• Advice

4 key continuous learning lessons from a cat

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My cat is easily the most “together” person I’ve ever met. She’s always well-groomed. She’s rarely late. She’s religious about getting twelve hours of sleep every night, yet manages to maintain a peak level of fitness. Her persuasion skills are the stuff of legend. She’s also an expert in networking, forging lasting friendships while actively pursuing clearly defined life goals (bug-eating, mainly).

Yet for all her talents, I’ve never seen my cat take a course. Nor have I observed her consulting Wikipedia to learn advanced techniques in human-wrangling. Admittedly, she is often up later than I am, but I’m reasonably confident she does not take night classes. To the best of my knowledge, my cat has no formal training or qualifications of any kind.

So how does she do it? How can a creature that efficient be so blasé about self-betterment? I chalk much of my cat’s success to a serious, ongoing commitment to continuous learning. Here are a few of her secrets.

Continuous learning isn’t a separate “thing” to add to your to-do list

For my cat, learning isn’t really a thing she “does” in a conscious way. She simply packages the learning process into every waking moment. I think she’s onto something. The whole point of continuous learning is that it is … well … continuous. By definition it isn’t yet another onerous addition to your already crowded “to-do” list. It’s an attitude. A mindfulness.

My feline colleague rarely walks in a straight line. She never lets the destination blind her to the journey. One does not simply wander casually from the bedroom to the kitchen to see if the next meal has arrived. The journey is a process of checking that the world still makes sense. Have any new threats emerged? Do new opportunities for food or fun present themselves?

As a human freelancer, I think this strategy makes a whole lot of sense. Sure, it may be quicker to blindly rush at the next big proposal opportunity. To write pitch after pitch telling yourself that it’s a numbers game. But what are your successes and failures telling you? Are there subtle changes occurring in your professional space which you should know about? Are you missing something important? Any moment may provide that next important clue about what will happen next.

My cat’s first piece of advice: Every moment is data. By treating each new situation as a learning process, the chances of finding interesting and potentially delicious opportunities are greatly increased.

Do things differently, just because

My cat’s formidable continuous learning acumen also seems to be informed by a strong commitment to experimentation. At first this puzzled me. She might invest days, possibly weeks, identifying the perfectly optimal position for sunbathing. She’d pursue it relentlessly and single-mindedly, distilling the process to an art form. Then just as abruptly, she’d shift her self-warming strategy to sleeping on assorted electronic equipment. Why? Why perfect one approach only to switch it up for no apparent reason?

I think her motivations can be summed up in a word: Versatility. By striving to continuously learn new ways to achieve her goals, my cat’s happiness becomes bullet-proofed against unpredictability. If conditions change, she already has a plan B, C and D ready to go. One way or another, my cat knows how to get her fix of the warmies.

As a human who writes for cash, I can see my cat has a point. A while back I realized I could secure a pretty steady stream of income doing SEO writing for law firms. For some reason, there was a period of several months where getting that kind of work was like shooting extremely chubby fish in a barrel of orange jello. Then that odd run of niche work dried up and I had to scramble to fill my writing schedule. Not good. What I should have been doing was continuously staying on top of my other content areas so that I could pivot easily when required. Cat 1. Human 0.

My cat’s second nugget of continuous learning wisdom: don’t get complacent. Keep learning new ways of getting what you want. That way you always have a plan B to fall back on.

You can’t continuously learn if you’re continuously busy

Albert Einstein is said to have insisted on getting at least ten hours of sleep every night. While my cat’s forays into theoretical physics have thus far been uncharacteristically lackluster, her dedication to finding adequate time for rest and contemplation is unparalleled. She knows that being good at what you do doesn’t come from using energy unwisely and charging headlong into every challenge.

As someone who fell in love with the freelancing lifestyle, I swallowed the concept of “busy work” hook, line and sinker. When I started out, I thought of freelancing as my “side hustle” and that is what I did. I hustled. As freelance work became my sole source of income I began to congratulate myself for a growing ability to work harder and faster. It was all about speed and the next thing. It reached the point where I felt guilty when I stopped!

I now realize that stopping is exactly what I should have been doing. Life and work should not constantly resemble a great big game of existential dodgeball. These days I regularly make time to read anything I like … and just generally ponder. By giving myself space I find I’m constantly discovering new ways to do things better.

The third pillar of my cat’s codex of continuous learning wisdom: chill out, human. It’s amazing what fresh, unexpected ideas can come to you when you’re not treating your brain like a magical idea-chicken that lays golden eggs. Mmmm, chicken.

Continuous learning is also continuous teaching

I realized something odd about myself at the grocery store recently. I always purchase one particular brand of cheese. I don’t especially like it. Actually, I find it a tad bland. Still I have to get it because a) my cat likes how it gets all stringy when you tear it apart and b) it doesn’t have that annoying tendency of sticking to the top of her mouth (which is just gross).
My cat taught me her expectations while I was just innocently going about my business. I was offended at first but then I realized I’d been given a valuable object lesson: Continuous learning is also continuous teaching.

Part of the ongoing challenge and fun of freelance work is that you get to work with many different personalities–some easy, others not so easy. Sure, it’s important to continuously learn new clients' requirements, but it’s also crucial to be on the lookout for ways to teach your clients about what you need in order to do a good job.

Here’s an example. One particular client would always approach me with writing work like this: “Help! I need something written today! It’s an emergency!” This wasn’t ideal. I wanted to be a team player and help out, but (like the inferior cheese my cat so despised) it put me in a sticky situation and left a bad taste in my mouth. Eventually I had to say something. To my amazement, I didn’t lose the client. Instead, my client began to make more effort to approach me with reasonable deadlines. Continuous learning can be, and should be, a two-way street.

The final piece of wisdom my cat has to offer in elevating continuous learning to an art form: Always be teaching. Humans can be pretty dense at times. Make your cheese preferences known. You won’t regret it.

The cat's approach to mindfulness

So, there it is–my cat’s take on how to integrate continuous learning into your daily life. Continuous learning needn’t be an especially complex or technical pursuit. It doesn’t require that you sign up for expensive courses, meditate on top of a mountain somewhere, or read a book by a person with ridiculously white teeth. All it takes is a certain mindfulness about how you work, a willingness to experiment and have fun with new approaches, and granting yourself permission take a step back and reflect.

Does it work for humans? I can say that getting better at continuous learning has made me a less stressed and more adaptable freelancer. Now, if I can just convince my cat to try a different cheese…

Mark Lambert is a copywriter who specializes in conversational writing about health, technology, and society. He's especially excited about emergent tech and finding historical perspectives that reveal new angles about where we're going next.