“In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” — Eric Hoffer, American philosopher, Reflections on the Human Condition

Hank had all the answers. He was a legend in his own mind. A very experienced and knowledgeable senior technician, people were constantly drawing on his analytical abilities. There didn’t seem to be a technical or system problem he couldn’t solve. Although you often got more “war stories” and background than you wanted, Hank could connect many current problems to similar ones that were faced in the past. He used his technical know-how like a sword to “cut down the fools” who didn’t follow his flawless logic. If he wanted any of your bright ideas, he’d give them to you.

Since changes were hitting the company from many sides at once, various changes and improvement efforts were underway. These included focusing on customer needs and improving service levels, cross-departmental teams, process improvements, leadership development, and an enterprise-wide integration of computer systems. Hank dismissed most of this with his usual cynicism. “If we lay low long enough, this too shall pass,” he liked to quip. “I’ve been round and round the mulberry bush on this before. So many of these management fads are like the ties in my closet, if I wait long enough, they’ll come back in fashion.”

Gillian was a very knowledgeable senior technician who worked along side Hank. They were about the same age and had both started in the company around the same time. She had a lot of respect for Hank’s towering intellect, had learned alot from him, and continued to draw from his technical depths. People who went to Gillian often became part of her questioning process rather than getting quick answers. She was constantly asking why and digging deeper to understand the underlying technical, process, or human issues to many of the problems she helped to solve. She seemed to have an unquenchable curiosity for a wide variety of subjects both on and off the job. She was constantly reading, surfing the Internet, taking a course, or networking with colleagues in other companies. Her motto was summed up in a Henry Ford quotation she’d framed and put on her desk, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” She supported the company’s floundering change and improvement initiatives because she knew how critical they were to the changes hitting their industry.

That Friday, Ivano came back from lunch with his vice president deeply troubled. Both Hank and Gillian reported to him. As part of the major organization changes going on, he and his vice president had agreed that the department had to be restructured and reduced in size. There wasn’t going to be room for both Hank and Gillian. “We’ve struggled with our change programs because they’ve been just that — programs rather than a way of life,” the vice president said. “We’ve got to go deeper than just more tools and techniques. We have to shift our culture toward continuous learning and constant improvement. We need to build a focused, fast, and flexible department around the remaining senior technician.” No discussion was needed; they both agreed that Gillian was the obvious choice. Ivano dreaded the scene he would have with Hank. He also felt sorry for him. With his rigid mind set, poor people skills, and traditional view of the world, Hank would have a tough time finding another job.

Gillan demonstrated — and Hank discovered too late — that what I am going to be tomorrow is determined by what I am becoming today. If I continue to do what I’ve always been doing, I will continue to get what I’ve always been getting. To get somewhere else, I need to grow into someone else.

If I have a clear picture of my preferred future and I am growing and developing toward that, the odds of my getting there rise dramatically. If I am a couch potato, I probably won’t get much further in life than my couch. If I am a ‘mouse potato’ (Internet widows/widowers will understand this term), I can be wasting my on-line computer time or wisely investing it. Growth or rot are the direct results, respectively, of the learning habits or the stagnation that flow from our choices.