I’m convinced that the biggest impact Generation Z will have on the workplace is in their schooling. They will be lifelong, self-learners, who take more personal responsibility for their ongoing education than any generation in history. I am not talking about graduate school here. I am talking about a more creative, independent way of learning that does not stop at college, but rather, picks up pace remarkably after college, when real experiential learning starts happening.

The question is, how do we get this lifelong learning bug now, as adults, so we can compete with the young people when they enter the workforce. I thought about this question a lot last week, while I was at cello camp with my son.

1. When it comes to learning, keep your bar very high.
At cello camp my son's classes are about 80% Asian. It's like being a Jew in NYC — sort of a demographic optical illusion. We are at ground zero for the Tiger Mom. We are at a camp where six-year-olds play cello for five hours a day.

I am used to being the crazy, overbearing mom in the rural farm community where we live. I’m asked, “Why do you have to drive two hours to a music lesson? There’s a piano teacher in Darlington!” because I ignore the advice of my neighbors and I drive four hours round trip so my son can take lessons from a music professor at the University of Wisconsin.

And I think I’m on the right track, because Lisa Nielsen, an education reformer working in the New York City public schools, says that lifelong learners are great at creating their own networks of experts.

2. Walk a narrow path so you can keep learning to jump off the path.
But at cello camp I find that I’m the laid back, bar-is-low mom. My son played ping-pong with little white girls in between classes. There was one soccer ball in the whole camp, and my son joined the other kid. Who was white, of course. And in group class, my son is the one who wants to try his own rhythms “just once I promise please please mom.”

At first I was thinking I am in a race to keep up with the Asian parents.

But then I think about Wesley Yang, the Asian guy who recently wrote an extremely controversial article in New York magazine. The article is about why Asian families are obsessed with childhood achievement at the expense of social skills and creativity.

Yang writes about the famously merit-based magnet high school, Stuyvesant, in New York City. There is no way to get in except to have high test scores. And while the Asian population in NYC is only 12%, the Asian student population at Stuyvesant is 72%. At Stuyvesant, the white kids who actually get in do less homework than the Asian kids do, but white kids do as well in school. But when those kids graduate from college, the Asians don't do well in corporate America. Because Asians are generally taught to follow rules, learn what’s on the test, and don’t make a scene: The exact wrong stuff to learn if you want to succeed in corporate America.

So then what traits create a lifelong learner? I think it has to do with knowing oneself and knowing how to ask creative questions in areas of personal interest. And then I get scared being surrounded by Tiger moms. My kid has great social skills. No small feat in a family full of Aspergers. I want my son to be creative and fun. But I want him to have the self-discipline to reach goals he sets for himself.

There’s a great TED speech from Sir Ken Robinson that addresses just this topic: how to protect creative thinking from being squashed by adult institutions. I tell myself that my challenge at cello camp is the same challenge that I tell people they have at work: follow enough rules to be relevant, and foster enough creativity to bring joy and surprise to the things you do.

3. Learn by way of discovering what you care about, and not the other way around.
“Learning doesn’t happen insides a box — schooling does — and these are two very different things,” says Nielsen. Her subversive opus The Teenagers Guide to Opting Out Not Dropping Out explains why education ideas like unschooling and natural learning are great because they are student-directed. And she says we should not divide learning by subject or location. Rather, the whole world is a learning environment and the student learns by doing whatever he or she is interested in.

I wonder, “Is my son becoming a robot when I drag him to Suzuki camp for hours on end?” Certainly he’d rather be playing video games. But he is developing opinions about his learning, which is part of the process of asking good questions. For example he wants to play Witch’s Dance instead of Minuet 1. I let him. It’s against the rules to skip around, but I sneak it. And, anyway, his teacher at University of Wisconsin is not such a stickler for Suzuki rules.

But what I’m saying is that you can follow your passion within constraints. I don’t think lifelong learning is about turning on a dime, switching on a whim. I think it’s following old paths and layering them with new, internally generated questions. But you need to be on some sort of path to have a stable place to form a question.

4. Cater to your learning style.
By the third day of camp, we are the only ones who lost our nametags. This is probably better because we are also the only ones who are late. So maybe no one will know who we are.

But they do. Because I have a kid who is an EFJ. That’s not a typo – there are only three Myers-Briggs letters for kids under 12. (You can be obsessive with your kids, too. Here’s the test.) My kid is my personality type opposite. He loves people and people love him. (This is such an unlikely outcome from my Ex and me that my ex has accused me of having had an affair.)

So my regular way of coping with lots of people is disappearing into the background, but that doesn't work with him. His favorite way to learn is to be in a room full of people. Charming everyone.

I threw a (minor) fit that his private lesson is not actually private – it’s with three other kids. In a group class like it, I would tune out because I don’t like groups. But he is totally happy, and I realize that as adults, we seldom learn by watching other people learn. We watch and judge instead of watch and learn.

5. Accept that lifelong learning is a huge time investment.
In school, kids do not see their parents investing in lifelong learning. In fact, school teaches kids that adults do not belong in learning environments. In the Suzuki method, where the parent is the music teacher, I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t play an instrument, I don’t read music, and my musical knowledge is about one month ahead of where my son is. So my son sees me in every single class, learning right alongside him.

The payoff is being able to get through the song without getting lost.

Which, like all good learning, is not really an end goal but rather just one more step down the path – in this case, the path to learning how to play in an orchestra.

6. Spend as much time unlearning as you do learning.
I think a lot about what our adult learning needs to look like in order to succeed at work in the next ten years. We will be competing with Generation Z. We will have to learn as effectively as they learn. Alvin Toffler, a futurist, has the answer: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn and unlearn and relearn.” (via learningdoorway.com).

Starting over is a key to lifelong learning. Starting from that feeling of knowing nothing, over and over again, will eventually yield learning on a grand scale.

There's a teacher institute within our camp program. I can’t help wondering: Why are the students mostly Asian but the teachers in training are mostly white?

Maybe my lifelong learning will include unlearning stereotypes I am peppering throughout this post. It’s difficult to know what to unlearn. If you have a teacher who can tell you: she’s a keeper.

One of my son’s teachers at camp was the inimitable Amy Barston. She spent the first two days of class making him sit differently, hold the cello differently, and place his feet in a new spot. At the end of that second day, he wrote a note on the chalkboard:

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  1. Valerie Williams
    Valerie Williams says:

    I always learn interesting things reading your blog, but I was surprised when you said you used to sign fan mail for Esther Williams. I happen to be a synchronized swimmer in Los Angeles, and I had the privilege to meet and perform for her last spring. (http://twitpic.com/5q9awd) That’s me in the back, on the right! She gave us signed photographs. Now I’m not sure its her signature!

  2. Trident
    Trident says:

    Being Asian myself, I have to admit that I have a lot of individuals in my family who are very book smart but not assertive enough in the corporate world, just like you said. My aunt is probably the most outgoing person in my family, so outgoing that I actually feel intimidated by her. She has an MBA and she told me that as assertive and “outgoing” as I perceived her to be, the women at her corporation were MUCH more assertive and that she had to really take of charge of herself for her career because she was always taught to be obedient and to follow the rules.
    You absolutely need a combination of book smarts AND great social skills to go far. Having one or the other is not enough.

  3. Ben
    Ben says:

    I never really paid much attention to your blog until this post (now I’m subscribed). Everything you said here just makes so much sense coming from my own experiences.

    I’m 18 yrs old, in college studying philosophy, medicine, and entrepreneurship. I’m only a B student (sometimes a C student) but because I value self-education so highly, I can point out a few places where my exercise science professor is wrong, and I can show him the study on pubmed or the book that proves him wrong. I’m not trying to boast, I’m just pointing out that, unfortunately, the educational establishment is very slow to change and update.

    One note on the “learning style” — I have a paper that reviewed studies on learning styles and concluded that, well, they probably don’t exist. You might find it interesting:

    Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence
    Harold Pashler1, Mark McDaniel2, Doug Rohrer3 and Robert Bjork4


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for the link. I clicked. Stuff like this is disturbing. You say, in the paper, that learning styles does not have a lot of documentation to back up the hypothesis. But it’s hard for me to believe, since it makes so much sense to me.

      It reminds me of when I toured on the professional beach volleyball circuit. We all got our periods at the same time. I didn’t know any scientific reason for this, but I didn’t need any. I knew it was science, of some sort.

      But anyway, thank you for forcing me to question what i thought I already knew.


  4. Lynn
    Lynn says:

    Hi Penelope,
    I have been reading your blog of and on for about 3 years now. I cannot even remember how I found you.
    Anyway, I learn from blogs like yours.
    I am back in college and feel a lot older than these 20 somethings.
    I love to learn more than ever. Wish I was like this at 20…unfortunately it wasn’t the time for college at that time. I worked though and learned a lot in various industries: real estate, escrow, pharmaceutical companies, fashion companies/catalogs, etc…
    There are times where I with my brain was a computer and that I could just download information into my head. I feel overwhelmed with all the information on the internet!

    Anyway..just wanted to say that I find your views fascinating. I am also about your age. 44 years old. Gen Xer.
    San Diego

  5. Kraig
    Kraig says:

    This was a wonderful post, because it was very informative. I especially liked point number 4 about catering to your learning style. So important. People usually have a preference for a certain style of learning, such as: visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (hands-on experience).

    Nobody ever discussed learning styles when I was going to school. It turns out that I am mostly a kinesthetic type of learner. I regret having spent most of my educational years in classrooms where the teaching style was mostly auditory. Blah, blah, blah.

    When little Johnny has trouble in school is it because he is in a one-shoe-fits-all learning environment suitable only for certain personality types?

  6. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    Sounds like you’re giving your child a world-class education even in the Midwest, he’ll be prepared for anything.

    Here in Asia, the next generation is too – without a doubt.

  7. Sue Kim
    Sue Kim says:

    Thank you for the tip about unlearning. I’m a 10 year old school workforce veteran who is just now trying a startups. Unlearning has been painful, but now I see the need to make it more snappy. Your son is adorable.

  8. prettypinkponies
    prettypinkponies says:

    Helpful article…however, if one is of “Generation Y-Z”, what is the inverse of this list? In other words, how does one become a well-rounded Gen Y/Gen Z and what skills need to be developed?

    Thank you.

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