What Do Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Warren Buffett All Have in Common?

They make it a point to keep learning -- here's why that's so important.
What Do Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Warren Buffett All Have in Common?
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Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor
Founder and CEO, KnowBe4
5 min read
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Are you a lifelong learner? 

Really?

Your gut probably pulled you to say yes, regardless of how much time you’ve spent actually gathering information. 

That visceral, subconscious reaction is clear evidence that, socially, we know on some level that continuous education is a positive thing to do. We’ve heard it everywhere, it’s on our buzzword list and it’s imprinted deep in our minds. But you might know this “rule” or desired personality/behavior trait without really understanding the rationale behind it. So why, exactly, is lifelong learning such a critical part of succeeding as an entrepreneur?

Related: 6 Ways to Keep Your Employees Learning At Work

Our world is always changing

Successful professionals are well aware that the demands of the market can shift practically at the drop of a hat — it’s one of the reasons there’s such a profound emphasis on being agile and able to adapt. But what’s really happening is that the market is shifting in response to changes in the world. The planet and all of our various cultures are advancing incredibly fast. All kinds of new technologies, ways of managing and ways of thinking are cropping up. 

Putting your feelers out and learning about these changes in the economy, opinions, products and industries gives you a much better idea of what can work for yourself or your business. You get a better understanding of your larger environment. Insight about what’s happening around you usually means you can handle problems more responsibly, respectfully and successfully. That, in turn, reduces the risk that you’ll fall behind. And the more stable you are, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to innovate and maybe even turn into a front runner for your area. 

Continued relevance is a real need

At its core, business is about helping people. But you only really help if you’re relevant. And you’re only relevant over time if you continue to learn

Imagine for a moment that you earned an MBA 20 years ago. A huge percentage of what you learned while getting that degree — maybe even as much as 80 percent — might not even be applied or accurate anymore, because we have more information and experience now to guide us. Regulations have shifted, too. 

Medicine is a great example of this same issue. If you look back at what we used to do even half a century ago, our practices probably wouldn’t look so smart (recommending cigarettes to patients, anyone?). Go back even further and our practices likely would seem even barbaric. But at the time, it was all cutting edge. My doctor even has quipped that half of what we know isn’t right. We just don’t know which half. 

This doesn’t mean that your MBA or our basic study of disease was a waste of time. It just means learning is necessary to keep yourself in the game and comply well, and that you have to make sure there’s not a huge gap between what you can deliver and what your customers want. Individuals and brands that can’t do this usually are the ones that have to make big sacrifices to survive, or that don’t survive at all.

Learning doesn’t have to be complicated

Learning usually boils down to one of three choices:

  • You read and apply what you learned.

  • You watch someone else do something and copy what they do (yes, this includes YouTube tutorials).

  • You experiment and take risks, go through some pain and then don’t make the same mistake again — learning what not to do and perhaps what should have been done instead.

None of these approaches to learning is right or wrong, per se, and nothing says you can’t do all three. But personally, I tend to prefer reading books. They’re easy to get, cover just about every topic you’d want to understand and fit into whatever schedule you’ve got. And I’m not the only one who likes to learn from the page — Elon Musk is another big reader, for instance. In fact, I’d argue that most of what we do today in technology is really built based on smoothed-out best practices from about 20 favorite business books.

Related: 4 Reasons Every Entrepreneur Should Be Reading More

The great thing about learning from the fence is that your own experiences can be much more real and memorable. Plus, you don’t have to wait around for anyone else to set you up. You might even become a model for others for the future. But watching a mentor or teacher means that you’ll probably slash the risk of falling on your face, which sometimes can get you to your finish line faster. It makes total sense for people who want to get involved in something that already exists with clear standards.

None of us are ever going to know everything. There are simply too many skills to perfect and too much data to absorb. But we can commit to being less ignorant today than we were yesterday, and less ignorant tomorrow than we are right now. By committing to lifelong learning in this way, we can acknowledge our shortcomings and potential at the same time and develop both ourselves and our companies.

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