that we’re experts.

Get over it! There are no true experts. The best we can hope to be are competent practitioners, what ever the arena might be. This isn’t an indication of a lack of confidence either, but rather an acknowledgement that reality can never be ignored.

Believing yourself to be an expert at anything is driven more by emotion than by either reason or intellect. Accepting that you are merely a competent practitioner allows you to be wrong from time to time, forces you to embrace your need to learn, and keeps you moving forward.

And for what it’s worth, it can also make you a better person to be around. Think about the self-appointed experts you’ve known in your life and how arrogant and insufferable they can be; that should convince you that you don’t want to be THAT person!

What is the Mindset of a Student

The mindset of a student is nothing more complicated than what we expect from young people:

  • That they’re willing to learn new ideas and disciplines,
  • That they’re willing to expand on the ideas and disciplines they’ve already been introduced to,
  • That their minds are wide open to the possibilities,
  • That education is a never-ending process,
  • That they embrace the discipline necessary to learn new ideas and subject matter.

I would also add to this list that there needs to be a full understanding that most learning takes place somewhere other than a classroom or in a textbook. Real world experience will trump theory every time, if only because it forces us to accept the existence of variables. And variables are everywhere in the real world.

I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t an easy mindset to adopt, especially when you’re an adult. We all want to believe that we can attain a level of certainty in life and in all areas in life – it just makes living easier. But there’s a pronounced making it up as we go along quality to life that we’re all familiar with. And deep inside, I think we all know that absolute certainty isn’t part of the human condition. We have to live with that uncertainty, and embracing the mindset of a student is the most constructive way to do that.

How do we apply the mindset of a student in every day life – particularly in connection with making needed changes?

Career and Business

Due to technology and globalization, the workplace and the business world are in a constant state of change. For most of us, that means we’re forced to learn at least the minimum needed to keep up. But what if rather than backing into needed change, you instead decide to embrace it?

What I mean is that you become proactive – rather than reactive  to change.

I learned the virtue of this in the School of Hard Knocks. I was 50 years old and my mortgage career came to an unceremonious end. With no prospects for employment anywhere, I was forced to reinvent myself career-wise at a very inconvenient time in life. I made a conscious decision to retool into blogging, and it’s been my primary source of income for the past few years.

As you might imagine, there weren’t any formal sources of education for that type of career, not the least of which because it’s really not a career but a business. There was nothing in my previous work history that prepared me to be a blogger. What enabled me to do it was approaching it with the mindset of a student. When you have nothing else to fall back on, your mind is suddenly forced to be wide open to entirely new directions.

I now believe that if you approach your career or business with the mindset of a student that you can learn just about anything that you need to – including how to retool into an entirely new career or business. No matter where you’re at in your life or your career, you can do the same in any area that you choose.

Learning a New Skill

A skill that I learned early in my blogging venture was coding for HTML. That’s not entirely necessary for blogging, but it sure helps.

How did I learn it? HTML For Dummies purchased for about $15 at my local Barnes & Noble bookstore. I dove into it with the conviction of a convert, and within two months I had a solid working knowledge of how to do it. It’s still benefiting me even now.

Here’s another personal example of learning a new skill…

I am not and never have been a car guy, and I’m severely challenged in the area of auto mechanics. But recently my son and I changed out one of the ignition coils on my car. We got a diagnosis from a friend who has a car computer reading gadget, and he told us that it was ignition coil #5.

My backyard mechanic said that changing ignition coils is easy. On that advice, we decided to do it ourselves. How did we learn how to do it?

From a YouTube video!

I’m not kidding. A YouTube video showed us where the coils are located (don’t expect your car owner’s manual to show you that – they want you to bring the car to their own service shop so that you can be properly overcharged), and how they can be replaced – in under two minutes! (OK, it actually took us about ten minutes, but you get the point.)

The car runs beautifully, we saved at least $150 on the labor (the part costs well below $100), and we both gained some confidence in the area of auto repairs. And it all came about because we were willing to learn something new.

Understanding and Dealing With Others – With the Mindset of a Student

Author and motivational speaker Robert Ringer coined a term, grouping and tagging, an action term he used to describe the common human practice of putting people into groups, then attaching labels to each group so that we can easily categorize them and make predictions about their behavior in a convenient way that doesn’t tax our brains.

As he noted, the problem with that default setting is that it’s completely wrong.

Just because someone is part of a certain people group doesn’t mean that we can assign all the common traits of the group to the individual. Doing so totally ignores the fact that each of us are unique individuals, regardless of any common characteristics we share with a sub-group we’re part of.

And tragically, though we each desperately want to be treated as the unique individuals that we are, we don’t necessarily extend the same courtesy to others.

In fact, as we get older, grouping and tagging seems to become more pronounced – probably because it’s so easy. We may categorize people by any number of distinguishing factors, including (but not limited to):

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation
  • Cultural heritage
  • Language
  • Geographic origins (even within the same country)
  • Gender
  • Political affiliation (or even none at all)
  • Physical appearance (an extremely under-estimated bias)
  • And even certain occupations (as an example, think about the different mental picture of the characteristics you might assign to someone who is a trash collector, then think about the ones that come to mind for a doctor)

Ironically, the government (with the help of pollsters) is the worst offender in this arena, despite their attempts to give the appearance as the champion of the minority. The government collects, organizes and publishes survey information for public consumption, which tends to reinforce the very stereotypes and prejudices they claim to be illegal. But I digress…

We need to approach people with the mindset of a student – by not making initial (and often unfounded) assumptions about them, and by being totally open the possibilities of their individuality. Each person you meet has something unique to offer you, but you’ll never know what that might be if you assume you know all about them before even getting to know them.

What I’ve learned is that everyone – regardless of background factors – has a story to tell. There may be either information or inspiration (or both) that help you to move on to the next project in your life. Or you may find someone who has experienced a crisis you’re going through right now. Or you might even find a new business partner or best friend. But you’ll never find any of that if you aren’t open to it from the very start. That means dropping any notions of certain people groups that you might prefer to not affiliate with. In the end, we’re all human and we’re all struggling to deal with living within the constraints of the human condition. And that means that we have more in common than we think.

If that isn’t enough, let’s express it on a more practical level…

One of the best business strategies – in fact, one of the best survival strategies – is to network with people. But you’ll never do that in an effective way if you do it primarily with people who are mostly just like you, or if you do it in a way that’s always formal (like through an established network). True networking – the kind that holds the greatest potential – is the kind that can be done everyday, with the people you meet, and on an informal basis.

Many of those people will have nothing in common with you based on surface factors. But if you probe beneath the surface, by asking questions and being ready to listen to the answers, you’ll be the biggest winner in the exchange.

I’ve found that approaching life with the mindset of a student is absolutely essential to the mobile creative lifestyle that I now live, because I need to constantly learn and acquire new ideas, skills, people connections, and even ways to think. But I have a feeling that that’s just life in the 21st Century, a time and place where we all need to adopt the mindset of a student, regardless where we’re at in life. It seems to be the only way forward.

Do you have other examples as to how adopting the mindset of a student could work to our advantage?

( Photo by Celestine Chua )

2 Responses to Why We Need to Approach Life With the Mindset of a Student

  1. I recently took a new position at my company. THis was a newly created position and is requiring me to learn a lot of new aspects. Having the student mentality has been beneficial to my quick growth. I also like the ability to grow within a position. If only I could still have the energy I had when I was in college. First time reader, I look forward to reading many more articles. Thanks, JB

  2. Hi JB – That’s exactly the mindset I was trying to conjure up in the article! A lot of people want to have better in life, but they’re unwilling to try to be better. That really does require the mind of a student. I’ve found that to be incredibly beneficial in my life. I’m over 50 and the skills I had from earlier in life weren’t much help. I had to learn new skills. The advantage is that once you come to that realization you learn that it’s OK to be a student – that it’s the only way you learn anything that’s worthwhile. So now when I come across something new or complicated I hunker down and commit to learning it. You’re never washed up if you keep learning. And it really helps with being self-employed!

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