From the September 2003 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

September 1, 2003

Learner's Permit

Stuck in a rut? Here's some advice on how to climb out and get a fresh outlook on life

Feeling listless, dull, uninspired, unbalanced, or out of control? Maybe you need a dose of new learning to bring the sparkle back into your eyes--and your life.

We humans tend to be unhappy when we sit in the same place for long. We like to keep moving forward, becoming better at what we do, and improving our relationships with people we care about.

So if you feel that stagnation has set in, ask yourself if it's because you've stopped learning new things. The situations below may help clarify when learning is the right thing to do, and how to help make it easier. Live and learn!

Am I the only one feeling overwhelmed by constant revisions to the tax code? I used to have all the basics at my fingertips, and I've kept up with changes fairly well. But every time I try to bring myself up to date on the most recent modifications, my eyes glaze over. Am I losing it? I'm sure you're not alone in your frustration. And it's good that you're concerned about staying on top of this important area of expertise.

One way you might be able to get around your current problem is to try a different method of learning. For example, you could organize a group of colleagues to study and discuss tax code changes. Or consider looking for a tax professional who is willing to coach you on the new regulations. (Some of your co-workers may be interested in joining you.) Or use the Internet: among many fine tax-related Web sites is one cosponsored by the IRS--www.taxtalktoday.com--that addresses tax code changes through free, interactive Webcasts.

If that doesn't work, you always have the option of farming out tax-sensitive work to someone who is better versed in that area. This will allow you to concentrate on aspects of planning and advice that interest you more.

However, I believe that simply freshening the way you learn may solve the problem. When your eyes glaze over as you scan the particulars of yet another tax law revision, your mind may be sending you the message, "Been there, done that." There are many ways to learn other than reading, and being creative about how to access information is well worth the effort.

A colleague of mine is constantly entering new training programs. She never seems to take a break, and I know the studying must eat into her leisure time. I'm tempted to sign up for courses to improve my own skills and knowledge, but I'm not sure I can handle the extra stress and time commitment. Am I just wimping out? Not at all. Your colleague may be one of those people who thrives on constant intellectual stimulation, to the point of being addicted to living life out of balance. Unless she is taking the time to integrate all her new learning, she will not make it truly her own. This is a compulsive kind of behavior that you would do well not to emulate.

In any case, there's no value in comparing your situation to hers. Instead, use this opportunity to ask yourself if there's a subject that really fires you up, either professionally or personally, to the point that you'd like to know more about it. If there is, I think you can feel good about taking steps to educate yourself in a way that suits your own personality and your own preferred method of learning.

When people pursue their passion, whatever it may be, a feeling of connection and vibrancy resonates through everything else they do in life. I hope you find this passion and wholeheartedly enjoy pursuing it.

Because people relationships are my strong suit, I'm thinking of becoming a life planner. But even though I'm fairly successful in my work, I have a learning disability that makes it difficult to absorb information I read. I'd rather "learn by doing" than try to educate myself by reading about life planning. Does this make sense to you? Identifying how you learn best will help you understand and remember more information. Some people learn best by reading, some by hearing, some by trying on behaviors, and others by merely observing. However, I wouldn't dismiss the opportunity to benefit from other people's wisdom until you explore other ways to access it. For instance, you might join a group such as The Nazrudin Project, a community of financial planners who are interested in holistic client planning. Their Yahoo! chat room and annual conference are venues where some thought-provoking issues are discussed.

Since you mentioned that you like to learn by doing, you might also seek out a mentor who can show you the ropes and supervise you as you venture forth. See if this coach will allow role-playing or other experiential tasks to become part of the educational process.

Having said all this, I would suggest that once you begin to master material in the way that suits you best, you also consider exercising your intellectual muscles by lifting up some reading materials now and then. The more ways you can learn, the more you will absorb.

Since we downsized a few weeks ago and I lost the assistant who kept me organized, my messy tendencies have taken over. My office is piled high with papers, files, magazines, legal pads, you name it. I don't think you can teach an old dog like me new tricks, but I'm worried that I'm going to forget or misplace something critical. Any advice? Welcome to Clutterbugs International, a group of which I am a charter member. As someone who has always had trouble letting go of things, I applaud your efforts to "breathe air into the system" by voicing your problem.

There are many avenues of help available for folks like us, so don't despair. Ask your friends and colleagues if they can recommend a good organizational consultant. This person's job is to get down and dirty with your disorganized mess and help you attack it over a period of time.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are many of these experts in Washington, D.C., where I live. When I took a course recently with life organizer Maggie Bedrosian, I was amazed at how many people showed up needing help. That realization alone was therapeutic in reducing my embarrassment and motivating my efforts to get better organized.

If you'd rather learn on your own, I would recommend Love It or Lose It: Living Clutter-Free Forever, by Barbara Hemphill and Maggie Bedrosian (BCI Press, 2003). This book can help you tackle the task with a positive vision and a more holistic perspective.

It's remarkable how a sense of disorder can impair an otherwise successful worklife. But you'll be heartened to see that once you start learning these new tricks, your confidence in your own expertise will quickly return.

I work with a colleague who is very knowledgeable about long-term care insurance. I know I need to be better informed about these products, but he's quite a bit younger and it's difficult for me to go to him for help. What can I do about this? This is an occasion for some gentle self-talk. Reassure yourself that your age and experience make you a possible mentor to your colleague in other areas. Your pride need not be an impediment to continued learning.

Think about approaching him in a way that seems casual and unforced, such as over lunch or coffee. Tell him that you'd like to learn more about this area of expertise from him. If he's a good guy, he will be flattered and gain respect for you. Not everyone is willing to admit vulnerability to a more junior colleague.

I hope he responds with a request to learn from your age and experience in some way. This intellectual exchange could prove very productive for you both.

My boss wants everyone to participate in training sessions where we role-play difficult clients and discuss how to deal with them. The intent is admirable, but the idea of putting on performances in front of each other sounds silly and embarrassing to me. What can I say to him to get out of this? Or should I just grit my teeth and struggle through it? You have a couple of choices, both of them perfectly acceptable. First, you could admit that this learning format is just not comfortable for you, and you'd rather hone your client management skills on your own.

Or, after explaining all this, you could just jump in with both feet, see how you like it, and leave if role-playing is too uncomfortable. In this case, however, I would let the group know upfront about your initial misgivings, so nobody will take it personally if you do choose to depart. Whichever path you opt for, honest communication about your own comfort level and preferred learning style will facilitate your choice.

When life seems blah, out of kilter, or without challenge, it may be time to ask yourself whether you're becoming stuck in a personal or professional rut. New learning could be the tonic you need.

Try to discover the method of learning that makes it easiest for you to access, process, and integrate new information. Don't hesitate to seek help from the best resources you can find, for learning can be a very difficult growth step. But never try to force change on yourself in a way that runs against the grain of your own learning style. Like the proverbial attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole, this will consume a lot of effort and possibly result in damage, such as to your self-esteem. That's the opposite of the pleasure you ought to experience from new learning and growth.

If you fear that striving for knowledge about a personal passion may compromise your professional commitment, remind yourself that being happier and more invigorated will pay off in your worklife as well. When you give yourself permission to embark on new learning and approach it in a positive spirit, I believe it will infuse every part of your life with more excitement and joie de vivre. In addition, you will serve as an inspiration to clients who may be stuck in their own ruts as well.

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