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My dad, one of the great “empire of the mind” builders, taught me that if you wanted to truly learn something you should read five books about it, talk to three people who knew about it and then go try to apply it yourself.

Speaking at a Harvard University commencement ceremony, Winston Churchill, somewhat prophetically, predicted the collapse of the world’s most dominant military and political empires and that the world would then enter a new phase of development. This new phase, he foretold, would be one where creativity, innovation, ingenuity and personal initiative would rule the day. Churchill said, “The empires of the future will be empires of the mind.”

Churchill couldn’t have been more right. Here in America, we have been on a fast-track of revolutionary development, technological breakthroughs, transformational products and personalized services. We now experience more change and innovation in one of our 24-hour days than was created in decades of our grandparents’ lives. In such a fast-forward society, “knowledge-preneurs” will always be in demand. Forever learners are almost always the most successful and highly compensated people, regardless of their field of endeavor.

The “shelf-life” of a university degree in a rapidly changing world is shrinking. Some experts posit that those graduating with a degree only have about an 18-month head start in the workplace versus non-graduates, depending on the profession. Regardless of measurement or advantage, the key for students exiting college with an eye toward creating their own career and professional empire is simple — be a forever learner.

The two most important takeaways a student should acquire from the time they enter kindergarten through college graduation are to learn how to learn and to learn to love learning. The discipline of knowing how to learn new skills, expand ideas and stretch knowledge is central to building and growing a personal “empire of the mind.” Sadly, much of our overstructured learning models establish negative associations to learning, so rather than fostering a love of learning most people end up dreading it.

This is where truly high-impact teachers and mentors do their most important work. Creating space for students to love the learning while developing the disciplines and skills to do it well is the essence of great teaching. We rarely compensate such “empires of the mind” teachers properly, rewarding instead those who do individual research or write white papers for periodicals. Teachers who transmit a love of learning to their students transform lives and communities while changing the trajectory of generations to come.

Author and historian David McCullough experienced an “empire of the mind” teacher at Yale who changed his life and positively impacted the millions who have read McCullough’s works since.

Sitting in the Library of Congress, appropriately, I once listened to McCullough describe his experience with the teacher who transformed his life. McCullough was an English major but needed a history credit to graduate. He wasn’t fond of memorizing and dreaded taking the class. Walking into the large hall, McCullough grumbled to himself that the class was going to be taught by a graduate assistant instead of a real professor. The graduate assistant, John Hubbard, walked into the room. Hubbard believed that the best way to teach was to show the students what you love. He informed the class that they would NOT be tested on dates, locations or events — the class would focus entirely on the stories of those who lived and made history!

McCullough said, “It was like a window was blown open for me. In that instant history was no longer a collection of facts and dates, it became an inexhaustible source of ideas.” The foundation of an “empire of the mind” had be laid — a forever learner launched.

McCullough is now world-renowned as the “master of the art of narrative history.” He is the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. More importantly, McCullough is still learning and his empire has not only expanded to bridge the past and the present, he has inspired many to begin work on their own “empire of the mind.”

I recently heard of an incredibly successful tech entrepreneur whose cellphone list of contacts and connections was as massive as it was impressive. He announced that out of all of his contacts he had identified just 70 people whom he would always take their call or respond to immediately. His criteria was based on one critical question, “Is this person still learning?” People who are committed to forever learning are always worth talking to. They are empire builders.

11 comments on this story

Formal learning has its place in preparing students for careers and life. However, learning should never be limited to libraries or confined to classrooms. My dad, one of the great “empire of the mind” builders, taught me that if you wanted to truly learn something you should read five books about it, talk to three people who knew about it and then go try to apply it yourself.

In every field of learning from mechanical engineering, mathematics and medicine to family living, vocational trades and even to education itself, success and impact will be dependent, to a large degree, on recognizing that Churchill was indeed right. “The empires of the future will be empires of the mind.”