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How to Stitch Life Patterns of Learning, Earning and Returning

My wife and I were having dinner with friends not long ago when the topic of conversation turned to what I’ll call the “patterns of life.”

We all have patterns in our lives. I’m talking about the big picture patterns – those images that emerge when we back up and look at the entire tapestry of our existence. They are formed by our habits, decisions, and behaviors. Whatever we consistently do over time provides the dominant threads in the pattern we’ve created. The question, then, is what are the healthy, productive patterns and what are the patterns that take us off course?

One of the ideal life patterns suggested by a friend is learning, earning, and returning. Now, that immediately resonated with me because it alliterates so nicely. But it also holds up well when you test it against reality.

Think about it: Most of us spend the early part of our lives learning, first while we’re in school and then as we begin our journey into adulthood. We may think we know everything, but life quickly teaches just how much we don’t know. When we look back, we clearly see that Phase I of life was all about learning. Eventually we begin to thrive on what we’ve learned. We hit our stride when it comes to earning a living and providing for ourselves and our families. That sets us up to return what we’ve learned and earned. We become mentors to those who are in the learning phase and we share what we’ve earned financially with those who are in need.

This is one of the life patterns promoted by the late Bob Buford, who’s best-selling book Halftime led to a thriving non-profit that helps leaders move from success to significance in the second half of their lives.

The flaw some see in this pattern – and I hear this especially from those who are younger – is that we shouldn’t have to wait until the second half of our lives to find significance, or, to use the pattern, to start returning.

That’s true, but it’s really not a flaw in the pattern.

The pattern represents the big picture, not distinct steps. We don’t go from one thing to another like a boat passing through the locks in a canal. One thing doesn’t end and another begin. Instead, we go from one phase to another, and each phase has dominant, but not exclusive, themes.

In the first phase, we’re learning a lot because we have so much to learn. We aren’t earning much because we haven’t learned enough, yet. But we’re earning something. We also are returning from what we have, but, at this stage, we don’t have much money or experience to share.

As life progresses, we continue to learn, we earn more, and we begin to return more. Then we enter the second half of life, and, if things have gone well, we eventually flip the script – we’re still learning and earning, but the percentage we are returning is dominating the pattern of our lives.

My concern for the younger generation is that so many emerging leaders start their careers in a trap that limits their earning and returning potential. Two things disguised as “freedom” end up putting these leaders in bondage. One is the culture of materialism that says you can have anything you want right now. The other is student loans. The average student loan debt for the class that graduated in 2017 has been estimated at $39,400. And Americans owe more than $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, which is more than is owed on credit cards and automobile loans, and second only to home mortgages.

We have a borrowing culture – buy now, pay later … and with a ton of interest. The result: many who are entering the workforce are destined to replace the “earning” phase with an extended “repaying” phase, which doesn’t set them up to give much back, now or in the future.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn in our youth is to avoid debt like the plague that it is. If you’re in debt, sacrifice the wants of the moment to get free of those chains as soon as possible. If you are out of debt, stay out. Then you can earn more and return more in the years ahead.

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