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  • Anna Weltner

"We're all late bloomers:" A conversation with Bill Felty, MeaningSphere Guide

It's September and the kids are going back to school, but even adults can find meaning through learning new things. That's why we're exploring the idea of "lifelong learning" on the blog this month, starting with this conversation with MeaningSphere Guide Bill Felty. In addition to his work at MeaningSphere, Bill (or should we say Mr. Felty?) teaches self-assessment courses at Drexel University. We talked about the two types of lifelong learning, how it's so hard to say "I don't know," and why we're all late bloomers. Read on and let the learning continue!

A late-blooming sunflower in a field of flowers that have finished blooming.

Anna Weltner: You are a professor, so maybe this is especially close to your heart. But in your experience, how does ongoing learning or education benefit us as adults, both in work and just in general?

Bill Felty: There’s a great quote: The day we stop learning is the day we start dying. I think we start learning when we're born, because we're learning everything. And then we're sent off to grade school and we learn and we learn and we learn, and then suddenly we graduate college and everybody thinks we stop learning: “I have a degree, I will now go to work, and I will stop learning.” But really, we continue to learn whether we realize it or not.

I think what we don't do a lot of times after college is set out to learn. And there are two ways anybody can kind of approach continued learning. One is vocational and the other is avocational.

Anna: Tell me more about that.

Bill: So, vocational is where I'm going to continue learning stuff about my job. If you go to law school, you don't learn everything about the law. You acquire a legal foundation and learn how to think. And then boom, you graduate and then you join a firm and you have to learn. So we keep learning vocationally. And people do that formally by taking classes, and by learning on the job and by continuing education.

But then there's also avocational learning. People decide they want to take a class on painting or they want to take a square dancing class, or they want to join a book club because they want to learn.

Young woman learning piano from a video.

So to me, a well-developed life is pursuing both of those paths, vocationally and avocationally, that we continue to learn.

Anna: Can you tell me about the university courses you teach?

Bill: I teach self-assessment courses. So, “Who are you? What do you want to give to the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?” The great thing about Drexel University, where I teach, is all freshmen are required to take a course that has them do self-assessment and look at their personalities, their interests, their skills, and their values and really think about the world of work, so they have time before they commit to a life in electrical engineering to really do some thinking.

So, skills: What are you good at? But then contrast that with your interests. Being good at something doesn't mean you're interested in it. What is your personality like and how is that going to be fed? Some people want to be in an office by themselves. They work better alone. Other people need 50 people to be around them in any given day, or they don't get energized. And then values are things like, “I want to help others,” or “I want to make a lot of money,” or “I want to contribute to society.”

Group of mature women studying songbooks in choir.

Anna: Do you think we sometimes need to learn how to learn, or to practice learning in order to get better at it?

Bill: I think you can. For example, if you did join a book club, you could read the book and then go to the book club and just sort of sit there passively waiting to speak and give your opinion. Or you can really try to actively learn from what other people say.

I think “active learning” is a great phrase. We learn just by doing—sort of by accident, almost. But active learning is where you set out and you want to try to learn.

If I wanted to learn more about French films, I would have to think, “Okay, what are the various ways?” I certainly could go see a bunch of French films, but there are probably people that have written on that to great extents. I could probably read interviews with directors and actors. So learning how to learn, learning the various ways in which you can learn about something, it's like work.

I think some people are in jobs where, once they've trained, they're never required to really learn anything else. And then people say, “Okay, my job isn't requiring me to learn anything new, but I want to be better at it, or I want to be on top of things. So I'm going to teach myself to learn various new things that will keep me at the top of this job.” So whether it's thrust upon you or you seek it out, you still have to be an active participant in it, I think.

Anna: I wrote down the word “humility” while listening to you speak because I realized that the premise of embarking on any kind of conscious learning, is that you don't know everything! I think there's a tendency for people to stay in a comfort zone where they feel like they have authority and expertise.

Bill: Yeah, I mean, the three words “I don't know,” they're really difficult for most people. I teach college students, so it's kind of like they graduate and there's a little bit of hubris in that: “I now know everything I need to know. I will go forth into the world of work. I have been taught everything I need.” And that kind of hubris is dangerous.

It's like the number of students that will raise their hand in class and say, “I don't understand,” or “I don't know the answer to this,” versus when people are excited when they do know the answer to something, and they really raise their hand and I want to show that “I know this.” So it's much harder to admit when you don't know something and then to take that next step to say, “but I want to be more educated about it. I want to learn.”

Young woman in a gallery looking closely at an artwork while listening to an audio guide.

And I think a lot of people underestimate themselves. Like, “I would really like to learn how to do this, but I don't think I would be good at it” or “I don't think I would be smart enough to figure that out, so I'm just not going to even try.”

Anna: You mentioned two of the big ones—hubris, fear—but what are some other barriers to learning, and how do you think people can overcome them?

Bill: Those two are kind of both ends of the polarity, right? The fear because you have no confidence in yourself and then the hubris of, “Why do I need to learn that? I know everything I need to know there.” So really finding somewhere in the middle of like, “Yeah, I might not be good at this, but I need to learn it, so I'm going to give it a shot.”

Access to learning is really difficult for a lot of people. If you want to go get a degree in something and you don't have the means to get a college education, that can be a real barrier.

But a lot of times, those barriers are self-imposed. They're not the real barriers we think they are.

[People will say,] “I would need to pay for a class in painting, and I don't have the money” rather than thinking of the various outside-the-box ways. They could also get a pencil and a piece of paper and just go to the park and try drawing trees.

Anna: Do you think people just don't prioritize that kind of gift to themselves that learning could represent, especially the avocational learning?

Bill: I think many people put themselves last. So if they have any spare time, they give it to their partner, their children, their job, their community. We pay ourselves last very often. I mean, in every community in the country, there are pretty much community education classes you could take for free. You can go down to the local Y or you can go down to the local community college or whatever, and they offer free sign language classes.

And I think people put themselves dead last. We feel very awkward if we prioritize ourselves sometimes.

Mature male student raising hand in class.

Anna: The idea of being a “late bloomer” came up a lot in my research for this interview. By which I mean, taking a longer path than other people to find your career, find your way, or achieve your goals professionally or even personally. How do you feel about the notion of the late bloomer?

Bill: Well, I think in some ways we're all late bloomers, right? Because we ask people in elementary school, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It's like we're looking for a definitive solution from them right there. And then of course, you turn 18 and you have to choose a major in college.

So for many people, that whole discovery of “who I really am and what I really want to do” doesn't happen until much later. People wake up at 35 and think, “Oh my God, I really should have majored in art because I really would love to own an art gallery!”

You know what I mean? When is too late to be happy in your career or to learn the things you want to learn or live in the place you want to live?

For people that have the wherewithal to have these self-epiphanies and realize they're a late bloomer, the secret then is to act upon them. And again, many times that does mean additional learning.

If I decided I wanted to be an attorney at 40, I'm going to have to go back to law school. I can't just wake up and become an attorney the next day. But what's possible on that spectrum if I don't have the money and time to be an attorney? Could I be a paralegal? If I'm an accountant, could I get an accounting job in a law office, if that's the environment I want to be around? Those kinds of things. What is possible as you learn to educate yourself and then make decisions?

Mature man reading a book at home.

Anna: Is this something that, in your experience as a MeaningSphere guide, you've had the opportunity to help people see? That it's not just this huge step, but there are smaller steps?

Bill: I think the great thing about being a MeaningSphere guide is you're meeting someone at the moment where they are right now, and you're asking them to evaluate it. “How much meaning do you find in your work? Right.” And then being able to say, “Wow, if it's not at the level I want it to be, what decisions can I make that would allow me to move forward and each day find a little bit more meaning in what I do and who I am? Right.”

I think being a guide is helping guide someone toward progress. It's not saying, “Well, we've assessed that you really have little meaning, and there's not a whole lot we can do about it now that you're a doctor and you're stuck being a doctor for the rest of your life.”

Anna: It’s finding a little path forward.

Bill: Exactly. Most paths aren't perfectly straight. You come to forks in the road and they wind. It's really crafting out that career path for you. Most people have now five or six different jobs in two or three different careers. Maybe our grandparents took one job and kept it for most of their life or changed once.

Mature woman in a charming library.

There's nothing at all wrong with that. But again, people attach a lot of things—fear, and access, and hubris—that get in the way of them learning. Because many times making a realization about yourself means you need to learn how to do something else: “I've been a painter my whole life, and it no longer brings me joy. So now I may have to learn how to do something else artistic in order to fulfill that, but it's not painting anymore.”

And other people will be a painter their entire lives and love every moment of it. So you can't compare yourself to that person. You can't compare yourself to anyone else's path.

If you've ever heard anyone say, “Never try to write your resume by yourself because you're the worst judge of your own skills and talents,” it's sort of the same way being a guide at MeaningSphere. Never try to assess meaning in your life by yourself! It's really good to have someone to talk through who's totally objective. If you talk to your spouse or your parents, they all have vested interests in what you decide to do. I'm a totally objective listener who has no vested interest in anything you decide. So I'm going to be 100% supportive of whatever you decide.

Anna: Yeah. You're more of like a safe and neutral space to explore ideas. You're not going to be directly affected by…

Bill: ...this person's choice. Nor will I be shocked or disappointed or have any other emotions attached to things they're deciding. Whereas when we talk to the regular people in our lives, they do even unwittingly attach emotions to things you say and do. So being able to speak to somebody who's totally just supportive and encouraging and helping you come to those realizations is really valuable, I think.


Bill Felty is a full-time teaching professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, teaching self-assessment courses. Additionally, he consults as a Guide Advisor with the MeaningSphere.

Anna Weltner is a writer and content curator at MeaningSphere.

Our monthly thought-starters come to you from our team of Guides, who are trained to help you make the most of your MeaningSphere experience. They're on hand to help members of our community explore the big question: "What is the meaning of my work to me?" Find out more about our Guide services here.

Image credit: Shutterstock and Unsplash.


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