Missionaries must be learners: kinds of learning

One of the skills any missionary must have (and really, it’s good for everyone) is being a life-long learner.
The reason is obvious: you can’t know everything you will need for the situations you’ll encounter in life. (As a simple example, this study says 65% of of children entering school today will work at types of jobs that don’t exist today–new kinds of work.)
Here are a few kinds of learning we all need to be skilled in:

  1. Learning about something–SEEKING. Learn to gather data comprehensively–both information that exists, and information you create through experiments.If you want to find a Person of Peace, you’re going to have to look in a lot of different places. What places seem to have spiritually hungry people? What places don’t? You’ll need to gather “samples,” explore areas, experiment, etc. Do places have more spiritually hungry people at certain times of year (holidays, festivals, etc)? Do certain places have different kinds of people (who are potentially spiritually hungry) in certain holidays (like Chinese New Year)? How are you gathering information about non-believers around you? Constructing experiments that can be run, re-run, and whose results can be observed and analyzed is an important skill to develop.
  2. Learning from others–listening, asking questions. Learn to identify and gather high-quality articles, books, and reports. Learn to compile subject bibliographies you can refer back to. Learn to interview (listen to, record, and analyze) experienced informants. Learn to ignore the fluff and mine for applicable wisdom. Of the collection of knowledge there is no end, so we shouldn’t always be in this mode–but if we ignore it, we will only end up repeating their mistakes.
  3. Learning from failure–planning experiments, analyzing results. We make mistakes. We have near misses. We have off days. We have bad patterns. We need the ability to learn from these failures–to understand what went wrong–so that we can try not to repeat the mistakes, and choose good patterns instead. There is a commonly cited idea: “Those who fail fastest, win.” But this only works if you learn from the failure and don’t repeat it. If you are constantly failing, you won’t win. But if you never fail, you probably aren’t trying new things.
  4. Learning from successes. The book Rework focuses on this: forget learning from failures, learn from successes. There’s a balance to be had. We must, through experiments that fail, eliminate all the bad options to discover the good. But once the good has been discovered, we ought to focus on that: learn from success, figure out why it happened, optimize it.
  5. Learning from ourselves, to avoid stagnation. We need to know ourselves, our personalities, our patterns, our work, so that we don’t get mired in our successes. For example, we can become a very successful small church pastor–and yet be so mired in the success of small-church pastoring that we don’t multiply, that we don’t reach out to those outside the church, that we don’t see the larger harvest.

Last but not least: all of these skills are about “learning to learn.” No one knows everything. We might know “enough” for today, but no one knows “enough” for all the days of the future. We must always be in a position of humility, constantly asking questions, constantly open to correcting ourselves.