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The Lifetime Learner: Self-education brings personal growth and success

seeds long

Keep learning: that was the primary lesson I took from Educated, a memoir about a young girl who grew up in a “jagged little patch of Idaho,” never set foot in a classroom until age 17 and yet, despite severe abuse and neglect, went on to graduate with a PhD from Cambridge University. 


The author – Tara Westover – is now achieving great things, and I was struck by how much she has to teach all of us about the power of self-education. Tara was willing to learn, so she found ways to do so despite almost insurmountable odds. Conversely, I have found that if the true desire to learn isn’t there, the best tutors or materials are of little use. 

Self-education is more important than ever. In the insurance industry, we must continually adapt to new technology, changing processes and evolving customer expectations. It once was enough to go to university, pick up a few skills and ease into a career track. No longer. Not since the Industrial Revolution has the disruption taking place in the workforce been so significant. An array of top-tier courses are now available online on almost any subject, often at no cost. But if education has become more available, it has also become more essential to any career in the information age. A McKinsey Global Institute study suggests that up to a third of U.S. workers may have to change jobs by 2030 because of advances in artificial intelligence, for example. 

So, how do we get really motivated to learn? Throughout my career, I’ve learned to appreciate two techniques that can help.

First, impress yourself. Don’t think of others’ expectations or demands. Instead, consider what could you achieve next year, in two years, or five years that would truly impress you personally. Consider Olympic athletes: many elite sports involve gravity-defying feats, but audiences don’t often see the hours of repetitive, grueling practice sessions. Studies have shown that the most successful athletes are often those who are not necessarily the most physically gifted but those with the most optimism and goal-orientation, which allows these sprinters and swimmers and runners to bounce back faster from setbacks. I remember first thinking, probably 15 years ago, that I might one day be Head of Asia at RGA, but also thought that goal was ridiculous; it wasn’t achievable. But it motivated me. Keep your career objectives in mind, even if you do not discuss them with anyone, and use these goals to motivate your progress. 

Second, get to the root cause. When I face a difficult challenge, I don’t expect to learn how to resolve it until I have asked five or six questions that help me better understand all the nuances and the root cause of the problem. It can take courage and persistence to ask questions of anyone in authority. Interpersonal skills, as much as intelligence, are often necessary to maintain collaborative relationships. 

The work is worth it. As I think about past tough situations, I don’t remember the answers to the five or six key questions I had asked, but I remember quite precisely the insight that emerged. 

Too often we worry that asking too many questions will give us a reputation of being difficult or reveal a lack of knowledge to our colleagues. I worry about the opposite – asking too few questions can cause us to miss the true source of a problem and the opportunity to resolve it. This is why I treasure the insights I gain from asking questions; they are the building blocks to my learning. I can continually apply them to many other situations and they are forever with me. True collaboration requires the courage to speak and the patience to answer.

At the end of the day, I sincerely believe that no matter what your achievements, you have room to grow, and this is particularly true in life and health insurance.  As Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Learn as if you were to live forever."

The Author

  • ​Tony Cheng
    FIAA
    Executive Vice President
    Head of Asia
    RGA Asia

  • ​Tony Cheng
  • continual education
  • Educated
  • root cause analysis
  • self-education
  • Tara Westover