Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. – Henry Ford
I spent four years of my life living in the middle of a cornfield. Voluntarily.
If you’re picturing something akin to The Hatchet or My Side of the Mountain, you might be disappointed. No, these were my years at Taylor University in one Upland, Indiana. Population: 3,826.
At the time, Taylor was presided over by Dr. Jay Kessler. In his mid-60s, students had an uncommon deference for Jay. It was not unsual for him to receive five-minute standing ovations – before speaking. He didn’t tell of the secrets of the universe: of quantum physics or monumental social shifts. Rather he taught us the secrets of living well. He was a man full of wisdom and eloquence, and when he spoke, you listened.
One day I was lucky enough to sneak a few minutes one-on-one with Jay. I inquired as to the source of his knowledge. He said (and I paraphrase):
I was never an outstanding student through university. But about the time I was 25, I committed to reading 400 pages per week, and have stuck to it since.
I quickly ran the math…400 pages per week…20,000 pages per year…40 years…800,000 pages. Eight-hundred thousand! With all due respect for Jay, one could literally begin as a toad and after that much reading end as a scholar.
Now before you stop breathing, I’m not advocating such a monumental task. What I am saying is that a commitment to learning fundamentally changes your life and your career.
When Everybody Else Stops Running…Keep Running
The unfortunate truth is that, some time after high school or college, people stop pursuing knowledge. In his recent book The One World Schoolhouse, Salman Khan of the Khan academy says that “some studies suggest that most people stop learning new things in their thirties.”
So here’s the thing I find amazing: even if you were a mediocre student who attended a mediocre school, if you keep learning, by age thirty, you’ll likely know more than a star student who attended Harvard and subsequently stopped his pursuit of knowledge.
Why On-the-Job Learning Isn’t Enough
Now many people might say that I’m discounting on-the-job learning. Bankers learn banking, builders learn building and writers learn writing. It is true.
However, if you want to make break-throughs, you need to expand outside of your domain of expertise. Learning a bit about a lot of things makes you a better forecaster than learning a lot about a few things (see Philip Tetlock’s “Why Foxes Are Better Forecasters than Hedgehogs” for more proof.) Heck, Steve Jobs took a typography class and oversaw an animation company.
The truth is that when you study a subject, you are not simply learning facts, you are learning a way to think about the world. Mathematics teaches you the language of nature, science teaches you how to experiment and learn, English teaches you how to communicate, and art teaches you about harmony and balance, and on and on.
The Internet is Your Treasure Trove
If you want to be successful your best bet is to commit yourself to learning. About a year ago, I had to leave a high paying job on Wall Street to deal with an illness that prevented me from working. I’ve had to face the prospect of beginning a new career.
So I buckled down and began taking free courses online. Many of them from Stanford, nearly all of them from Coursera (an incredible resource). Over 20 classes later, I’ve learned algorithms, design, gamification and much, much more.
The past year has been hard as hell – not earning an income is difficult, even when you’ve got the world’s most supportive wife.But if I can battle an illness and take on learning, I’m very confident that you can too. You will be better for it.