Becoming a Lifelong Learner

When I was in high school I made the wrong choice—I only learned when I had to, and just enough to get by. The only thing I went out of my way to learn was shortcuts. I didn’t cheat, but I also didn’t apply myself. I was typically content with Bs and Cs (even the occasional D or F). I rarely put in the time or effort to do better. One reason was that I hated reading. It didn’t matter what kind of reading—novel, history book, short story—reading was not my thing. Unlike my wife, who grew up with a steady diet of books, I restricted my reading to TV Guide. Reading drained me. And most of what I read was boring.

College could have opened my eyes to reading, but no way I was going to let that happen. Throughout most of college, I only cracked half of my textbooks. (Nothing like spending dad’s money to buy books you never read.) It wasn’t that I couldn’t read—I just didn’t like to. Turns out, I wasn’t alone. Only 45% of Americans over the age of 13 read a book in the course of a year.

After graduating college with all the answers, it took me a couple of years to realize just how little I actually knew. In fact, those first two years of ministry were…how should I say this?…an experiment in stupidity. I alienated people, made dumb decisions, had a negative attitude, and was extremely naïve. Once my pastor tried to buy me a book on attitude. Ironically, I was offended. As if all those things weren’t enough, I once burned a hole in a church pew with a flash pot gone bad—less than 12 months after we had just remodeled the auditorium. Forrest Gump’s famous words encapsulated my life: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

When I finally realized how well prepared I was for irrelevance, that newfound humility forced me into a learning mode. I had come face-to-face with my growth gaps, and humility was the only road to change.

In the years that followed—mostly out of necessity—I developed a habit of reading. At first it was slow and inconsistent. I’d pick up a book here or there and occasionally read a magazine article. I can still remember reading John Maxwell’s early leadership book, Developing the Leader Within You, and thinking, “This is the best leadership book I’ve ever read.” Suddenly it occurred to me: “This is the only leadership book I’ve ever read.”

But that book, along with others, was a spark that ignited personal growth in my professional life. A subtle, but powerful, revolution had begun. I made a decision to grow. I took to heart the words of Mark Twain: “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.” And I discovered a simple truth—with every page I read, my appetite for personal growth grew.

Today I’m an avid reader, but more importantly, I’m a lifelong learner. I made a decision to let my missional potential drive my learning, and then I followed that decision with one baby growth step after another. What about you? Would the people who know you well describe you with the phrase “lifelong learner”? If not, that can change. But you have to make a decision to grow.

As simple as it sounds, many people never make that decision. It won’t happen if you just wait for life and your circumstances to demand that you grow—like I did when I started in ministry. Mediocrity is tempting, because it’s easy to just take a seat in someone else’s ride and let your potential lie dormant inside of you. But if you choose to cruise through life in the passenger seat, learning only when you have to, then your growth won’t be on your terms. To truly grow into your potential, you have to decide to pick out your own car and head out onto the open road. That’s where the action is.

The true test of whether your decision sticks will be the behavior that follows it. But you won’t start until you first make a clear-cut, uncompromised decision. Revolutions start with “Go!” Your life today is the sum total of all your decisions. That means that your decision about personal growth today will greatly determine your life tomorrow.

Don’t take this decision lightly. And once you’ve made it, you’ll still have to manage it daily. Growth is a posture, not just a phase you go through. A phase lasts for a season and then it’s over. But a posture is an attitude. Your decision to grow is more than a single act of growth—it’s a frame of mind and a lifestyle of continual improvement.

So, let me ask you one more time—have you made that choice? Have you decided to become a lifelong learner, to set aside the “easy” life of mediocrity and grow to your full missional potential? If you haven’t, stop right now and make your choice. Don’t just flirt with the decision—marry it!

Question: Have you made the decision to be a lifelong learner?

This post was adapted from my book, GO! Starting a Personal Growth Revolution. You can order a copy in my store here or on Amazon or KindleGO! is also available from Barnes & Noble. For bulk orders, email me here.