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Why you should never stop learning new skills

Going back to the classroom – or logging in online from your sofa – may help to boost your confidence and provide a new sense of purpose, discovers Rebecca Frank

by Psychologies

woman painting

Did spending more time doing the things you enjoy during lockdown reignite past passions, or reveal new ones? Or has uncertainty about your job made you question what you want to do next? Either way, the pandemic has prompted many of us to revaluate what we want, how we work and spend our time.

‘The human capacity to rise up from life’s shittier moments is incredible,’ says Grace Marshall, a coach and author of Struggle: The Surprising Truth, Beauty And Opportunity Hidden In Life’s Sh*ttier Moments. ‘As we’ve seen, life can be really hard at times, but out of struggle often comes opportunity.’

From brushing up on your digital skills to growing vegetables or learning a language, a new breed of adult learners emerged from lockdown full of energy and enthusiasm after exploring their interests and using their brain in a different way. A 300 per cent rise in searches for online courses in the spring of 2020 was made up of a combination of people upskilling to meet the demands of a challenging and changing work environment and those looking to use their spare time in a more constructive way, instead of binge-watching yet another series on Netflix.

A recent study by Allbright, a professional women’s network, showed that 61 per cent of women are planning a complete career change while another survey of 1,000 women showed half had taken up a new hobby in the past year.*

Joanne Mallon, a coach and author, finds that people are getting braver in life and asking bigger questions. ‘There is a feeling that life is too short to be unhappy. People want their work to have meaning and are prepared to make big changes to make that happen,’ she says. She describes a feeling of drifting along in limbo in her book Find Your Why, and explains that this is a mindset in which people can get stuck when they lack purpose, don’t know what their purpose is or how to find it. Purpose is the ‘why’ that drives us.

Mallon suggests looking for clues in the way you feel when you do certain things, asking yourself questions and looking for repeat themes in the answers (see ‘Learning for pleasure’, below). Asking people close to you where they think your strengths lie can also give clues about what you might be suited to doing.

‘It can be excruciating, but having people you trust tell you how they see you is eye-opening,’ adds coach Helen McMillan, who specialises in purpose.

After a bit of soul-searching, you might come to the conclusion that it’s not a big leap that you need, but small changes that help you feel more fulfilled in the present and positive about the future. ‘You don’t have to give up your job and join the circus!’ says Mallon. ‘It could be taking an evening class or registering for a training course at work. Or, if it’s a passion you already make time for that brings you joy, you could look at the next steps to getting better at it and expanding your involvement.’ Becoming more expert in something you enjoy doing can be a catalyst for greater change further down the line, or it might just mean you get more out of your hobby without any performance pressure. When your confidence needs restoring, Mallon recommends retreating to something you feel naturally good at, whether that’s riding a bike or baking a cake.

Embarking on any kind of learning as an adult requires getting into the mindset of being a beginner again, something you might find exciting, liberating – and pretty scary. ‘Let yourself be curious and open to learning, without judgment,’ says Marshall, who warns about the part of a learning journey where it stops being new and can start to feel trickier. ‘It’s OK to feel uncomfortable and find something hard,’ she says. ‘If you expect that sticky middle bit, it will take you less by surprise.’ However, if you do ultimately decide something isn’t for you, that’s OK – not everything will be a resounding success. ‘Learning skills for a purpose is great but learning for play is equally beneficial,’ she says.

If you like the idea of trying something new but are still pondering what that might be, there’s one question Marshall asks her clients to help them see the light: ‘If you suddenly had an extra hour in the day, what would you do with it? Now ask, what would be the cost benefit of doing more of that?’ ‘Just having it on your radar will make it something you go to more often when you’ve got free time,’ she says.

Looking back over the past 18 months, Mallon agrees that there is insight to be gained from the things you chose to do when you had extra time to do whatever you wanted. ‘Think about what you did during lockdown and what these things tell you about your values – the clearer you are on what your values are, the easier it becomes to stay true to them.’

Open your mind to so much more

A report by the Department for Education reveals that adult learning is associated with greater wellbeing, fewer visits to the GP and improved mental health, and repeated studies show that people live longer and in better health if they have a sense of purpose. As our working life extends, we’re naturally more likely to want to change career path and will inevitably need to update our skills along the way. ‘Most of us aren’t going to retire at 60,’ says coach Helen McMillan, ‘so we need to adapt to the mindset of longer working lives. We can’t expect that a job we perhaps chose to train for in our late teens will necessarily sustain us for 50 or 60 years.’

A thirst for learning also makes you a more attractive employee. In the World Economic Forum’s ‘Future of jobs’ survey, active learning was the second most desirable skill listed by the world’s biggest employers.

Learn for pleasure

Ask yourself the following questions to help you discover where your passions lie:

* When have you felt both powerful and at peace?

* What would you be doing if you knew you couldn’t fail?

* If you didn’t have to do a job for money, what would you do?

* Was there a work or college project that particularly absorbed you?

* What was it about the project that captivated you?

* What did you want to be when you grew up?

* What do you think other people come to you for?

* Write down five things you are good at in your life today

It worked for me

After having her third child, the prospect of going back to teaching left Helen McMillan feeling flat and uninspired. ‘In theory, I had the perfect job for family life, but when I looked to the future, I felt flat and trapped by the rigid structure of my job. I didn’t want to be a teacher for the rest of my life, but I didn’t have a clue what to do or how to make a change,’ she says.

Eventually, Helen consulted a career coach. ‘I was terrified at first and surprised at how hard I found admitting that I didn’t know what I wanted to do,’ she says. With her coach, Helen went through a career transition process exploring options that aligned with her interests, until she decided that she wanted to train as a coach herself. ‘It combines the skills I had from teaching with a therapeutic basis that I really like. It wasn’t always easy and I had moments of wondering whether I’d done the right thing, but I loved learning again and meeting people from different walks of life.’

A few years later, Helen runs her own business coaching companies and individuals and feels in control and fulfilled.

Next steps

CREATE a mood board with words, pictures and ideas that inspire you and look for themes that emerge and clues about what you might wish to do next (or learn more about). This will help you uncover your passions and purpose.

LEARN: For a range of online courses – from creative arts and history to personal development and upgraded business skills, check out linkedin.com, skillshare.com, futurelearn.com and uklearns.pearson.com.

READ The 100-Year Life: Living And Working In an Age Of Longevity by Lynda Gratton and Andrew J Scott (Bloomsbury, £10.99).

Photographs: Getty Images

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