My Lifelong Learning Journey - The Lighting of the Fire | Part 1 of a 3-Part Series


“Why are tires round?” “Why does my skin get wrinkly in the water?” “Why don’t crayons taste like fruit?”

On the surface, the never-ending curiosity of my eight year old drives me crazy. Partly because I don’t have all the answers. But when I truly reflect on his questions and join his state of mind, I realize his inquisitions are a combination of intelligence and compliment. Intelligence because his mind is processing the known and looking for new information to fill in the unknown – A true sign of consciousness and self-awareness. Compliment because he sees me as his personal oracle; the one with all the answers whom he trusts implicitly.

This thirst for curiosity evolves as we age. Eventually, my son will figure out I don’t know all the answers, and he will look for them from other sources. As a tech native, he is already learning how to identify and filter the overwhelming amount of information readily available through technology. He is cultivating critical thinking skills by contrasting the known from the unknown and making reasonable conclusions, often without knowing all the information.

As a parent, I hope this will be part of his journey indefinitely. It could be because this kind of lifelong curiosity has been a large part of my own success. But having interviewed thousands of candidates in my career, I also know the unteachable attribute of curiosity is often an indicator of career and personal success. Netflix has even included this in their culture deck* as a primary, necessary value for their company and employees.

I grew up with a strong understanding of work ethic. Although my parents divorced early, they both were hard working middle-class 20 something’s. With my dad, I was up before dawn, harvesting potatoes from the fields and with my mom, I was learning how to independently manage myself while she earned her nursing degree and worked full time. My parents were the, “do what it takes and don’t complain” kind of people. This greatly influenced my decision to start working as soon as I was legally able; I was eager to earn my own money and amplify my independence into young adulthood.

As high school ended and my choice and options to attend college neared, I was confident in my decision to pursue a license in cosmetology. I had not saved any money to attend college and, unlike some of my classmates, my parents weren’t offering a family scholarship. At the time, I wasn’t interested in pursuing a career.

I moved out of state and found a job with a beauty supply company close to the trade school I’d be attending. I felt centered; all my plans were aligned and I was ready to start this next wave of education. Unfortunately, I quickly learned I’d chosen a path which I did not enjoy. School felt like more like an episode of Jersey Shore than Finding Forrester. Clients would get angry and cry when their results didn’t match their vision. I couldn’t handle the intensity of emotion, both from my classmates nor the clients.

Rather than feeling trapped, I was relieved. Tuition was paid in two installments, and I was able to drop the second payment at the halfway point in my classes, keeping me out of future debt and giving me freedom to find a new career with a better fit. Even though I’ll forever hold the title, “beauty school dropout”, I saved myself from continuing to pursue something that didn’t bring me fulfillment.

Since then, I have pursued an organic path in the field of human resources. I didn’t go to a university. I continued to work and, as a catalyst to my eventual career, benefited from mentors who pushed and pulled me into a truly meaningful career with its share of twists and turns.

When I’ve shared stories of my experiences in HR and business, many are surprised with my lack of traditional, university-based education. This sparked my curiosity. What behavior or performance is expected of those who earn a degree from an institution versus those who carry a less traditional “degree” from life experience and other learning sources?

My informal research started to garner some interesting results. The opinions about learning and education were varied, but there was a constant: Each favored opinion was nearly always consistent with their personal learning experience.

Those with degrees often cited the value they placed on formal education and traditional college experiences. They usually didn’t talk as much about the value of what they learned, but more often noted the bonds they formed with classmates, internship opportunities they pursued or, in a few cases, the spouse they met. One of the gentlemen I spoke with told me he learned more about what he didn’t want to do for a living from his college experience than what he did which left him more than $20K in debt and searching for a new profession.

Others proudly boasted of their success without any college experience, making bold claims about the latency of university programs and inability to keep up with “the real world”. One woman told me she spoke to a few professors during a networking event as she was exploring various college opportunities and was astounded by how little they knew about the field she was exploring. Ultimately, she ended up pursuing a self-taught path, finding industry mentors and hiring a professional coach to help her develop the skills she thought mattered most. She’s now a senior director in a mid-sized company, leading a team of more than 30 leaders within the organization.

Still, I also spoke with people who had a blended or hybrid approach to their learning. Some had taken a few college credits, online courses, self-study and – somewhat surprisingly – even cited YouTube videos as a resource for some of their knowledge content. More still had attended trade schools, boot camps and certificate programs. Almost all of them included some form of mentorship, on-the-job training, or other peer-to-peer source which contributed to their confidence as they took on new responsibilities.

Whichever approach they themselves had taken certainly had an impact on what they felt the best approach would be for others, and what they claimed to look for when they hired others. Alas, as I was uncovering more and more stories which seemed to correlate to this finding, I reflected on my own perspective. I, too, appreciated candidates who had the, “do what it takes and don’t complain” approach, just like what I learned from my parents. I didn’t necessarily discount candidates with degrees or other means of learning, but I could more easily connect with those who shared a similar experience to my own, as I understood what it took to get there.

In HR, I see we are often the ones to sound the alarm bells when we see something running off course. The conversations surrounding education, training and skilling up for our workforces in the digital age have been happening for years. But now, it’s no longer a conversation. It’s a ship in open waters, rapidly taking on water and in danger of sinking the longer it continues unchallenged.


Stay tuned for part of two of Elisa's Lifelong Learning Journey publishing next week. Until then, {spoiler alert} consider one of SHRM Education's learning opportunities Elisa utilized in her journey.



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