Becoming...a lifelong learner


“In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era.”, reads the book abstract of ‘Becoming’ - the recently released intimate, powerful and inspiring memoir by the former First Lady of the United States.

The memoir is a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, packed with learning lessons. Lessons that are distilled from Mrs. Obama’s personal and professional triumphs and tribulations. Lessons that are gender-, region-, religion-, designation-, level-, industry- and social strata-agnostic. Lessons that are as applicable to me as they are to you.

Here’s my attempt at drawing upon some key insights from ‘Becoming’ that will get you one step closer to becoming the best version of yourself. All this while becoming a lifelong learner.

“Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result.”

In discussing her neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago and her school, Bryn Mawr, which from being one of the city’s best public schools was touted to have turned into a “run- down slum” governed by a “ghetto mentality”, Michelle opens up about her first encounter with fear and failure. She says, “Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.”

Far too often we fall prey to the ‘feeling’ of failure. Every time we fall short of achieving our goal(s), we become self-critical. Self-doubt creeps in degrading our self-worth, and it escalates far too quickly into shame and resentment. The end product – unproductivity at work, unhappiness in personal life and an overall dissatisfaction wherever the two intersect. What can we do to break this cycle? While using failure as the stepping stone to success is the go-to option, it all starts with mind-mapping ‘failure’ to an ‘opportunity to learn and get better’. In L&D context, it means – for the learners, to look at professional failures as an opportunity to learn new things; whether it is discovering a new solution to an old problem or gaining more insight to counter the newly aroused one, failure can help one do better the next time. For the guardians of organizational L&D, it means removing the myopic lens toward performance and reward equation, and accommodating (and perhaps rewarding risk-taking too) failure as a part of the overall learning and development journey of the learner.

“You have the right to change your mind.”

‘Becoming’ takes us on journey of who that little striving star-getter (Michelle) became. Which is what a lot of hard-driving kids become: a box checker. She says, “Get good grades: check. Apply to the best schools, get into Princeton: check.” The list goes on until a Barack Obama enters one’s life. “He taught me how to swerve with his tendency to shake things up,” she adds.

This is not Michelle’s story alone. It’s ours. We narrow ourselves to being/ doing/ knowing “this or that” alone. But life is not about being a box checker. And certainly not in today’s day and age of skill and knowledge economy, wherein we are increasingly defined not by our title or the company we work for, but by the skills we possess. Consider this in light of LinkedIn’s 2017 Workplace Learning Report, which states that, “The average shelf life of skills now is less than five years.” It’s no surprise then that a survey conducted by CareerBuilder last year showed that, "more than two-thirds of employers (67%) are worried over growing skill-gaps. Over half (55%) of those surveyed have seen a negative impact on their company because of extended job vacancies, which lead to productivity issues, higher voluntary turnover and revenue loss". “Swerving” is the new learning. The need to evolve to keep up with the rapidly changing pace of the business world has never been so stark and the resources to do so, so easily accessible (read Learn-tech platforms, access to Online Content Marketplaces like Udemy, Lynda, LinkedIn Learning). From the perspective of folks sitting on the other side of the table, the L&D executives and managers, it is about creating ample learning and skilling opportunities for their learners to make sure that the best talent doesn’t traipse out the door to the more dynamic/ more innovative/ more learning-focused/ more forward-thinking, company.

“First Lady is a role without a job description.”

Mrs. Obama notes in her memoir, “First Lady is a role without a job description”. A sentiment rightfully captured in a 2017 article by The Guardian, How Michelle Obama expanded the definition of a First Lady. It says, “A first lady was expected to display gracious manners, wear tasteful clothes and support worthy, uncontroversial causes. Whatever was hers alone – education, expertise, passion – had to be adapted to the needs of her husband’s presidency. She was there to please and enhance. A black woman, by contrast, was the opposite of that. Or that is, at least, what we’d always been told.” Until Mrs. Obama applied herself selflessly to children’s health (bringing attention to obesity, increasing access to healthier food, improving food labeling, redesigning school lunch programs, promoting physical activity), the needs of military families, and threw herself into the ‘Let Girls Learn’ initiative. So much so that her legacy lives on and her role stays evergreen even as she returns to her original name, Michelle Obama, from being called the First Lady.

In L&D and HR parlance, a JD with a defined, rigid set of KRAs and KPIs, thrown in for a good measure, not just defines (rather, confines!) the role for an employee but also, to some extent, sets a glass ceiling to his/ her growth. Does it means employees should not have/ ask for their JDs? Hell no! We all need to understand the organization’s expectations of us and our roles, so we can align with them and deliver. But in the same breath, it’s also critical for both – the employees and the employers/ HR professionals – to keep the JDs flexible, adaptable and agile so they can evolve as the employee rides the growth waves and fast tracks into the next phase of his/ her career.

“The independent learning setup only served to fuel my competitive streak.”

Delving more into her school’s teaching style, Michelle mentions, “Back in the classroom, we did a lot of independent work, setting our own goals and moving at whatever speed best suited us. I tore through the lessons, quietly keeping tabs on where I stood among my peers as we charted our progress from long division to pre-algebra, from writing single paragraphs to turning in full research papers. For me, it was like a game. And as with any game, like most any kid, I was happiest when I was ahead.”

According to Personal Group’s survey on happiness in the UK workplace, “48% of UK employees surveyed are not happy at work, and 35% of employees stated that they would be happier if they had more recognition in the workplace.” Filling the ‘Recognition’ space in employee R&R may seem like a tall order, but not when you apply the concept of Gamification. Gamification builds on the behavioral aspects of people driven by competition, achievement, engagement, influence, and collaboration to drive results for the business. The tools and technologies available in L&D today not just encourage learner self-sufficiency (read the Self-Paced, Pulled Learning Approach), but also recognize and reward it (read Gamification).

“Offer guidelines rather than rules.”

Speaking about her mother, Marian Robinson, Michelle says, “She loved us consistently, Craig and me, but we were not over managed. Her goal was to push us out into the world. ‘I’m not raising babies,’ she’d tell us. ‘I’m raising adults.’ She and my dad offered guidelines rather than rules. It meant that as teenagers we’d never have a curfew. Instead, they’d ask, ‘What’s a reasonable time for you to be home?’ and then trust us to stick to our word.”

Today’s workplaces are a melting pot of generations what with Millennials, Baby Boomers and a handful of Gen Zs making up the length, breadth and depth of the workforce worldwide. With each generation having a varying degree of affinity to technology, motivating factors and loyalty scores, it’s important to design L&D interventions that cater universally and seamlessly for all. A common thread that runs across all generations there are in the workplaces today is the sense of ownership and trust, even when it comes to individual L&D. Which is where handing the reins of learning and training to learners is the first step towards entrusting and empowering your team to be in charge of its L&D. Modern day technologies, like Adaptive Learning, Deep Learning, AI-/ML-powered learning are helping move the needle on learning approaches. One of which is Pull Learning. Much of the pull-based genius lies in its on-demand approach, which closely aligns with our on-demand culture’s expectations, which puts learners in the driver’s seat – enabling them to access information when it’s needed, where it’s needed on a device of their choice based on job roles, personal knowledge and career interests.

As Mrs. Obama quotes in her book, “Becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. It is instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously towards a better self.” Learning, too, isn’t a finite thing. It’s continual and ongoing.

From one lifelong learner to another, here’s to our becoming!