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.

  • Luciano Passuello

    Reading Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of the best long-term time investments you can do! I’ve read it almost a decade ago and it remains in my top three ever since.

    Regarding external goals, I found that they can actually hurt your overall motivation, instead of adding to it, as one could imagine. Your advice of noticing the internal goals behind external ones is one that I’ll start applying immediately. Thanks!

  • barbara trumpinski-roberts

    Hi again Scott…

    You hit upon one of my favorite topics here…lifelong learning, which has absolutely nothing to do with getting a degree. In fact, one of my teachers (and my senior husband) says that you can learn almost anything in 5 weeks either by yourself or in a small group if you really want to. This excludes things you need to learn by apprenticeship like medicine, engineering or car repair.

    One of the beauties of the blogosphere is that it allows for the exchange of ideas and information, creating an atmosphere that promotes learning.



    kitten (a.k.a. conan the librarian)

  • Ilham Hafizovic

    Great article Scott, it made me start thinking differently of my goals! To this point all I have been thinking of is getting my undergrad, without really trying to learn diverse topics or learn because I love it!

    This actually started making me think differently!

  • Dan Sage

    Richard Light in “Making the Most of College”, referred to this difference as surface versus deep learning. He said that we can choose either one when presented with information that we will have to process. Sometimes surface learning is not only acceptable, but commendable, when it frees time for deep learning in other areas.

  • Sebastyne R. Young

    I’m laughing at myself, as this is again very close to what I believe… Wanting to learn things have always been my motivation when I’ve applied for any school. Degree has meant little or nothing to me. Unfortunately, the general value system is completely the opposite. It doesn’t matter what you actually know, as long as you have the degree. I failed to receive a degree in web design which I studied for 3 years. I’m willing to bet though, that I know as much or more than say… 60% of the people who did get the degree. Ironically the reason why I failed to do the degree was that I was too busy learning. I refused to waste my time on courses that were nothing but fluff adding to the required hours of studying instead of adding valuable information to the degree. So, after finishing 75% of the studies, I realized there was nothing left for me and left the school. Will be frowned upon, but what can you do…

  • marti

    Your idea is a good one, and even though it’s hardly new, it’s very profound. Mark Twain said that he never let his education interfere with his learning.

    I went to college solely for the purpose of getting a degree. I had already the knowledge of engineering since I was 16, but in today’s society if you want to work for someone else, it’s necessary to have what my grandfather’s neighbour called “That lousy piece of paper which is worth a million $$” I had the skills, but skills won’t get you a job.

    It’s a copout to suggest that failure to get a degree because of “focusing only on value-added courses” was your motivation. In the real world of work, you will frequently be called on to do tasks which you don’t consider important. This is the case even if you have your own business. Some customers may want you to use an inefficient or costly method to get a job done. They’re paying, and if you don’t do it their way, they may go elsewhere.

    What I’m trying to say is that both education and learning serve a purpose. For me, learning is much more important, but education provided me keys I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

    Nowadays, I’m working on alternative and more environmentally sound fuel technology. It’s about learning, as I don’t have the degree in physics or even certification as a mechanic. I do have determination to learn, and I do have 20+ years mechanical experience.

  • Scott Young


    None of my ideas are really new. Then again, I don’t suppose anyone really has original ideas, just ones that are evolved from their predecessors.