How Learning How to Learn Will Set Us All Free
When intelligent people read, they ask themselves a simple question: What do I plan to do with this information? –Ryan Holiday
Not too many years ago, I graduated from a well-known private university in the Midwest with degrees in Mathematics and International Business. My parents were proud, and—at least from popular society’s perspective—I was well on my way to getting a decent job and living “the dream” in the “real world.” After all, I had firmly in my grasp a degree that “proved” I deserved—or at the very least demonstrated that I had the basic capabilities required for—one of those highly sought after ground-level gigs. What more could a young man want?
And so lived Graham happily ever after…
Well not quite.
As you know (unless this is your first time at Undeferred Living), my passions has long since lived within the entrepreneurial realm, and furthermore, my view on higher education’s relation to business (among others) is not positive—to say the least (America’s biggest problem, 4 Years to Nowhere). So while I wasn’t searching for a post-graduate job, at least I had the documents to “prove” I was properly prepared for a position in case employment became my only option to survive.
But wait…What does “prepared” really mean? What had I really achieved? Was I actually any different on my graduation day then when I first set foot on campus? What did this absurdly expensive and time-consuming degree really signify? Was I really ready to enter the world as my university had continuously promised (just like every other university on the planet, I might add) for the past four years (five or even six years if you include recruitment efforts)?
Well to be honest, I was far more than ready, but I am certain it had nothing to do with passing all my classes or getting decent scores on my tests. Perhaps I am a bit bias on this point, but I honestly cannot name one significant thing I learned from either of my degrees that I have ever applied to great success in any of my personal business ventures, strategic advising positions, or even in my employed years. Nor can I name one “AHA!” moment of sheer and utter clarity (I have these moments quite often in my personal studies) that was the result of my formal education.
The real kicker is that this isn’t even something I’ve concluded in hindsight. You see, I already was an entrepreneur and active in the professional world while I was getting my degrees: Running my own internet businesses and flying around North America on the weekends as part of a fortune 500 marketing team. So not only was I open to and interested in my classes, but my overall success and day-to-day life was literally dependent upon what I was learning and how could take that knowledge into the real world. In other words, I was deeply involved in the business community and actively looking to learn and apply any lesson I could.
Yet, even while being in possibly the best environment a student could have to immediately benefit from higher education, I walked away with little more than the memory of one too many multiple choice tests; over shit that wasn’t relevant then and isn’t relevant now.
At times I felt like I was the only one missing out on what was happening during class. I often wondered if my Hypomanic mind had finally gotten the best of me. I worried that my inability to apply classroom lessons to the real world was some fault of my own. But then just as these thoughts would enter my head, I would look up and see myself surrounded by nothing but “human drones”: Eager to follow directions to a “T”, but unable to do much beyond recite overly formalized textbook definitions—even when a highly unique conversation or inquiry was brought to the table (annoying me to no end, might I add).
These students reminded me exactly of that guy in the bar from Good Will Hunting who thinks he’s smart because he memorized a quote from a textbook word-for-word. He sounds smart because he knows how to come off that way, but in reality, is quite incompetent when it comes to real world challenges (i.e. He can’t argue a point, defend his position, or do much of anything besides recite text from a book). Apply this situation to your industry, business, or life, and you’ll quickly see what I mean.
(yes, it’s a simplification…but you get the point)
I’m talking about the kind of knowledge that is basically worthless if any sort of worthwhile feedback or unique perspective is needed in a given situation (i.e. The only kind relevant in the “real world”)
Unfortunately, I’m not Will Hunting. I have, however, come to believe that this obvious separation of perception between the vast majority of my former classmates and I (and many of you like me) had far more to do with my self-education and how I applied it than anything I had experienced in the classroom setting.
We’re All F’ing Brilliant
Now to be clear, I’m no genius—or even on the higher end of the “smart scale” for that matter. I certainly know many people who have a far greater intellectual capacity than me. Yet even so, I feel as though in many, if not most ways, I’ve quickly out-paced these individuals in spite of my lower predisposition for intelligence.
The difference, I believe, lies in how we channel the brilliance that, at least to some degree, is innate within each one of us. A person with limited potential for intelligence (genetically speaking) that is cultivated in the proper way is almost always drastically better prepared for success than a genius directing all their energy at a useless endeavor, in a meaningless pursuit, or through inefficient channels. This is exactly how I feel about the standard educational system we have in place around our country and the world: A huge amount of wasted brilliance.
When it comes down to it, it’s about the underlying process and mentality gap that often exists between letting yourself be “dragged” through your education and by taking personal responsibility to command the direction of your own learning. It’s not about knowing facts as it is about learning how to learn; that is—learning how to nimbly maneuver around unique situations and unforeseen circumstances.
Facts are important, but not as much as you would think, and just about useless without a proper mentality to interpret and act off of them. This is the underlying reason that separates an encyclopedia stuffed full of facts from a well-educated person who knows exactly how, why, when, and where to act based on the situations and environments that are presented to them.
It’s also the reason why someone with 20 years experience in the real world is worth 180k while a student fresh out of school is worth 30K. Do you really think the professional with 2 years experience has been keeping up with the latest textbook releases? No? Then what the f**k?!? If it’s experience and insight that we value, shouldn’t that be where your priorities lie?
Who wants to hire an encyclopedia when we’ve got Wikipedia and Google just milliseconds away? Even better, who wants to do work that an encyclopedia or Wikipedia has already done? Exactly! (Note: If you answered “Me!” to this last question then get off my blog)
“When he taught in Brazil, he realized that although the students often studied physics, they rarely understood it. To him, this was like reading Socrates in Greek but missing the philosophy. What people forget, he felt, was that the words themselves are relatively worthless. Their meaning is what has value.”
And therein lies all the difference. Knowing facts vs. knowing how to use and adapt your knowledge based on the unique situations you find yourself in. It’s all about actions and what you can actually do with the knowledge, not just simply having it.
Knowledge is simply a support mechanism for making better choices. If you don’t know how to act in the first place, it does little good what facts surrounding the circumstance you do have. It’s about the critical point where street smarts meet book smarts.
Think of it this way, factual knowledge is like the frame of a house. Applicable knowledge on the other hand is all the other stuff that fills in the gaps and makes the house suitable for living: the drywall, roof, shingles, windows, wiring, etc. Yes, while it’s true that it may be difficult to make a building without the frame (basic facts and knowledge), without knowledge of how to use the frame to make a home, you’re still just stuck with a bunch of sticks nailed together—not good for much of anything and definitely not something people are going to pay top dollar for. And this is where the illusion lies.
Formal schooling claims that all you need is the frame. That once you have that base knowledge of a few facts, you’re ready for the world. They paint it as the full picture when in reality, it’s only a small, easily accessible part. Especially with the rise of modern communication (i.e. the internet), the ability to build this “frame’ of knowledge is freely available to everyone on the planet.
The problem is that this is exactly the product the education system sells. A product that has been quickly reduced to a commodity in the last decade. Instead of changing their strategy and methods towards applicable knowledge—and in doing so fully accept the fact that things have changed—the antiquated system is still pushing the old products while claiming they’re better than ever! The reality is, what they sell is largely a commodity available freely to everyone. Even more, what they sell keeps you in a state of helplessness and dependence on their classroom and/or someone constantly telling you what and how you should be acting and thinking. What they sell are nothing more than shackles for your mind.
Free yourself from this dependence. Learn how to learn and the world will be yours.
This seemingly small change in perspective makes all the difference in the world. Nearly all the value resides in the latter, while little to none in the prior (Unless you’re going to be on Jeopardy anytime soon). While this difference should be quite obvious, it all too often it is overlooked or completely ignored.
After all, it is far easier to memorize facts than it is to completely rearrange your mentality and outlook on the world. It is far easier to shut up and listen to your professor, do your homework, or follow your boss’s instructions, than it is to go out on a limb and attempt to carve your own trail.
By definition, this type of knowledge isn’t about following directions from any playbook, as it is about having the versatility to work in the unknown. Applicable knowledge is about creating a new path with what you have at your disposal; it’s about adapting and countering the blows thrown your way; it’s about rising up stronger, better, and faster than your opponents; and it’s about building long-term success into the future, despite what the world throws at your professional or personal life.
Henry Miller had it exactly right in The Books in My Life when he stated that,
Our whole theory of education is based on the absurd notion that we must learn to swim on land before tackling the water. It applies to the pursuit of the arts as well as to the pursuit of knowledge.
You see, there’s increasingly no manual to follow or cookie cutter solutions for the problems you’ll face. There will be no textbook for reference and no guide for how anything “should” be done. Anyone can do that, and increasingly “anyone” is doing it— quicker and better than ever, I might add.
HOW DO YOU WANT TO SPEND YOUR LIFE?
But this goes so much deeper than just what I demand of my employees. Ultimately, this is about how you spend your life and what you do in your work.
Jobs worth having don’t require you to sit around and follow direction all day. No, they require you to unleash your creativity and insights by applying your skill or knowledge to unique problems in an interesting (and intelligent) way. No one ever enjoyed their job or life by following rote protocol all day, yet, so many of us (especially my peers in entry-level positions) put up with this on a day-to-day basis because we were never taught to think any other way.
Applicable knowledge is everything while textbook (theoretical) knowledge has become nothing more than a commodity.
For the past century the only people who really needed applicable knowledge were the top executives and entrepreneurs in the world. The barriers to entry for these positions were immense. Now anyone can launch a company in an afternoon, change the world in a week, or become a renown expert in a month.
You have an opportunity like never before: To get out of that job you hate, to live life the way you want to live it, to break free from the corporate traditions of the past, and for each one of us to create a better world through our individual choices and actions. This can only come about if we break free from the knowledge restraints that are binding us and the century old institutions that are doing little more than shackling us to their antiquated systems.
We have an immense opportunity—no, responsibility—to attain our potential and actively contribute to the world in whatever way we can. You won’t do it as a cog in the industrial machine, and you sure as hell won’t do it laying around and whining about how unfair the system is or by blaming some larger entity. Take some fucking responsibility for your own life already and make it happen. Be the change you want to see.
While there surely are many approaches, I’ve found that the easiest way to start is through perspective learning, networking, and most importantly, experimentation.
-Perspective learning (books, blogs, etc…) allows you an inside look at the experiences of leaders and people on the front lines of your desired field. While not as good as actually getting out there and doing it yourself, they do provide the invaluable insight into the experiences, situations, and events that are often above and beyond your immediate capacity—potentially saving you much time, effort, and expensive mistakes in your own endeavors. Perspective Learning is essentially a method of gaining experience and learning from people who are ahead of you in the game. View yourself in their shoes. Transition their mistakes, successes, or conflicts into your own life and business. Take a break from your learning to sketch out and immediately apply the lessons to your own life or business as they are presented to you. Immediate application is key!
As Abraham Lincoln once said:
-“A capacity, and taste, for reading, gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others. It is the key, or one of the keys, to the already solved problems. And not only so. It gives a relish, and facility, for successfully pursuing the [yet] unsolved ones.”
Now don’t take this to mean that all resources are good for applicable learning. There are plenty of books out there that deliver ideas without insight and that are no better than textbooks. That being said, there’s certainly no guarantee for applicable knowledge in any medium until you dive-in. In-fact, the only way to ensure you are learning actionable skills is to apply them immediately to what you are doing. Read about a new idea, apply it immediately, and repeat. Not only will you recall it better in future encounters, but you’ll see how it works in the real world and how it can ultimately be improved the next time around. Plus if the idea is a load of bullshit that doesn’t happen to work, you can discard it immediately (be sure…test, test, test).
-Networking allows you to increase your intellectual resources and reach throughout the world. We can’t do it all but usually there’s someone who can lend us a helping hand or provide guiding insight along the way. By building a network of real relationships, you expand beyond your own mind to the wealth of the knowledge that lies in your community.
For beginners, make sure you give much more than you ask or receive. It’s not about trying to get a favor out of someone, it’s about building a real relationship around common goals. This starts by giving freely to everyone you can. Social media makes it easier than ever, so get started today.
-Action creates the surest and most valuable form of education in existence. You’ll certainly fail much more than you succeed, but even so, you’ll always walk away with the invaluable knowledge that comes with failure. And once the successes do come, it will all have been well worth the struggle. So get out there and do it already.
When it comes down to it, applicable knowledge is about action and taking charge of your own learning experience. Once we decided we are in charge of our learning we free ourselves from all our limitations.
Do you want to struggle or do you want to thrive?
Do you want to learn or memorize?
The choice is up to you.
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Graham Mumm is the CEO and Chief Product Architect at ReBilder. He’s been to more than 44 countries and spends his free time reading, learning tinkering, and exploring new opportunities.