Back in the 70”s, when the Japanese automakers began to seriously take market share as a result of their high levels of quality and dependability, we began to study their systems to see what was giving them such an advantage. Turns out that a major contributor was their deep commitment to statistical process control methods or “total quality” as it was often called. Dr. Edwards Deming, an American mathematician, was a leading proponent of this movement and was instrumental in implementing it in Japan. Overnight, it seems, Dr. Deming became something of a folk hero and many of us, regardless of industry, began studying and applying his teachings in this country. Basic to this approach is a statistical understanding of the manufacturing process, which meant we had to do a lot of analyses to get to the basics, we had a lot to learn about our systems. Dr. Deming was fond saying that the best industrial leaders must be “humble students” in the way they approach process improvement.
The spirit of a humble student brings great zest to all aspects of our lives, not just understanding manufacturing systems. As we get older, I think we begin to understand that the greatest satisfactions don’t have any thing to do with the level we reach in any aspect of our lives but rather, what is our slope: to what extent are we getting better, developing certain skill sets, generating higher levels of understanding, strengthening relationships, etc.
Understanding and aligning our lives around this concept of a humble student is particularly valuable and important in retirement.
For one thing, this spirit keeps us mentally active and excited about possibilities. It helps to keep us feeling vital and capable. For another thing, we have more time to work on our “slope” in areas of our choice. We have the freedom to dedicate time to areas that we have always been interested in or curious about.
In some cases, exercising this “humble student” mentality can be in an area that we have been involved in for much of our lives. For me, fly fishing is an example. Throughout my working life fly fishing was always an important diversion but in retirement it becomes a passion as I take time to learn more about the history, the culture, the literature and the various sciences underlying the sport. This deeper understanding greatly enriches the enjoyment of the sport.
In other cases, we can truly play the role of “humble student” by embarking on new areas in retirement. A good example for me is wooden boat building. During my career I was greatly interested in wooden boats but didn’t have the time or facilities to pursue. In retirement then, my initial slope is very steep and the rewards and satisfactions are equally steep.
Another great example of where we can get the benefits of being a humble student is the general area of volunteer work. This can be the best of both worlds in that we can embark on work in a field that is foreign to us but yet we can bring to bear some of the skills that we developed in our work lives.
The literature is full of evidence supporting the importance of life-long learning. No doubt it is an important element in good physical and mental health. All I know for sure is that adopting the spirit of a humble student adds greatly to the zest and excitement of life.