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Back to school: The value of life-long learning

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Christopher Seaman
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing Safety Office

When you hear the phrase, “Back to School,” what kind of emotion does it elicit?  In my career, regardless of the job or location, I’ve witnessed countless service members stress when school, often Professional Military Education (PME) or academic degrees, was brought up.  People have enough on their plate as it is and adding school can lead to anxiety and stress.  Admittedly, I’ve been guilty of it myself.  Perhaps you can relate.

It’s human nature to be apprehensive when facing a new challenge, whether it’s balancing additional schoolwork or learning a topic completely foreign to you.  Some adults choose to go through life avoiding challenges, however much like how children must attend school for their own growth, it’s also important military members embrace education or risk never reaching their full potential.  How can we go about lessening the stress of going back to school?

When I was struggling to find a balance between responsibilities (both work and personal) with the need for education, I looked to others who faced the same challenges yet seemed to excel.  I watched classmates who made strenuous coursework look easy, talked with aircrew members who earned degrees despite grueling operations tempo, and listened to leaders who espoused the importance of continual learning.  While the particulars of “how to” differed slightly from one individual to the next, there was a singular resounding idea:

If you want to take the stress out of education, make learning a part of your daily life.

The thought was counter-intuitive to me, because I wasn’t sure how adding something to my everyday schedule would make things easier.  I soon realized the value of the statement didn’t lie solely in the topic being studied, but instead in the habit it instilled.  Those individuals who excelled at balancing education with life never took the proverbial “summer break” from school.  Instead, they made conscious decisions to continually engage their minds in whatever form depending on time available.  Sometimes it was a distance learning class or picking up a book while traveling, other times it was simply reading a single online article.  Regardless what they chose, they all understood if you fail to exercise a muscle, it inevitably atrophies.  As a result of them continually exercising their cognitive abilities, regardless of how large or small the effort, they remained sharp and ready to respond when called upon.  When was the last time you deliberately focused on exercising your brain?

In the Air Force, we care about physical fitness.  We test ourselves at least annually to ensure we’re ready to respond to our nation’s call.  It’s not unheard of for commanders to dedicate time during the duty-day for individuals to work out in order to maintain a peak level of fitness.  Is there any reason we shouldn’t take this same approach to our mental fitness?  If we made purposeful decisions to focus on our cognitive abilities, shouldn’t it sharpen our abilities and in-turn reduce the stress inherent in continuing education?  If we reduce the stress, will that increase meaningful participation and cultivate a culture of learning?  From what I’ve seen and experienced from those who do, the answer is yes and it’s at least worth a try.

Look across your organization and see if it values life-long learning.  If you’re a supervisor, are you setting the example for your subordinates and dedicating time to study?  If you’re a flyer, perhaps spending 15 minutes each morning reviewing important information about your airplane before you open email will inspire others to do the same.  There is no “one size fits all” model to be a life-long learner as everyone’s responsibilities vary, but the important thing is to take action.  Instilling the habit of continual learning, regardless of method or intensity, is the cornerstone to helping people realize their full potential.

Back to my original question about what kind of emotion “Back to School” elicits in you.  I’m hopeful that if you take a purposeful approach to sharpen your mind, it will elicit a smile because you know it’s a fallacy.  For successful leaders, school is never truly out of session.