Five factors to consider when deciding on what to learn next

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Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. – John Dewey

Deficiency to Sufficiency

I grew up in Nigeria. When I was young, and until my late teens I did not have access to a public library, a computer, or the internet.

All my learning centered on what they taught in school. I had limited opportunities to expand my knowledge into uncharted territories and nurture new skills. Such as learning how to play musical instruments, take part in sporting activities, learning a programming language, or exploring other experiences to meet my growing curiosity.

Fast-forward to my 30s, now armed with a doctorate, postgraduate training, teaching at the university level, and practicing as a clinical pharmacist, I still have knowledge deficits. First, I have a backlog from the lack of opportunities in my childhood and early adulthood. Also, my preceding formal education provided me with a narrow spectrum of skills. I often feel deficient because I pursue many interests simultaneously and end up with several partially completed projects.

Lifelong Learning & the Information Age

Knowledge is exploding, so you need to commit yourself to a plan for lifelong learning. – Don Tapscott

When researching the concept of lifelong learning, I wasn’t surprised to find out that the most successful people in the world spend their free time learning. Many top performers like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Warren Buffett, Oprah, dedicate a lot of their time to learning a variety of skills.

We now live in the information age, very different from the world that I grew up in. It is now possible to learn almost anything you want to learn online for free or at a very reasonable price. I remember the emotions I experienced the first time I logged into Class Central. I thought my head would explode.

Class Central is a search engine for online courses. They collate thousands of free online courses from top universities around the world like MIT, Stanford, and Harvard. They aggregate courses from the common MOOCs like Coursera, edX, and Udacity.

During the lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, like many others, I spent the extra time completing online courses. I completed two: Learning how to learn and The science of wellbeing on Coursera.

I started writing this article when I was trying to decide on what to learn next and encountered some challenges. After narrowing down my interest in a few areas in class central, I was presented with hundreds of recommended courses. I was feeling overwhelmed with the plethora of options also because I have several simultaneous competing interests. So, to help me decide on the next learning path, here are the things I took into consideration. Hopefully, it supports your decision-making process, if you also find yourself in a similar situation.

Factors to consider when deciding what to learn

  1. Foundation: Any long-lasting structure requires a solid foundation. The lack of a solid base in foundational knowledge or skills can hold you back from learning more complex ideas. Ask yourself: What’s missing in my basic knowledge or skill set? Are there weak spots in any areas that need fixing? Do I have a weakness that this learning path can improve?
  2. Function: Any new knowledge or skill should serve a function and fit into your personal and/or professional life. You can ask yourself questions like; Is there a function that learning this skill is serving for me right now? Is there a fit for this skill in any part of my life, business, or career that this course could fulfill? Where does it fit in my current life? Does it fit in with the future goals I set for myself? Is it the right fit for my current skill level? Can this course help me move forward with any of my yearly goals?
  3. Finances: The third factor has to do with finances. Here, take into consideration your current financial situation and if learning the skill costs a fee or can it be learned for free. You can ask yourself questions like; Should I pay to learn this course, given the plethora of free courses available online? Do I have the finances to support the fees in a paid course?
  4. Flexibility: The fourth consideration is flexibility. And this has to do with the availability of the learning experience and time constraints. Some courses are evergreen, meaning that they are always available. Others might only be offered periodically or in a limited capacity. To resolve this, you can ask yourself: Is this learning opportunity offered during a fixed date? Can I learn this course at my pace, given my other commitments?
  5. Fun: The last consideration is probably the most important one on the list. To be honest, it’s the one that motivates me to continue my lifelong learning pursuits. When learning is fun, it requires little or no willpower to take action. You can ask yourself: What fun skills do I often wish I had, and I never took the time to learn? Or is this a skill that I would find fun learning because of the content or what I could do with what I learned?

Now, is this going to guarantee that I have made the best decision on what to learn next? No. Not at all. It is not a crystal ball and can guarantee nothing. However, it frees me from my worst enemies: decision fatigue, action paralysis, and procrastination. It also gives me some slight reassurance that whatever course I selected had some thoughtfulness put into it, which empowers me to take action.

How do you decide on what to learn next? Share your strategies below.

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