Cross-train Your Brain to Maximize Your Continued Learning as an Adult

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Among the many domino effects of the pandemic is the renewed scrutiny of our educational system. When schools closed in the immediate aftermath, we discovered that students could learn effectively through online instruction. But we also learned that distance learning presents challenges for which both learners and teachers were ill-prepared.

In the big picture, this highlights a more general concern: education is an institution that’s slow to adapt. New graduates find themselves under-equipped to handle the jobs of today. Tomorrow’s best opportunities will demand skills that don’t exist yet.

Our changing world demands continuous learning. And education will always struggle to keep pace with new developments. More than ever, it’s up to the individual to take ownership of their further learning as an adult. But do you focus on outcomes, or feel free to pursue a variety of personal interests?

Putting function first

The concept of continued learning as an essential skill might be gaining traction in recent years, but it’s not new. Educator Alexander Kapp pioneered this in 1833 with the study of andragogy or adult learning. And it recognizes that some adults will want to learn to further their careers, while others do so to satisfy cognitive needs.

Biologically, our grown-up brains are wired to be more focused and functional. The neurons in our brain have synapses whose presence indicates the potential for greater plasticity and absorption of new knowledge. Adult brains have fewer of these compared to children, due to a process of synaptic pruning. It means that over the years, our minds are restructured to be more efficient.

That doesn’t mean our efforts to continue learning as adults are doomed to failure. But we can be more effective by playing to our strengths. Since we’re wired to perform, we need to understand the ‘why’ behind what we learn.

If a topic is somehow connected to doing better at work and making progress in your career, you’ll be more motivated to learn. And you can take advantage of another strength of the adult brain: drawing upon an extensive library of experiences to help you process new information.

The case for curiosity

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Although andragogy sees the value in harnessing adult motivation by aligning learning with performance, it doesn’t pass judgment on those who strive to learn solely out of curiosity. And there can be some underlying value to this approach.

Intense focus in a specific area can be advantageous in individual careers. Musicians who start young and train extensively will be far ahead of those who only pick up an instrument as adults. The later you learn to play, the more likely you will remain a hobbyist instead of pursuing it as a career.

But outside of music and a few other fields, most careers in the modern world reward you for range. Many jobs don’t take place in a context that’s strictly procedural, or what psychologists term a ‘kind’ learning environment. Instead, they exist in a ‘wicked’ learning environment full of additional complications that narrow training doesn’t prepare you for.

Having a greater breadth of knowledge increases your ability to make intuitive connections and transfer skills outside of a limited domain. It lets you thrive in unpredictable situations. And you can’t develop range by being concerned about outcomes. You have to allow your mind to be curious and feel free to experiment and dabble in different areas.

Seek cross-training

The concept of cross-training is used to help athletes strengthen muscles and practice movements that their sport might neglect. A basketball player, for instance, can play soccer on the side to develop better balance and finesse. Or they could do yoga for greater flexibility.

Cross-training your mind works on the same principle. Does your career benefit from the transfer of skills across domains? A violinist might not benefit from learning a new instrument, but many jobs could use the cognitive improvements that come with taking piano lessons. You might not become a professional musician, but you’ll be more creative and a better problem-solver.

Deliberately seek to cross-train as you pursue continued learning. You’ll want to develop into a T-shaped individual; that is, someone who has both depth and breadth of knowledge.

Combine both value-driven and curiosity-based approaches to learning. Each one offers unique merits and has the potential to take your career a step further. Much will depend on the context of your work, but as our world continues to change and become more uncertain, growing in both ways will help you to adjust.

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