Personal Learning History

In the movie “The Kid” Russ Duritz (played by actor Bruce Willis) mysteriously met an 8-year old boy who turns out to be Russ himself when he was a boy. The conversations between the 40-year old Russ and the 8-year old Russ enabled the older Russ to reflect on his life: What did he do wrong? What should he have done? How should he chart a new course in life?

The time-warp was an extraordinary opportunity for the older Russ to give advice to the boy Russ. It was an equally extraordinary opportunity for the boy Russ to ask the older Russ questions such as: “Why did you give up your dream of being a pilot? You are 40 years old and you don’t have a wife yet! (The older Russ has a girlfriend who is getting tired of his inability or unwillingness to commit.) You don’t even own a dog, what’s wrong with you?!”

The last scene in the movie was in an airport runway in the evening. It was a double time-warp. As the 40-year old Russ and the 8-year old Russ was watching, a much older Russ — who was boarding his private jet with his wife (Russ’ current girlfriend) and their dog — waved back at them.

Richard Edler interviewed CEOs and compiled the results into a book entitled “If I Know Then What I Know Now: CEOs and other Smart Executives Share Wisdom They Wish They’d Been Told 25 Years Ago” (New York: Berkley Books, 1996). Like Russ Duritz in the movie “The Kid”, the CEOs summarized their most important life learning into a few paragraphs that they wished were told them when they were 25 years younger.

Some excerpts:

    “…the most important enduring aspect of a person’s ability to make a difference comes not from brains or motivation, but from character. And at the heart of character is an old-fashioned value that is overlooked and underrated. Trust. …certainly not a new perspective. But, as I look back at my own life, these things seem more important than ever.”

    — Norman Brown
    Retired Chairman and CEO
    Foote, Cone & Belding

    “Listening is the most difficult skill to learn, and the most important to have… Learning to talk is relatively easy. Spend twice as much time learning to listen as you do learning to talk.”

    — Lynn Upshaw
    Ketchum Advertising, San Francisco

    “Success is waking up in the morning, whoever you are, wherever you are, however old or young, and bounding out of bed because there’s something out there that you love to do, that you believe in, that you’re good at – something that’s bigger than you are, and you can hardly wait to get at it again today.”

    — Whit Hobbs

“What is your most important learning?” is a high-value question that is best asked of an experienced senior staff about to retire from your company. It will produce high-value answers that are worth listening to (and documenting) by you and your company colleagues. It is high-value knowledge that would otherwise be lost to the company.

“What is your most important life learning?” is a most high-value question that is best asked of very senior people in their twilight years. Their answers would be high-value knowledge on how to live life that would otherwise be forever lost if not asked. We spent years and much money going through school so that we learn how to make a living, but not how to live life. So, go ahead and ask high-value questions of very senior people. You will spend only a few minutes and they will share it for free. Where else can you get such an extremely high benefit-cost ratio?!


You can ask the same high-value question especially of people who are dying. I enjoyed and profited tremendously reading Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson.” I recommend it to you.

And how about you, what is your most important life learning?

Some organizations find it useful to construct a “learning history” (see for example: George Roth and Art Kleiner: “Developing Organizational Memory through Learning Histories” in James W. Cortada and John A. Woods (editors): The Knowledge Management Yearbook 2000-2001, Boston: Butterworth Heinemann, 2000).

Why can’t an individual also construct his or her own “personal learning history“? Try it. Make a short outline your academic and career history, and ask yourself “What are my major learnings along the way?” “What does it tell me about my approach to learning, personal and professional development?” “Did I have a conscious learning plan and career development plan?” “How can I improve the rest of my learning journey?”

The last question is a high-value question for me. Ask yourself that question too (or perhaps you can invent another high-value question that suits you better).

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