A little learning is a dangerous thing Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain And drinking largely sobers us again. — Alexander Pope in An Essay on Criticism
Learning is as universal as it is timeless. Acquiring knowledge and developing skills have always been the keys to our survival and evolution. This isn't anything new. So what about learning
Many of us don't have very fond memories of our learning days. Still, we all put in the countless hours of study, practice, and rehearsals. It wasn't like there was
much other stuff going on that we couldn't fit in a little mental straining into our childhood day-planners. But the promise was always in the back of our minds—that someday it would all be over and that we could begin reaping the rewards of our sacrifices.
So the mere insinuation that learning might never end sounds more like a prison sentence than the secret to thriving in this new, modern world. And I realize that my use of the word "genius" sounds pretty exclusionary. Do I really mean that only the "gifted" can prosper?
Before you order your black-and-white striped prison uniform and drown your future misery in a bottle of vodka, let's take a brief step back and look at how we got here…and why we all didn't just evolve into the geniuses that the world now urges us to be.
To begin, take a quick mental walk through the various roles and contexts in your life. Think about all of the stuff that you know. How did you acquire all of that knowledge? How did you develop those skills? How did you know what to learn and what not to? And how did you know when you were done learning one thing and ready to move on to the next?
It amazes me how much of our youth is spent learning, and yet how little of it is self-directed. Think of how much of what's in your head is stuff someone else chose for you to learn and master. Not that there aren't good reasons for this. No one is going to entrust the average eight-year-old with choosing what to learn and how to prepare for adulthood. But it is no wonder why many of us can't wait for that final graduation—whatever level that happens to be—so that we can finally take back a little control over where all of that mental energy gets invested.
Unfortunately, the very idea of graduation distracts us from a pretty important juncture that occurs soon afterwards. It is this inflection point that ultimately determines what path we will follow and how far we will go. But let's start at the beginning, those first few years sitting in classrooms learning how to see, think, and express ourselves in the abstract jungle of letters and numbers.
Getting Your Foot In The Door
The civilized world has long since passed the point where the "three R's" are optional. We simply can't get by to any respectable degree without being able to read, write, and do arithmetic. So we are thrust into school at a bright, young age to develop these skills—at least to a passable degree. And in the vast majority of cases, our schools succeed. I'm not claiming that we all emerge as experts—far from it. But few of us escape those hallowed halls without some nominal competency. During this stage, the skills themselves are more important that the content we use to practice them. We could be reading about dinosaurs, writing about the latest cartoon, and multiplying marbles...as long as the skills are being developed, it doesn't really matter what we use to accomplish our goals. And unless you have kids or have a truly remarkable memory, it may surprise you exactly how much time and energy it takes to get those basics down. It takes years of practice—endless drills and permutations—until the brain forms thick enough neural pathways at the very foundations of our cortex. As bright as we all are as children, we aren't one-trial learners. Far from it. Learning the basics is hard work. Regardless of how much time and energy it takes and how much repetition we must endure, it is time well spent. But those skills merely represent the first stage of education. While essential, they are far from enough to take on the world. For that, we must complete a second stage of education, one that builds on that foundation and ultimately gets us ready to trade our talents with the world. It is in this second stage that content becomes more important. Here, we are exposed to the humanities, economics, and great literature. We dig deeper into advanced math, hard sciences and history. We pursue higher levels art, music, & sports. Here is also when we invest more of our time and attention in revealing and developing our unique gifts. Thus begins the perplexing combination of influences—our background, interests, talents, family, friends and acquaintances—all trying to steer us down one of the world's innumerable career paths. As we focus more and more around a smaller and smaller subset of "everything", our studies are no longer universal, but somewhat tailored to our chosen field. Whether this ultimately takes us to college, a trade school, or some other form of advanced education, much of this stage of our development is about training us to get that first foot in the door. Sooner or later, we must demonstrate that we have acquired what it takes—the requisite knowledge and skill—to become a productive member of a company, organization, team, society, etc. So what happens once that foot is in the door? Here is where things start to fall apart.
Path 1 - The Dancers
Even though most of our studies have been focused at our one chosen field for years, there is still a bit more to learn once we finally enter our chosen field. Learning the practice of accounting and learning how a particular organization runs its books are certainly related, but never quite the same. Whether the field is art, science, business, law, medicine, or sports, every organization is going to have its own playbook, its way of doing things. So there is often some on-the-job training where all of that raw, generalized knowledge is finally applied in the "real world". Plus, there's often a bit of filling in the gaps with material that might have been missed or wasn't learned well enough the first time around. But after that, the second stage of learning is complete. So what happens next? Hardly anyone is ever conscious of it, but this is where we all reach an important inflection point in our lives. For many, the feeling that they've "made it" allows them to pause, relax, and switch to auto-pilot. They are finally on the other side of that fabled threshold and they are seemingly productive. And so at last, they shift from proving themselves to finally reaping the rewards of their years of training. And who can blame them? The wounds of academia are still fresh—the insecurities of not understanding a lecture, the late-night cramming, the dread of getting blind-sided by tests that were harder than the preparatory homework. For many, it was an awful lot of work just to get
to the dance. Why shouldn't they enjoy themselves? Life must be more than the endless pursuit of knowledge. There are families, hobbies, and social organizations to tend to, not to mention a heap of debt to pay off. And so they dance. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that they stop learning. That would be next to impossible. But learning no longer plays a central role in their lives. And while their attention shifts from books and classrooms to HBO and the endless variety of televised sports, they miss out on an important transition—to the third stage of learning—the one that ultimately defines how far they'll go in their careers, and in life. Because while they dance, the world doesn't stop evolving. And left to do only what is explicitly required of them, gaps begin to form and they inevitably start to fall behind. When the gaps are small, they can usually fake it. But it doesn't take long, especially today, for the gaps to widen and become noticeable. Many workers, even professionals, don't necessarily get better with experience. In fact, recent studies show the opposite. Without conscious intervention, most people plateau and steadily slide. Once their organization realizes that it is paying them today's wages for yesterday's skills, they become expendable, the next victims of restructuring. They find themselves on the outside looking in and wondering what in the heck happened. It seems pretty unfair, doesn't it? No matter how qualified they once were or the amount of experience or seniority that they have accumulated, they still find themselves as replaceable as yesterday's gadget. I'm not talking about a few isolated cases. There are millions of them—the underutilized, the underemployed, the under-appreciated—all of them blind-sided by a world playing by an different set of rules. Here's the really sad part—they were just doing what they were told. They were always promised that if they went to school, learned a trade, got a job, and didn't mess up, they would be fine. And while that might have been true in earlier generations, such promises aren't holding up any longer. Why? Because much of the knowledge and skills that they lack—what the modern world now suddenly demands—wasn't taught when they were in their second stage of learning, before they switched to auto-pilot. How many jobs today didn't even exist 10 or 20 years ago? And of those that did exist, how many have changed dramatically—updated methods, new tools, changed regulations, and the always-increasing number of different hats we are asked to wear. How could we have asked our educational system to train us in tools that didn't exist or in methods that were at the time impractical to even consider? How could they have prepared us for a world that no one could have predicted with any useful specificity? As much as we like to blame the "system" for not preparing us or the "government" for not protecting our inalienable right to spend our adult lives dancing, this isn't a political issue, nor is it personal. It just is. This is just where we are in our evolution.
Path 2 - The Naturals
There are those who don't fall behind, who keep learning,
learning. For them, learning isn't drudgery. They find it enjoyable. Granted, they are pretty good at it, which certainly helps. But more importantly, they are genuinely curious...insatiably so. They are intrinsically motivated to understand how it all works and why it works. And they actively synthesize what they learn—they want to know how each thing relates to everything else. They aren't afraid to tinker, test, and even take on a little bit of risk. Failure is just feedback, a necessary part of learning. It is expected and therefore it is managed. Unlike the Dancers, this small group among us has entered and embraced the third stage of learning, the one that begins after graduation and
ends. However, this isn't just a continuation of the second stage; it is different in a couple of ways. First, this stage is self-directed. They are no longer following someone else's syllabus. And they don't wait for information to come to them. They seek it. They are in much more control of what, where and when...which makes a world of difference when it comes to self-motivation. Second, this stage is divergent. It isn't about doing more and more of the same thing. They realize that mastery comes not just from depth, but also the breadth of knowledge and skills. They are what I call the Naturals, the relatively few who have made continual learning an integral part of their adult lives. For them, learning has become as fundamental as hygiene or a physical fitness program. And not surprisingly, the world has started seeking them out and making them the new elite. Ultimately, their success isn't based on raw talent, where they grew up, what university they attended, or who they know. And their value isn't based on leveraging what they learned years ago in school, but what they have learned recently, and what they are learning now. They are plugged in, literally and figuratively, and thriving. They are always pushing themselves beyond what is required or expected. In fact, it is this small minority that often ends up defining the standards on the far side of the widening gap. Well, that's just great...for them. But, what about the rest of us? What about those who don't fall in this esteemed category of Naturals and yet are well aware of the inevitable fate of the Dancers?
Path 3 - The Reluctant Soldiers
Fortunately, there is a burgeoning middle ground. Times are changing. And for many, the change can't come fast enough. Both organizations and individuals are realizing how quickly the balance of supply and demand is shifting. While most younger workers may be more familiar with modern tools and methods, they lack the experience and maturity to lead (note the rampant arrogance and self-absorption in the tech world). While more experienced workers may have the maturity to lead, most lack the skills. And there simply aren't enough of the Naturals—those who represent the best of both worlds—to go around. The only answer is training. Fortunately, most of the essential skills
trainable, to various degrees. So for those willing to suck it up and return to the classroom, the market has been more than willing to comply with a dizzying array of seminars, courses, technical workshops, online programs, and more. Many of our schools and colleges are now flooded with courses offering Continuing Education Units (CEUs). More and more professionals in many diverse industries are now required to take these courses to get certified and to keep their certifications current. And for the older professionals, those whose last graduation was decades ago, these certifications become even more important as a way of letting the world know that they are both experienced and current. It's amazing when you think about it, but in less than a generation the phrase "Adult Learning" has completely changed its meaning and implications. It once held a stigma because of the widely held belief that the only adults that needed education were those that didn't study hard enough when they were in school. But today that stigma is all but gone as even the former honor students are finding themselves back in the classroom playing the perpetual game of catch-up. They are what I call the Soldiers. They, like the Naturals, have entered the third stage of learning. And many are reaping adequate rewards for their efforts, at least in the short term. But their experience is different in two very important ways. First, learning doesn't mean the same to the Soldiers as it does to the Naturals. The Soldiers are reluctant—like they were drafted, not recruited. While they realize that supplemental learning is necessary to stay relevant, most still find it to be drudgery, which just makes it more difficult to learn, and nearly impossible to reach the depth required to fully integrate their new skills. Where the Naturals see learning as a carrot, the Soldiers see learning as a stick. It is still "school" with all of its connotations, many of them negative. So they do it, but they don't embrace it. They are still fighting the inclination to do the least amount necessary versus the most they can. And as anyone in education will tell you, attitude is half the battle...a battle that the Soldiers are losing. Second, there's an issue with who is paying. Because many soldiers are being sent to school by their employers, they aren't paying for it themselves. While this sounds like a great thing, it may not be quite so magnanimous when viewed from afar. We should at least consider the strong potential for a mismatch in long-term incentives. Should a company pay for more education than they can foresee a need? Or does providing education and training beyond those needs just enable another company to use the experience and updated skills to their benefit, all at the expense of the now-former company? Depending on the size of the company and how fast it is growing, there may be limited opportunities to advance within the organization. So in a mobile economy, overtraining is a risk. Just as you can't blame an employee for getting a better, higher paying job elsewhere, you can't fault a company for being reluctant to expedite such an occurrence by maximizing their employees’ education. Financially speaking, its interests lies in keeping them current in the skills that it can use today and in the near future, but no more. Cynical? Perhaps, but valid nonetheless. So while the Soldiers may be doing far more than the Dancers in managing that gap, obsolescence or stagnation may still be inevitable. Unless and until we are
to thrive, at best we are surviving. And we may have to pay for it ourselves if we want to exceed our current organization's needs.
Just Do It and Other Phrases From Hell
Now we return to the original question. Is the future really only in the hands of the gifted? While the evidence is certainly mounting against the rest of us, let's break it down to two leaps—from Dancer to Reluctant Soldier, and from Reluctant Soldier to Natural. The first one is relatively easy. The gap between those who are adapting to the modern world and those who aren’t is widening and the imbalance is getting ever more lopsided. As life on the wrong side of the gap keeps getting harder, ignorance just isn’t the bliss it used to be. Granted, we are still surrounded by many vestiges of the old industrial age. But every year, the demand continues to fall for those with strong backs or those who are able and content to endure menial, repetitive tasks. If a machine can't do it, there are billions of impoverished citizens in other countries willing to work for a fraction of what Americans and Europeans are paid. So the leap from Dancer to Soldier is simply a matter of perspective. It is a choice—they must get better at what they do or accept the loss in opportunities for advancement, better pay, and job security. And time is of the essence. They can no longer rely on society’s safety nets to cushion their falls. Those nets are already bearing far more weight than they were designed to endure. The other leap—from Reluctant Soldier to Natural—is much harder because it isn't simply a choice. It is much deeper. We already know the value of continual education and training. We know that even in the worst economic times, the opportunities abound for people who can competently operate and program our sophisticated machines; or manage and train others in our highly competitive global marketplace. And we know that the information we need is out there, presented in a multitude of ways, each tailored to different learning styles—from books and videos to live and virtual tele-conferenced classrooms. But the
that we must continue to learn isn't enough to change our
about learning. Perspective is merely a prerequisite. Unless and until we
the third stage of learning, we'll never fully tap the opportunities enjoyed by the Naturals. But how? How do we change our attitudes about something that we've spent our entire childhoods drudging through, inspired solely by the promise that it was all supposed to end? Popular calls to “Just Do It” are not only insulting, but they are counterproductive. Many have tried to make the case that it is our apathy, laziness, or our preoccupation with sports, video games, and celebrities that precludes us from hunkering down and “Just Doing It”. But that argument doesn't pass close scrutiny. The Naturals have just as much access to entertainment as everyone else. The only long-term explanation for their continued devotion to learning is that there are getting more out of their investments. Otherwise, their attitudes would start to falter just like the Soldiers. How about faking it? Perhaps you've heard the saying "Fake it until you make it". That isn't a viable suggestion either. You can fake exercise a lot easier than faking the full-mind commitment needed to learn something that's new and challenging. Yet most people can't fake exercise long enough to see significant results. How can we expect anything better with learning? I believe that if someone isn't embracing continual learning, it is because their brains are recognizing the ultimate futility of the effort. Past events have shown them, perhaps unconsciously, that the law of diminishing returns has long since taken control of their pursuit of higher learning. There’s a psychological term for it—it is called learned helplessness. And these core beliefs have a far greater influence over us than mere attitude. Think about it. How do we embrace something that our brains are telling us—through ample experience—that we aren’t good at, we don’t enjoy, and the results are far from guaranteed? No matter what some of the "Rah-Rah" accelerated learning books try to tell us, learning
easy, especially in the information age where much of it is unnatural. Most adults have already learned what they find to be easy and enjoyable. What remains is the hard stuff. It boils down to this—there is a problem with learning. Until we see a greater return on our learning investments, it would be almost foolish not to want to do the least amount possible. Reluctance may be a sign of intelligence, not stubbornness. But that doesn't let us off the hook. While our reluctance may not be our fault, it is our responsibility.
As we look around us, we realize there are no B's, C's or D's anymore. The world has switched to pass/fail and the goal line keeps moving. Either we address this problem and learn how to develop our own genius despite our past experiences, or we continue to face an uphill battle. To proceed, we must first fully understand the core problem—the poor returns on our learning investments. Then, and only then, can we go about solving it. And just like when learning the three R's, failure is not an option.