The Qualities of a Lifelong Learner

Updated: Apr 19

Do you want to be a lifelong learner but just find it too hard to stick it through?

If the answer to that is yes, then you’re like most people out there. Well, maybe I shouldn’t speak for most people. But, I can speak for myself.

Me. You’re like me :)

For me, there’s nothing more exciting than starting a new learning habit. This can be learning a new language, mastering a new subject, or reading the entire works of an author I admire. But, inevitably I find that after the first few weeks, my attention is already wandering towards the next learning goal.

When I was younger, I used to think that my passion for starting new things was a positive thing. However, as I got older - and it seemed that all I ever did was start new things without finishing anything - I began to doubt that this passion was actually a good thing.

That’s why I was really excited when, through Alpe, I discovered Angela Duckworth who helped me better understand how passion fits into the qualities of a lifelong learner.

Angela Duckworth and the qualities of lifelong learners

Back in 2016, an interesting new insight into perseverance was published. Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at University of Pennsylvania, developed something called the Grit scale. She actually didn’t produce this research in order to identify the qualities of a lifelong learner. Instead she was trying to determine what causes people to push through when things get rough. She was specifically studying army basic training - why some people push through it while many others drop out.

I actually learned about Duckworth from the Alpe course Neuroscience of Productivity. This course, co-taught by neurobiologist Orit Elgavi and occupational therapist Dena Lerman shows how to use a combination of neuroscience and behavior training to be more productive in work and in life.

In the course, Orit Elgavi explains the connection between Duckworth’s research and neuroscience:

Angela Duckworth had given a name to the quality of pushing through challenges. Grit. She had even developed a way to test for it. And today, we’ll be talking about the neuroscience behind grit. What happens in your brain as you push through challenges? And, how can you use this knowledge to hack the system and become more successful in your own life?

What Duckworth calls Grit, I’m going to call the qualities needed to be a lifelong learner. And as part of her research, Duckworth developed a test that could actually predict how gritty someone was likely to be when faced with a challenge. It’s called the Grit test.

Using the Grit test can identify qualities of a lifelong learner

So I took this Grit test. And like I feared, the results weren’t pretty. My score was only a 2.9/5, which the site so generously told me was more than only 10% of Americans.

If you’re brave enough to see how you would do, take the test for yourself here. You can let me know in the comments if you beat my score or if you’ll be joining me in Grit summer school this year 😞

But now I was curious, what was happening differently in my brain than in the brains of superstar basic training cadets that Angela Duckworth originally studied?

Let’s turn to Orit’s explanation to find out.

How qualities of lifelong learners look in the brain

Orit explains that there are three systems in your brain which contribute to goal setting:

The innermost system is your limbic system. It processes your innermost wants, needs and emotions. The outermost layer is the frontal cortex. Its where you plan your actions. And in between them, sits another area called the cingulate gyrus, that mediates between your emotions and wants on the one hand, and your planning on the other hand.

And she says something interesting about where goal setting starts from:

Goal setting really starts in the limbic system, the inner part of the brain where we process our emotions, our deepest needs and wants. It enables us to feel emotions such happiness, love, empathy, and passion, but also fear and greed and aggression.
Because it processes our deep emotions, our needs and wants, the limbic system is the very center of the goal setting system, the first layer. Research shows that without these emotions, without the work of the limbic system, we couldn't decide on any goals at all.

I found it pretty cool that goal setting, which I had always thought of as a highly disciplined action, is actually something emotional. It starts with a passion to accomplish something. And this makes sense because passion is one of the primary traits of a lifelong learner.

However, passion alone is too good to be true. As I know too well, even though I wish it was. Imagine where the world would be if passion alone was enough to make things happen! And that, Orit explains, is where the frontal lobe comes in:

I like to think of the limbic system as our inner child. All needs and emotions. I want this! I need that! I don't want to brush my teeth! Well, the frontal lobe is the responsible parent. It helps us create a plan of action for the things our limbic system wants. Think of a child who wants ice cream. Well it’s up to the parent to decide if that’s a good idea or not. If the parent decides it is, they still need to plan the process. Where will they buy ice cream from? How will they get there? Should we make sure the child eats lunch first? These are all decisions a parent must make when helping a child get what they want. Like a parent, the frontal lobe guides your emotions - our needs and our wants - and creates a plan of action to achieve them.

Ok so this makes sense. Passion - what’s found in the limbic system - is an important quality for a lifelong learner. But, so is discipline. Ok, less fun. But here’s where it gets interesting. Because if you think that passion and discipline don’t naturally go together, then you’re right. And this is where the secret, third quality of lifelong learning comes in.

And that’s where that third layer Orit mentions comes in. The cingulate gyrus:

The cingulate gyrus is what lies between the limbic system and the frontal lobe. The word cingulate comes from the Latin word for belt or ring, because -visually- this layer forms a ring around the limbic system, separating it from the frontal lobe. This “ring” acts as a go-between, mediating your goals and your plan of action, by evaluating if the steps you are taking is the best way to meet your goal. In other words, it regulates between your emotional and rational brain, ensuring that your actions will help you get what you want [...]
And grit is all about the communication between those brain areas. The stronger these connections, the easier it becomes to set that goal, make the plan, stay the course and improve along the way. That's the neuroscience of grit: getting your limbic system, frontal cortex and cingulate gyrus operating together.

So, it’s not just passion or discipline that are qualities of lifelong learners. It’s how well those two qualities interact with each other. It’s all about communication. Even synergy, you can say.

So, it’s true that passion and discipline are important qualities of lifelong learners. But so is the communication between them.

How does your passion manifest itself into discipline? Is your discipline born of passion? Because it’s really communication between those two that is the ultimate quality of a lifelong learner.

Can I develop better qualities to be a lifelong learner?

So, it’s great to understand how the qualities of a lifelong learner should work together.

But what if you’re like me and still scored low on the Grit scale? Is there no hope for you?

Fear not, in Angela Duckworth’s book, she brings all sorts of evidence that grit can indeed grow.

But at the root of it all is that magical combination: perseverance and passion. And I think that all of us will balance those two in our own way. Some might err on the side of passion - starting many new projects even if we can’t finish all of them. And others will err on the side of perseverance, sticking through with a project even after it no longer interests them as much. So, as long as you have one or the other and are striving toward balance - a healthy communication between the two - then your well on your way to developing important qualities of a lifelong learner.

And until then, I’ll see you in Grit summer school 😅.

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