Online courses. Books. Podcasts. Mentors. Shadowing. Traditional coursework. Any one or combination of those are available to you to let you learn something. And right now, the consensus among the best in business is that learning isn't a one-off--it's a lifelong process you should keep rolling every single day.

But I have one question for you.

When is the last time you actually applied what you learned?

 

I'm not asking to accuse. I'm asking to make sure that you're not missing the point.

Every tool has a purpose

Learning has value only when the information or skills we gain get implemented into our lives. That might mean performing different tasks than before or doing jobs differently, but it also can mean that we think and make decisions differently than we otherwise would have because our perspective of the world and ourselves is broader. And what we know can influence who we choose to connect with and how our interactions go, too.

You might compare it to a good mechanic or repair technician. They typically don't carry tools they don't use. Sure, some tools sit in the toolbox a little longer than others because maybe they're for something a little more specialized, but they all get pulled out eventually.

In the same way, like the best leaders in the world, you shouldn't let what you're learning be rusty dead weight. It should be in your toolbox for a reason.

Two big learning potholes

I bring this up for two reasons, firstly because there is a tendency for people to try to mimic and replicate what other successful people have done. We're obsessed with morning routines or how today's billionaires organize, for example. We want a formula. And the danger is that learning becomes simply another checklist item, something that makes you feel more confident just for having done it, something you can brag about, rather than something that actually changes you and makes you better.

Secondly, for any leader or person trying to advance their career, time and money both are so, so precious. If what you're learning isn't applicable and you're learning just because you think you should, then you're taking time away from interpersonal interaction and other fruitful, creative activities you could do. And if the resources for learning aren't free (e.g., you're going to school, not grabbing a podcast that requires only a click), then you're robbing yourself of other investment opportunities. Both of these points can add totally unnecessary stress to your life and hold you back.

So don't just learn to gain a notch on your belt or out of obligation. Follow the example of people at the top and learn to do.

 

The learning-to-do checklist

Ask yourself this short set of questions to make sure your learning always has purpose:

  • What does this learning connect with for me? Is it relevant to my past, what I presently am doing or will do in the future?
  • Who can I share this information or skill with?
  • Who can support or supplement the learning?
  • Is there a way to determine the influence of the learning (e.g., a metric, observable change)?
  • What goals will the learning help me reach?
  • Am I genuinely interested in this, and if so, why?

With this list in your mind, the only job now is to go pick a topic.

Published on: May 14, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.