Even though lifelong learning takes on many shapes and forms, reading books is still a solid way to go. But before we get into the five books that make the cut, I also want to acknowledge that there are many motivations for reading. And what we read is influenced by why we read.
When I finally narrowed down the focus for Living the Learning Life – or at least felt relatively comfortable with its direction – I chased a winding rabbit trail into the world of personal development vs. personal growth.
Ultimately it came down to the question: Is being a lifelong learner the same as pursuing personal development or personal growth.
My answer? Yes. And no.
Difference Between Personal Growth and Personal Development
First, I had to get a handle on what the distinction was between development and growth.
Development in the personal sense is associated with taking steps or accessing resources that are designed to teach or instruct or guide improvement in a certain area of life.
Growth, on the other hand, is associated with implementing the strategies or ideas of personal development in such a way and with such consistency that change occurs in the individual.
So far, that last one seems pretty close to the equally vague “lifelong learner” category. Someone who engages with resources to make a change.
But I think I can argue that “lifelong learner” takes this one step further. You can undertake personal development and you can experience personal growth, but to go beyond into “lifelong learner” territory you must be developing intentional learning outside of what will benefit you.
In other words, a lifelong learner not only works through personal development to reach personal growth, they also pursue topics for at least one of two other reasons. These two reasons are at the crux for why these particular books fit on a list for lifelong learning as opposed to personal growth or development.
Two Ways Lifelong-Learning Goes Beyond Personal Development
One, a lifelong learner may pursue topics that do not at the moment appear to have any bearing on their life. They may study topics in science or psychology or religion or ecology or history, etc. In other words, they may take a deep dive for a period of time into understanding a subject regardless of how it does or will impact their life directly.
Two, a lifelong learner also engages with topics that are designed to benefit someone other than self. The lifelong learner, in other words, may choose to pursue topics that may answer someone else’s questions or concerns. They don’t do this necessarily because someone asked but because the lifelong learner has identified a gap of knowledge or a problem in society that he/she wants to understand.
Personal development emphasizes what is personal – finances, weight-loss, habit-formation, communication skills, and myriad others – all for good benefit. Lifelong-learning emphasizes self as well as beyond.
So why go through all those distinctions?
About this Book List
The books listed here are not going to be your typical, “how-to” books. They won’t tell you how to be a lifelong learner or tell you how to be more productive or give you a five-step plan.
There’s nothing wrong with those books. I think they can serve a purpose well in the personal development to personal growth stages.
But I also think that breaking beyond personal growth and into lifelong learning requires a shift in thinking.
The books on this list will provide broad strokes and big-picture perspective with supporting thoughts and ideas to challenge you to go further on the subject.
You don’t HAVE to read ALL these books, but reading one or two is a good start.
Rather, use this list and the brief descriptions after each picture to pick one that resonates most closely with the area or ideas, broadly speaking, that you want to pursue.
I will also say that some of these, most of these, are best read a few pages at a time. Don’t try to rush them. There’s a lot in them. It’s not necessary to understand every concept or find significance in every chapter.
Five Must-Read Books for Lifelong Learning
Range by David Epstein
This book affirmed something that has bugged me since school days. I can vividly recall making up absurd answers to the “What do you want to do with your life?” question. It becomes particularly poignant around graduations. For me, the truth was not a singular profession, it was a broad range of answers. I just didn’t know how those would ever fit into a professional category and that annoying question seemed to demand a one-word, clear-cut answer.
Range argues persuasively that those who have generalist skills and interests have incredibly valuable perspective to contribute.
Being a specialist is a wonderful gift that allows someone the intensity, focus, and desire to go really, really deep in an area. If you know right now what you were created to do – go for it.
Being a generalist is a wonderful gift that allows someone the creative thinking, resourcefulness, and flexibility to influence a wide range of areas and spaces. If you don’t know exactly the professional box you want to fit in when you “grow up,” don’t even worry about it.
Epstein uses a range of anecdotes and research to demonstrate the contributions that generalists make. Read this to find out where you fit and to get inspiration for myriad strategies and directions to pursue in your learning.
The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson
I had to include at least one book from one of my all-time favorite thinkers and authors. My biggest challenge was narrowing it down to one.
Robinson’s thinking is perceptive. Her writing is incisive. Her range is extraordinary.
In this book, Robinson focuses her thoughts on faith and science and technology and materialism. Her writing is characteristically clear but profound. Take your time unpacking her ideas.
Her deep appreciation for Shakespeare, literary traditions, and Jonathan Edwards will provoke your thinking and stimulate your curiosity. Her ability to synthesize a breadth of thinkers and current events and ideas creates essays of depth and timeless relevance.
You’re Not Listening by Katie Murphy
Huh? What? Why a book on listening in a list of books for lifelong learning?
It’s pretty simple actually: you learn when you listen. You don’t learn when you’re thinking up your next best point in a conversation or when you’re talking over someone.
You can hear, but you’re not listening.
Kate Murphy makes a compelling argument for why we need to refocus on listening. This is not an instructional book (though one of my biggest takeaways was something for me to apply), but rather it is making the case for people to take listening seriously.
For my full review, and the five things I learned from reading this book, check out my full book review here.
Listening is necessary for learning – about ideas, about people, about history, about relationships, about science, about anything; but listening is not natural. Read this book to appreciate the significance of listening and the sobering ramifications of its disappearance from our social settings and personal lives.
Streams of Living Water by Richard J. Foster
This book was so refreshing to read. As a Christ-follower who grew up in the protestant tradition I often landed somewhere between curious and confused as to the various denominations. I can only imagine what it looks like from the outside.
Foster doesn’t divide by denominations, but he does highlight six major traditions within the Christian community. Through each tradition (contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical, and incarnational) he emphasizes what each brings to the overflowing Christian life. He does this in two ways.
First, he finds and presents an example of a person within the tradition from history, a person from the Bible who exemplifies the tradition, and a contemporary example. Looking from these angles Foster is able to show how the tradition looks in practice and the various internal motivations that may lead a person in this direction.
Second, Foster talks about the strengths of each tradition, the areas in which they are susceptible to fall, and what it looks like to put them into practice in our daily faith. Each chapter is an invaluable resource to challenge Christ-followers.
But what is most refreshing is Foster’s intent to show the Church’s potential to engage with all these dynamics without sacrificing quality or content in their belief. That God created us to be different and dynamic individuals is a gift, not something to divide us.
The Impossible Will Take A Little While edited by Paul Rogat Loebb
This book is a collection of essays on various issues of current social attention. It is entirely likely that you will read one that resonates clearly with you and one with which you disagree and probably several in between. And that is particularly what I appreciate about this collection – plenty of room to stretch your brain.
In any case, the range of topics and experiences emphasizes that changing anything often takes a considerable amount of time and energy. For those lifelong learners who find themselves inspired to action, this is a good read for perspective and encouragement.
Read this to consider the range of social movements that are or have been pursued. Use the topics to think about your own perspectives and ideas about the subject at hand. The questions listed below will be particularly helpful. Definitely a book to take piece by piece since it changes topics and writers frequently.
Reading Questions for Lifelong Learning
Hopefully these five books, or at least one of these five books, will grow your lifelong learning library. Find one that resonates with you and begin to unpack it.
Here are some questions you can ask as you go:
- What ideas or values does the author affirm?
- In what ways do I share those same values? In what ways do I not agree?
- What new questions do I have after reading this book? What new ideas have I extracted from my reading to consider in future books on this topic or to consider in future applications of the ideas?
Let me know in the comments if you have read other books that would fit well on this list for lifelong learning.
Until next time – cheers!
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