ABL: The 3-Letter Acronym You Need to Apply in Your Life

20171001 - ABL

Acronyms always make life a little simpler – it’s easier to remember a few letters than a mouthful of words and syllables, and maybe there is a snappy pronunciation or the acronym makes a new word. When I got to WPI (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), acronyms were so pervasive that a now-alum created the WPI Acronym Dictionary. This was the type of place where you wouldn’t declare yourself a “Civil Engineering Major”, you’d be a CE.  I became known by my initials MKT, not just because it was part of my email address, but because it was easier than saying my whole name (T was from my maiden name)!

There has been one acronym I think of often – when I’m bored and looking for something to do, when I’m overwhelmed, confused, excited, intrigued, and everything in between: ABL.

ABL stands for “Always Be Learning”.  I can’t recall the first time I heard this phrase, but it is something that has stuck with me for many years. My grandfather, despite his lack of formal education due to needing to help support the family during the Depression, was a proponent of reading anything and everything. While it did provide an activity with not much else to fill his days, he had been known to read week old newspapers from cities across the country. But he also read an untold number of biographies (Katharine Graham’s Personal History was my favorite recommendation of his) and traditional literature (he bought The Call of the Wild by Jack London in bulk to give away to anyone who hadn’t read it). The voracious reading, along with living through most of the 20th century, led him to dominate at Jeopardy – it always impressed his grandchildren!

ABL isn’t about only structured, classroom learning, but more celebrating opportunities to create knowledge as they arise and making learning entertaining.

Reading Books have always played a significant role in my entertainment, starting from when I started reading on my own. There was no being bored growing up – it simply wasn’t allowed. We had to use our imagination – so we usually came up with our own games, creating chalk art, reading, or whatever else we could think of to fill the hours. Reading was a fun escape, as I graduated from the Bobbsey Twins to Nancy Drew. I was a little older for Harry Potter, but the magic world of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley captured my attention and helped me to be more creative and think differently.  A few weeks ago I met my 2017 reading goal of 35 books more than three months early. These books ranged from books on coaching and connections to fighting overwhelm and memoirs from business leaders. I even threw in a few fiction books to mix it up! The non-fiction books varied in quality, but each one gave me different concepts to think about how I want to apply to my personal and professional lives – and some are lessons that cross into both aspects! Reading is a great tool and practice for quiet mornings and commutes where it isn’t quite appropriate yet to call a friend and have important conversations, but instead you learn insight from the author and their stories and research – and don’t need to worry about waking a friend up too early!

  • One way to take reading to the next level as part of ABL is taking part in Book Clubs, either in person or on-line. People are individuals with different experiences, and we all interpret what we read differently. What we each see as important will vary on our viewpoints – your friend in marketing may have different takeaways than your friend in software, and both different from you in education. Local book stores or companies or groups of friends or social organizations all may have book clubs. You can find book club questions in the back of some books, or a simple online search can also yield results. Doing a discussion with friends over brunch or beers is a good way to keep your mind active and have great debate!

Taking Classes I know I said ABL isn’t just about formal learning… but sometimes it is an excellent way to gain new knowledge! Who says classes end with high school or college or grad school graduation? With the advent of opencourseware offered by elite universities (MIT, Stanford and the like) and less academic but developmental learning nonetheless via online courses on Udemy, lynda.com, Khan Academy, Coursera, or beyond these sites (no endorsements here – choose where the most interesting courses are for you), it is easy and low cost to continue learning and gain access to what professionals are sharing. Since the spring, I’ve been taking a traditional “night class” to gain a deeper knowledge on real estate-specific finance, since my MBA didn’t touch the details of my now industry. Taking classes in person allows the opportunity to ask questions of the expert instructor, and to hear the questions of others you hadn’t thought of yet. I find the discussions in class are the best part of taking a formal course in person. In taking the class I am currently taking, I am hearing questions and experiences from people in all sectors of the industry, from different positions in the industry. There are great perspectives to learn from even if they don’t directly impact me and what I do everyday. Perhaps it is nothing more than a mental exercise, but someday there could be a game changing idea that comes from all of these different viewpoints.

  • Conferences and even some networking events with a presentation are another good way to take classes! Not only do you get out of the office or the field or classroom, but you get to meet new people and hear from the experts on cutting edge research and state of the art practices.

Asking Questions & Conversations “Why?” may be the query of pesky and curious toddlers, but we should take a page from their playbook. When I was learning about “lean construction”, we were taught that asking “Why?” five times gets us many times to the root cause of a problem. We don’t have to get more complicated than that! Simply thinking the way a journalist might with the 5 W’s and 1 H (who, what, where, when, why, how) in how we approach what we do gives significant insight and background. Learning the history of decision making can often provide context to why some decisions are made a certain way, and helps to frame arguments a certain way when you make proposals. The best part of asking questions and having conversations is that other than only a few moments of your time is that this practice is 100% FREE! Another way asking questions is essential to the ABL process is showing interest in others. This prompts their interest in you and in some cases can lead to informal and formal mentoring or results-producing business partnerships. People LOVE to talk about themselves and their experiences. Asking more about it opens you up to what they know and do in their world, and you become more likable. This also helps if you are uncomfortable being the center of attention. Keep a list of easy-to-remember questions at the ready – Google can help with finding articles with lots of these lists (maybe I’ll publish my own list someday). Some other ways to move the conversation going besides 5 W and 1 H questions are phrases like “Can you tell me more about…” and “Would you help me understand…”

I know many people are flat out DONE with school as soon as they walk across the stage (and some are done before that day comes) – but if you’re not subscribing to the ABL way of life, you’re stagnating and falling behind. The world is changing at a breakneck pace, and Moore’s Law is being proved in new sectors of the tech industry, and even outside it, all the time. What are the effects of adopting an ABL approach?

Joy of learning This may be a feel-good effect, but once you start focusing on learning in areas you care about, are interested in, even passionate for, then learning more to hone your craft brings joy. Because you feel happy with the ABL attitude, it continues to grow your desire to continue forward adding to your joy with more ABL action!

Develop Expertise Learning leads to more knowledge, and the deeper you go into learner the deeper your knowledge. Deep knowledge can be valuable if you apply it . Expertise allows for more exploration and better contributions at individual and team levels. And it also can lead to….

Professional Advancement If you continue to develop your expertise, and then make efforts to apply it everyday or in appropriate occasions, the ladders can open up to you. While you don’t have to know everything to advance, knowing how to connect the dots or those who work with you and for you can be a major differentiator and career accelerator.

Be More Interesting What do you talk about with others? Do you complain about the weather? What’s happening on the news? Blah Blah Blah, same old stuff. What new do you have to offer that provides benefit to someone else? When you ABL, you can add to the lives of others and actually be the interesting person in the room that people gravitate to!

Open to New Opportunity When you take an ABL attitude, you can not only advance up the ladder, but up and around the jungle gym. New knowledge can take you to new places!

There are more reasons why ABL can be a positive force in your life – but I don’t want to keep you from getting out there and benefitting from making a difference with ABL! It doesn’t matter what you get interested in, and it can change from day to day or over longer periods of time. The way you learn may also change, but the important part is that you keep at it. The A stands for “Always”, of course, so you can put yourself in the best position possible to improve. Be a better you – remember, ABL!

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