Recently, I wrote about my goal of learning everything. This is more than a tad ambitious, and probably impossible. Even learning a small fraction of everything can have huge benefits that ripple outwards towards every other area of life. Unfortunately, most people fall into a group I’ll call “functional” learners, and severely cut off their potential.
Functional Versus Lifelong Learning
Functional learning is learning with a purpose. I want to do X, so I need to know how to do Y. If you want to become a doctor, you need to study medicine. To do that, you usually need an undergrad in biology. For that, secondary and primary education are prerequisites. All of these are links in the functional learning chain.
Lifelong learning comes from a different approach. Instead of being driven from the top-down, it’s driven from the bottom-up. Lifelong learning suggests that learning anything is good, regardless of immediate results. So even if there is no functional learning to be done, you should pick up a book and start reading anyways.
Justifications for Lifelong Learning
The justifications for functional learning are easy. If your goal is important, you learn what you need to learn. If I want to become a professor, I need a graduate degree. It’s easy to justify spending time and money learning when the outcome is right in front of you.
The justification for lifelong learning isn’t as obvious. Lifelong learning feels important, but when you break it down to practical reality, it isn’t for most people. Most people see a far clearer return on investment for working more, socializing or entertainment than learning unnecessary subjects.
Lifelong learning, unfortunately, falls into a “should” category for most people. It’s something that they’ve been taught to believe is good, but can’t really support those feelings with a clear motivation. Going to the gym is another “should” in our society. We all know it’s important, but most people haven’t explicitly made the connection between exercise and daily energy levels, lifelong health and overall well-being. They know the destination exists, but the map is fuzzy.
I’d like to remove the fuzzy map between lifelong learning and why it is important, and to show you my justifications for spending time, energy and money on the pursuit.
For those of you who haven’t read my book, my free book or the most popular article on this website, I suggest you take a look. Holistic learning was a phrase I used to describe how smart people appeared to learn. Instead of bashing facts into their skull, every idea was woven into a set of existing understandings. Knowing Shakespeare helps you understand parts of chemistry which improves your understanding economics. Ideas are linked together instead of encoded like a computer.
Although I didn’t mention it, holistic learning actually provides the justification for spending hours of your day learning with no clear need to. When ideas are linked together, the facts themselves lose importance. What truly matters is the spaces between linked ideas. The understandings that arise as more than the sum of their parts.
When you learn a lot of seemingly unimportant subjects, you make connections. These connections work in the background to give you supporting knowledge to everything else you do. History, science, computer programming and art all provide a bigger foundation for understanding everything else.
These enhancements can be seen as one way of upgrading your brain. Your hardware doesn’t change much (although some evidence shows constant learning increases new neuron development). What really changes is the power of your software. With more ideas imprinted, your brain has more power than before.
Rejecting the Myth of the Full Cup
A popular notion in learning is the idea that your brain has a max capacity. In order to learn one thing, you must forget another. The mechanics for storing information in memory are still a hot topic of research, so while this might be the case, I have serious doubts.
My experience has shown the opposite. While knowledge does fade with time, that happens regardless of whether you learn or not. In fact, active learning helps keep those memories sharper. Far from being a cup, which once full, must empty contents to add more, your brain is closer to a muscle, which will wither and die without usage.
Why “Everything”, Shouldn’t You Focus on Strengths?
I’m a believer in the “T” model, which suggests you should have excellence in a small subset of areas and a general understanding in a broad area of knowledge. Focusing on your strengths is important, but it misses some of the benefits of lifelong learning. Your profession will usually hone your expertise in one area, it’s up to you to use your leisure time to explore everything else.
The main argument I have for learning from everything is that you’ll never know what you find. You can’t know whether a book will be useful until you’ve finished reading it. So sticking to one narrow domain limits you from a wide variety of opportunities.
Why is a Knowledge Foundation So Important?
What’s so important about being smart? Although there are other qualities more important than intelligence, I’d say most pale in comparison. If you have smarts (not just limited, academic smarts) you almost have superpowers over ordinary people. You can see the patterns that otherwise appear to be noise to everyone else.
Functional learning is a bit like exercising because you know you’re running in a race in two weeks. Not only does it fail to get you in shape in time for the race, it misses out on all the other benefits of exercising. In truth, the race doesn’t matter. What really matters is the healthy body that comes from exercising regularly.
Steps to Go From Functional to Lifelong
I can’t force you to switch learning styles. You need to find the motivation yourself. For me, the motivation to become a lifelong learner was great enough to build the habits to support it. If you are interested, here are a few habits to take that interest and make a commitment:
- Always have a book. It doesn’t matter whether it takes you a week or a year to finish, just always have one ready.
- Wikipedia lunches. I’ve recently taken up the habit of reading random Wikipedia articles as I eat my lunch. It’s a great way to get 15 minutes of learning in without taking any time out of my schedule.
- OpenCourseWare. I’ve taken a self-study course from MIT. Look for ones that have all the content online, so you can get started immediately.
- Buy a Library Card. When you read dozens of books a year, the charges can expand. Go the library to save yourself the money.
- Take obscure classes. Yeah, I know, you need to study for your finals and midterms. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take an evening dance, language or martial arts class.