When I finished university for the first time, I remember quite clearly saying “well, I am never doing that again”. In hindsight I should perhaps have waited until I’d left the stage at my graduation ceremony. The Dean, handing me my scroll, did not look as amused as I’d anticipated. Fast forward 15 years and there I was again, first day nerves tingling as I stepped back into the lecture theatre. Something had happened during the preceding decade and a half that somehow erased the pain of the first time around and made me think that a Masters degree was a good idea. If I’m completely honest, it probably had a lot to do with the prospect of being able to, nay required to, spend the GDP of a small country on beautiful, colourful, intoxicatingly attractive new stationary. Yes my pleasures are simple and few.

As I’m sure you’ve already predicted, it was just as painful this time around; but with 2 key differences. Firstly, I’d paid a lot of my own hard-earned cash for the privilege of putting myself through it this time (having been the beneficiary of a free university education thanks to the Scottish government the first time round). Secondly, I’d chosen to make the necessary sacrifices in my personal life to fit studying in with a full-time job. Certainly, these two factors fostered a degree of commitment I perhaps hadn’t felt during my undergraduate years. So, I stuck with it, even as I watched my friends go out partying without me, as the group projects made me question the sanity of what I was doing and as I cried real tears of frustration and exhaustion during my dissertation. And I don’t regret a moment of it.

Obviously, considering my chosen profession, I am a strong advocate of life-long learning. Further, knowing myself to be a vacant black hole when it comes to will power and ignoring distractions, I found myself wondering why, if I of all people, could see it through, did more of my peers not opt for further formal education?

To try and answer this question, obviously I started with a very scientific approach. I casually asked Mr. Jenny (who is one of the smartest people I know) over breakfast one day why he had never started his MBA – despite talking about it semi-regularly. As casual as my question might have been, his response was anything but. 

Over the course of about 45 seconds I watched him talk himself through an entire Kubler-Ross cycle: Denial – I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me I’m good at my job, Anger – And it costs so much! Total rip-off, money for old rope!, Bargaining – Although, if I had more disposable income perhaps I would make a few sacrifices…, Depression – I’ll never find the time, the whole idea is exhausting, and finally Acceptance – Yeah, I should really think about doing it.

As he returned, nonchalantly, to his coffee I sat, processing what I’d just seen happen.

The things he’d said had an amount of validity on their own, in terms of being blockers to going back to school. Time is always at a premium, those of us with full time jobs already feel like we are constantly busy and don’t have capacity for something as time consuming as executive study. But I’d managed, and thousands of other people do too. Money, well that’s also a big topic, but there are always different paths and opportunities to explore when the will is strong enough.

What was much more telling, was the way he talked about it. From denial all the way through to acceptance like a perfect case study in dealing with personal change. I know he wants to embark on further study so perhaps these barriers he spoke of were mere excuses his mind was producing to cloak the real reason. Perhaps more people put off, or completely give-up on, further education because of the real, understandable, human anxiety for change? If this is the case, then there could be help, and hope, for those who really want to start something but find themselves procrastinating or spinning their wheels.

Of course, the Kubler Ross cycle was originally applied to grief. Perhaps bringing up the conversation over breakfast had merely started him grieving for the future potential loss of his personal freedoms and bank balance?

Either way, the benefits of life-long learning are multiple and well documented. Cognitive stimulation, for example learning something new, helps maintain, improve and in some cases reverse deterioration of brain health and fitness. The fitter and healthier the brain, the better the cognitive ability is. In an actually scientific study, Alvarez-Borda and Nottebohm (2002) studied the abilities of canaries brains to adapt and grow new brain cells in order to learn new songs each year. This ability of the brain to change, reform and reshape in order to maximise neural networks is called neuroplasticity. We already knew that the developing (younger) brain exhibits more plasticity than the adult brain, but what the canary experiment showed us was, the canaries who utilized their newly grown braincells by singing the songs they’d learned retained those cells longer. In summary, the idea of ‘use it or lose it’ is a real truth when it comes to your brain and I know I’m not alone in harbouring a creeping fear of loss or decline of cognitive ability.

It doesn’t have to be a formal, post graduate degree. It can be opportunities for development in the workplace, access to coaching or mentoring, becoming a coach or a mentor perhaps. If I can do it, I promise you that you can. Yes, it was awful at times but my aging brain thanks me for the exercise. And my stationary cupboard is magnificent.

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