Commentary / Japan

Start lifetime learning now

by Yoko Ishikura

Many areas in Japan have experienced extreme heat this summer. Temperature have risen to record levels around 40 degrees in many places and large numbers of people have suffered heatstroke. The death toll from heat-induced illnesses may reach historic highs. Since physical conditions affect how we think and feel, it is understandable that people lose motivation to try something new and put it off till September. However, I would suggest making the best of the extreme heat by starting your own learning process in a creative and innovative way.

According to conventional wisdom, summer is the time to relax, recharge your batteries and take up outdoor activities to build physical stamina. But the extreme heat we’ve been experiencing does not lend itself well to conventional outdoor activities. I recommend instead that we stay indoors (in air-conditioned rooms) and gain new knowledge and develop new skills. The number of learning programs and courses in a variety of language on the internet has been increasing and anybody, regardless of age, nationality or background, can discover a program they find interesting.

The need to acquire new knowledge and develop new skills throughout life, i.e., lifelong learning, has been recognized and advocated around the world. As jobs undergo transformation and the way we learn and work is affected by new technologies, we cannot assume that the three-phase sequential approach to life — school, work and retirement — will remain efficient and effective in the future. We need to depart from the conventional thinking that a majority of learning takes place when we are young and mainly at school, with little additional learning and development of new skills during the work and retirement phases.

With life expectancies increasing in the advanced economies, we need to constantly update and refresh ourselves, keeping up with the changes in the world, in order to have a meaningful life with purpose.

At the same time, the practice of lifelong learning is still quite slow due to a variety of reasons such as a lack of clarity as to who is responsible for organizing or funding them. Awareness of the need for lifelong learning has been particularly low in Japan, where many appear to think that serious learning ends in the early part of one’s life. In fact, people over 40 are less interested in gaining new knowledge and learning new skills than their younger counterparts in their 20s and 30s. They also have less interest in changing jobs.

Japanese firms — which used to be known for their effective training and development of human capital — invest less and pay little attention to education and training of their employees today. Many leave the task of lifelong learning to individuals, and do not include it in the scope of company activities.

The government, meanwhile, began its campaign for lifelong learning only recently and started discussing policies to subsidize individuals and companies for “recurrent training” (lifelong learning), but the scope seems to be limited to traditional forms of schooling at educational institutions. It is time for individuals to take the initiative for their own lifelong learning, and the extreme heat this summer makes for an ideal trigger.

Here are my suggestions, based on my experience, as to where you can start:

1. Start with a subject that is current and that you want to know more about. For example, you could start with climate change and the debates among scientists and policymakers regarding what is causing it. You can search for articles on this debate and explore the evidence and reasoning of both sides. Starting from the topic that affects you now, you can find out how scientific thinking is built on an issue.

2. Start with something you like. If you like Japanese traditional performing arts, search for websites and courses about them. If you are interested in contemporary music, which may not be that prevalent or in high demand here, you can search for artists and find out about their activities.

3. Start with some tool that you always wanted to learn to use but haven’t had the time. Learning a new language is good as you need a block of time at the beginning to learn the basics of it. You can start with visual communication techniques that are and will be in high demand. You can do a simple search for different programs available online. You can check how the courses have been evaluated by those who have actually taken them.

In my case, I began and finished “Beginners’ Programming” in eight weeks this spring. Earlier I had tried other self-study courses but could not continue because I got lost. This time I found a person who had recently taken it and I received valuable advice. (In fact, I struggled but finished the course, and now I am taking a second course about WordPress, which I always wanted to try.)

4. Use online courses as a trial or experiment for the subjects or topics to which you want to dedicate time and resources. If you are thinking about enrolling and taking a real course at educational institutions such as universities, graduate schools or vocational schools, I strongly recommend that you check whether online courses with similar content are offered before you enroll at an institution.

Enrolling costs money and forces you to attend classes and seminars with people who have the same goals. You may feel that this will give you discipline and increase your chances to continue and finish. But you may find that the content is not exactly what you want, and/or your work may prevent you from attending the course over a long period of time.

Traditionally, September marks the beginning of serious learning. But since many things are undergoing drastic changes, we can change our learning schedule and invest heavily in online learning this month instead of waiting until September.

I suggest you start off relatively small (i.e., I do not recommend that you enroll in an online MBA course that runs over an extended period of time as your first trial of online learning). It is more important to try some programs and see whether your needs and preferences are met. After you have tried once you will get a much better feel for how to gain knowledge and develop skills using information that is available online.

It is also advisable to stay away from the “school mentality” where many things are formal and rigid. This attempt at learning is for fun and for enriching our life, not something you must do. Be experimental, flexible and adaptive. You are in charge.

Forget about complaining over the extreme heat and climate change. Kicking off your lifelong learning in the summer heat will be the first step in your journey that gives you a secret weapon for your future.

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council.