I Am Still Learning

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June 29th, 2009

On the wall beside my desk sits a small bronze plaque. It was a gift, located in Italy, from one of my associates. On it are engraved just four words: “I am still learning.”

What’s unusual about that simple, seemingly mundane, statement is that it was spoken by the renowned Renaissance artist, Michelangelo – in his 87th year. (Technically, he said “ancoro imparo.”) Given the scope of his achievement in painting, sculpture, poetry and architecture, this humility is striking and strongly reminiscent of another quotation attributed to the Greek philosopher Socrates. He said, “The wise man knows that he knows nothing.”

Beside the Michelangelo quote is taped another gem, this one from the best-selling business book, Leading Quietly. It’s a three-word motto that I also try to keep top-of-mind. It reads, “Modesty. Restraint. Tenacity.” I don’t think Michelangelo would mind that the two sit side by side on the wall.

How much time do you set aside for learning? Since when did you know it all? Since when can you rest on your laurels? It’s a very competitive world, as you’ve no doubt discovered. Resting leads to losing. Skills at any level of the corporate hierarchy dull quickly without constant sharpening.

One of my neighbors is a successful, self-employed real estate salesman. He works primarily by himself. No one else is responsible to train him, teach him or motivate him. Recognizing that fact, he’s wise enough to take two, self-imposed “feed the fire” trips each year. He leaves home, kisses his family goodbye, and heads for a rented condo in Park City. He then focuses for several long days on learning how to improve his performance. Tapes, books, magazines, videos and fresh air are all part of his curriculum. He readily admits that those one-man, learning soirees contribute mightily to his annual success.

I heard the well-respected leader of an international organization once say, “Can we not appreciate that our very business is life is not to get ahead of others, but to get ahead of ourselves? To break our own records, to outstrip our yesterdays by our todays, to give as we have never given, to do our work with more force and a finer finish than ever – this is the true idea: to get ahead of ourselves.”

And somewhere, Michelangelo is still studying sculpture.

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