Navigating Life Without A Compass.
When I was in fifth grade, I had my first geography class. I remember pointing out on the map my hometown and feeling pride. We went on to learn about the next bigger town, the capital of the region, the capital of the country, other countries and their capitals, and eventually about the towns, cities, and countries of other continents. Learning about all these places excited me.
And although I might have forgotten a good 60% of what I memorized back then, I still remember feeling curious and dreaming up scenarios about where I wanted to go. The outward expansion and the wondering and wandering in relation to learning is something that never stopped. Not as a student, nor as a professor.
Our education tends to be outward-focused. We learn about a lot of things with the belief that knowing more about the world is helping us to find our way in it. But, as most of us have experienced, especially during the pandemic, this is not necessarily true. The expansion of our knowledge leads to an increase in possibility, but NOT a precision about our proper direction. Knowing is not the same thing as living.
I studied multiple subjects, worked in too many jobs to list on LinkedIn, only to realize I was a little lost in my thirties. All this education provided me with more destinations but little direction. What started to dawn on me back then was that education provided people with a lot of knowledge about the world, but little knowledge about themselves. And while this might have worked for a society where people had no choice, it does not work for a society where people believe in the freedom to create their own fate. Thus, while we can spend our lives learning about the world and its destinations, education often leaves us without the knowledge, skills and tools to navigate it.
It is as if we taught people about the world and forgot to teach them about how to read a compass.
To navigate this world, we need to balance learning about it with learning about us. This is especially true in times of change that present us with uncertainty and confront us with our limitations. We could learn any new job when we are laid off during a crisis. We could find a friend or partner if someone we love decides to go their own way. We could have a lot of time on our hands when we become empty nesters or retired, but if we don’t have a direction, and if we never learned to navigate to where we want to go, all the possibilities we are aware of mean very little. We may be bewildered as we face what’s been called “a paradox of choice.”
This is part of what inspired me to write a white paper with Chip Conley on the topic of “long life learning” that is a juxtaposition of the idea of “lifelong learning.” Our increasingly long lives are full of challenges that require us to master the art of transition. Seen that way, midlife is the life stage marked by the highest density of life transitions, so it’s the time when our mastery really needs to kick-in. When we end up in a transition, traditional “lifelong learning” allows us to learn everything about possible destinations on the map of life. But, what is often missing is a sense of direction regarding where we want to go and a way that helps us to transition from where we are to where we need to be in order to engage in that direction. This is not only a matter of enrolling in a program, or starting an education, but one of developing an individual mindset and being open to behavior change while dealing with the accompanying emotional rollercoaster.
In order to find our way, we do not only need a map, but we need a direction, and we need to learn how to find our way navigating it in the real world. The compass is about learning about ourselves, and navigation is about the skills we can use to set our course and be resilient amongst setbacks, failures, and emotional challenges. Together, our compass and navigation skills allow us to find a direction, navigate the transitions, and arrive at our destination. Having a compass and learning to navigate becomes increasingly important due to economic instability, increased life expectancy, and increasing choice.
The direction of the compass is unique to everyone. But, there are some foundational questions that are relevant to all of us including, “What do I want from life?” and “What does life want from me?” Further, the skills to navigate life, weather the storm, bounce back from setbacks, and work fluently with our emotions do exist. The problem, however, is that access to programs is not widely available...yet. Institutions like MEA, Harvard’s ALI program, and Stanford’s DCI program are leading the way to help mid-lifers build their own compass.
This is why we created the white paper, The Emergence of Long Life Learning. We hope that it will serve as a starting point for mid-lifers to better navigate their lives and for educators and educational institutions to help them do so. Not by competing, or by reinventing the wheel, but by learning from and with each other. No doubt, higher education needs to evolve and addressing the unique needs of those in midlife is one way to assure that our colleges and universities are here to stay at a time of massive disruption in the educational world. Click here to download the Long Life Learning white paper.
Ingo Rauth Ph.D. is an adjunct professor who is passionate about Long Life Learning as a way to support midlifers in becoming who they truly want to be. He hosts the School of Becoming, which curates live classes that support professional development.