“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” Alvin Toffler

I am often amazed that so many people seem to not understand that learning is a journey and not a destination.

You should never stop learning, whether it is for new skills or new ideas, and you need to be prepared to adjust both elements as the world changes around you. It is also important these days to differentiate between information and knowledge, and to understand that information may be interesting for conversations at dinner parties but little else if not applied, and that knowledge that is not translated to actions has little value, as knowing what to do is less important than actually doing what we know.

Too many people seem to believe that there are distinct stages in their lives, with very little overlap:

  • Ages 1-25 “Learning” phase (School and University)
  • 25-65 “Doing” phase through working (25-55 in France … see “Vive l’avantage” posted 27 Sept 2010)
  • 65-85+ “Resting” phase (for many the “TV watching” phase … see “Vive la France” posted 25 June 2010)

    Two men and woman sitting on sofa, watching television

There is a pervasive attitude amongst many senior, well educated people that once they have graduated with their PhDs and MBAs that they are now past their learning phase and that from now on they will just absorb anything extra by osmosis as they just go about doing things. I have always seen early formal education mainly as a way to learn how to learn, and as acquiring a “hunting license” in the job market. However, just because you have a license to do something doesn’t actually mean that you will get the opportunity to actually do it, nor does it mean that you already have the skills to do it well. In most cases these skills need to be developed and honed over a lifetime before they can be well deployed. To become proficient, learning and practice must continue forever whether formal, on the job, through coaching and mentoring, reading and trying, and failing sometimes just to not get too overconfident. (See “First Secret of Success” posted on 16.09.2010).

This belief that they already know enough tends to be truer of people in management roles, as individual contributors, such as engineers, at least have an understanding that their science keeps changing with each new breakthrough in their field. Managers have to go through this same process of learning, as the science of management changes with the changing expectations of each generation. Management styles of “command and control” may have worked with my father’s generation, but already didn’t work with mine, and certainly don’t work with today’s generation who see a much more collaborative style of management with much more involvement in things like job definition and measurement. (See “Quality of Management for the Future” posted 02/09/2010).

It is our ability to continually redefine ourselves as the world changes around us at an ever more rapid rate that will define our ability to keep on succeeding.

As Charles Darwin so succinctly puts it “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor is it the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

I have less problem convincing younger people of this, but am amazed at how many board members of major companies resist ongoing training, some even seeing this need for further learning as being a visible show of weakness to subordinates. It may be acceptable to have a noted university professor come in and talk to the board on some related subject as this can be seen more as an intellectual exercise rather than a learning one, but I have found significant resistance when I have suggested that a corporate board could do with some serious training on, for example, how to function effectively as a board.

At least I am fortunate that in my retirement I get to mix with lots of younger people. I could not imagine a more terrifying existence than having to spend all my time just with people my own age, as I have long believed that it’s what you learn after you know it all that really counts.



  1. Samanth Bodeen says:

    I agree 100%. I recently worked on site in China and to my surprise everyone was under 40, most of the time under 30. I asked if I would hav e the opportunity to meet the senior managers? To my surprise I was told I as talking to the seniour managers.
    I was then informed that the older generation (40 to 50) could not change and that China is in a real growth phase where change is a natural state and that the younger generation were better suited.
    Maybe that is why they are now number 2 financialy and soon to overtake the USA.
    I know I am on an endless learning journey and some times my brain just hurts from informatin overload.
    Sam B

  2. leshayman says:

    Hi SE,
    I see you as a great example of someone who is on a life journey of perpetual change. Just the fact that you are now driving your business into China is another example of this.
    At least the Chinese have a culture of respect for the elderly. In the west we tend to discard them a bit quickly, but in many cases the elderly tend to discard themselves. I believe that the brain doesn’t actually start to shut down until we ourselves flick the switch.

  3. Christina George says:

    what does Alvin Tofler means by ‘Unlearning’?

    • leshayman says:

      Christina, he means that we will need to accept that some of the things that we learned as being “truths” in life will be proved false as we learn more, so we will have to discard (unlearn) and then relearn. Les

  4. Adriana says:

    This Alvin Tofler’s quote is my motto. And Garr Reynolds expresses it really nice in “Lessons from the Bamboo” – “If you think you have arrived, you have already begun your decline”.


  5. I think that everything composed made a lot of sense.

    However, what about this? what if you added a little
    content? I ain’t suggesting your content is not good., but suppose you added something
    that grabbed people’s attention? I mean SECOND SECRET OF SUCCESS | Les Hayman’s Blog is a little vanilla.
    You ought to peek at Yahoo’s home page and watch how they create article
    titles to grab people interested. You might add a video or a
    related pic or two to get people excited about everything’ve got to say.
    In my opinion, it might bring your blog a little bit more interesting.

    • Adriana says:

      With all due respect, in my opinion, after reading every single article at least once, the blog is mind entertaining and I believe it was never intended to be eye entertaining. If Les would decide to write again, his style is just perfect for his target audience, no need for extra wishy-washy recommendations.

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