Don’t Confuse a Degree with Learning

A few weeks ago I held an informal survey on this website. One of the questions was, “What do you want to learn?” I got back a myriad of responses but one trait stuck out. Many people answered that they wanted to get a particular degree or academic status.

I’m worried when people start equating what degree they want with what they want to learn. To me this says that the major motivation in learning for most people comes from reaching some external benchmark. Although this may be a worthy goal, I think it drains away the intrinsic desire to learn.

I think this distinction between external benchmarks and intrinsic passions creates a gap in performance and enjoyment. By focusing too much on the result and not the process you can lose sight of your real motivations.

Self-Improvement is Learning

Although this website isn’t specifically about learning, I’d argue that almost everything I do is related to learning in some way. Reading more, building skills and self-improvement are based on learning. More importantly, I’d say those ideas are based on learning for learning’s sake.

Right now I’m midway through Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Reading this book has little immediate value to myself. It won’t give me a solution to make more money. It won’t help me get fit or boost my happiness.

But as with all learning, Pirsig’s book may not have immediate value but it expands my own ideas which has unknowable value later. All learning involves chance since you cannot know how much any particular idea will benefit you until after you have learned it.

Study to Learn or to Pass?

In my mind there are two main problems with focusing on a degree over learning:

  1. You narrow your options for learning.
  2. You lack the motivation to really learn.

The first problem is that in focusing entirely on a degree you cut off room to learn anything else. This isn’t an argument against specializing, nor is it an argument against formal education. I specialize in what I want to learn and I am attending University as I write these words.

But focusing entirely on a degree devalues any information that doesn’t have an academic reward. One of the reasons I believe so few people seriously self-educate is because there is no certificate. No gold star or pat on the back to signify your intellectual status.

The second problem is that when external goals become your key focus, you aren’t likely to invest the same energy as if you were intrinsically motivated. If you are learning out of a passion and curiosity to understand, it will be easier to integrate those ideas than if you just need to pass.

External and Internal Goals

The difference between learning and passing a class is a matter of external and internal goals. The same is true of almost all goals you can pursue. Starting a business, earning more money, getting fit, making new friends or completing a project are all external goals.

There is nothing wrong with external goals. I’d even advocate setting more of them so you can better plan. But with every external goal there is a reflection as an internal goal. If your focus on a goal causes you to ignore the internal reflection I believe you spite yourself in two ways:

  1. You reduce the enjoyment you derive from the goal.
  2. You reduce the chances of achieving your goal.

Just as in the case of focusing on a passing grade over actual learning, focusing on external goals over their internal reflections leads to a shallower performance. Instead of putting all your energies and feeling enthusiastic, you simply churn work to finish as quickly as possible.

Challenge: Notice Your Internal Goals

My challenge to you is to look at all the external goals you have. This could be getting a degree, starting a business or finding a relationship. With that write down the internal goal that reflects it. Here are a few external goals and their internal counterparts. Your impression may differ than mine, but here is how I see it:

  1. Degree – Learning
  2. Getting fit – Becoming physically active and healthy
  3. Earning more money – Doing a better job (or running a better business)
  4. Finding a relationship – Meeting people, having fun

External goals are easy to carry. They are tangible, easy to plan for and are completely objective. Internal goals are intangible, subjective and vague. It’s a good idea to have external goals. Just don’t lose sight of the real reasons you should have them.


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