As someone who spends their work day creating training materials for learning programs, it’s surprising how little thought I have given to my own learning journey. It’s easy to confine learning to specific contexts like school or university, and then to assume that your learning journey has ended once you start working.
However, research shows time and again how beneficial continued learning is for our overall well-being. According to Psychologies magazine, “learning throughout our lives can improve self-esteem and increase life-satisfaction, optimism and belief in our own abilities.” And it doesn’t have to be a formal or educational course to count, it can take any shape. The most important aspect of integrating learning into your everyday life is that you find something you’re passionate about, and follow that interest wherever it takes you.
With that in mind, last winter I revived my love of pottery by taking a ceramics class in London. So while everything else was shut, I travelled up to North London once a week to a chilly railway arch and attempted to mould some clay into shape.
It may seem unlikely, but taking this course has taught me a lot about the benefits that we can all gain from making time for learning—whether that be taking up a new hobby or throwing ourselves into a training course at work. More than giving me the technical ability to make a vase or mug, taking a ceramics class has helped me to grow as a person, improved my overall wellbeing and instilled new confidence.
Here are some of the things that I learned along the way:
The importance of being present
Throwing a pot on a potter’s wheel requires your full attention; all your concentration is directed at manoeuvring the clay through your hands. It reminds me how good it feels to be physically present—when you’re totally absorbed by a task, the hours pass like minutes. As well as producing positive emotions and improving our psychological health, being present is integral to improving our memory and our ability to learn. These moments of total body focus improve our overall brain function and our capacity to retain information.
When designing and leading training sessions, it’s important to weave in these moments of presentness. Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore highlight that shift-setting—the act of shifting attention from our minds to our bodies—can help improve the brain’s focus when moving in between tasks. In long training sessions, it can be hard to avoid information overload. However, weaving in physical breaks between topics or sessions—such as going for a walk, climbing the stairs, stretching or practicing deep breathing—restores the brain’s executive functions, improving attentional control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility.
Hobbies foster a healthy work-life balance
The day after a pottery class I arrive back at my work desk refreshed, relaxed and focused, all of which help me thrive in my job. Sometimes it’s difficult to feel like we can step away from work, and we’re living in a culture where burnout is prevalent. A recent Gallup study estimates that about two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout on the job. On top of this, studies show that we’re working longer hours during the pandemic, and working from home isn’t as liberating as people first hoped. This is why hobbies are often neglected.
Despite being difficult to fit in, making time for activities outside of work is an essential part of a healthy work-life balance. In fact, studies show that engaging in a hobby reduces stress, and that employees who participate in hobbies outside of work are more likely to be satisfied in their jobs, with a lower likelihood of burning out. Hobbies help create healthy boundaries with work, giving you structure for your time outside of working hours and an opportunity to get into a different headspace.
Mistake-based learning builds confidence
I am always amazed when any of my pots survive the long and hazardous process of preparing, shaping, drying, firing, glazing, then firing again. Ceramics is first and foremost an exercise in loss. At every stage there are hundreds of things that could go wrong: air bubbles in your clay cause your pot to explode in the kiln, too much glaze sticks the pot to the kiln shelf, and an accidental nudge of a freshly-thrown pot while it’s drying will leave it wonky forever. Though this might seem demoralizing, it actually has the opposite effect. Persevering through these challenges leads to a growth mindset.
“A growth mindset releases you from the expectation of being perfect. Failures and mistakes are not indicative of the limits of your intellect but rather tools that inform how you develop.”
The same is true when it comes to training courses at work. Successful learning programs provide opportunities for participants to make mistakes, whether through quizzes, group activities, or simulators. When learners work through a problem, they are more likely to commit that information to long-term memory and it has more impact as a result. Learning through mistakes also redefines success, helping learners to find it in the small wins, not just in the finished product. Recognizing areas for improvement is fundamental to learning something well.
Creativity isn’t an add-on
It’s clear to me that creativity is not confined to North London railway arches—it absolutely has a priority in the workplace. It’s often reserved for marketing departments and design teams, but it shouldn’t be that way. Creativity is not only beneficial, but necessary in business, as it increases company profitability, employee productivity and can be the biggest driver of non-incremental growth.
Creativity should be at the heart of company learning and development efforts. Applying creative solutions to even the driest of subjects increases engagement, knowledge retention and builds a culture of creative thinking. There are endless possibilities when you combine learning theory, gamification and a bit of imagination. Why subject your new starters to hours of onboarding videos when you could educate them using a video game inspired by the Legend of Zelda or in a bite-sized, social media-style format?
Diversify the way you learn
Creating pottery requires your strength to work and push against the stubborn clay until it gradually takes shape. Two hours of throwing pots on a wheel will leave you feeling like you’ve just been to the gym! It gives your brain a workout too, as the wheel requires real focus and coordination, keeping it agile and improving your learning ability. So the more you learn, the better you become at it.
With Zoom fatigue and in the absence of face-to-face sessions, give learners a break from their screens and think about what aspects of learning you can take offline. This will not only diversify the learning experience, but it will give those who prefer to learn through practical activities or through reading and reflection a chance to shine.
As we move into spring, my latest learning adventure has evolved into a new form—I’ve taken the plunge into gardening. Somewhat prepared by the unhealthy amount of time watching Gardeners’ World during lockdown (don’t worry, TV doesn’t affect your digital wellbeing when it’s about flowers). I’m back at the beginning, killing delicate seedlings with overwatering, underwatering, too much sun, too little sun. While this can all seem a little demoralizing, I now know a bit more about what is happening to me as I learn, and how these lessons affect my life as a whole. I now have more confidence to try new things and to see where that learning journey takes me.
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