The Future of Learning
We can’t outpace the half-life of knowledge, but we can change how we think
“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.” — Bruce Lee
In the past four years, I have asked a lot of foolish questions:
Can I be a professional translator without any credentials?
If I want to be a published writer, should I still ghostwrite for money?
Do summaries of existing book summaries make any sense?
The seemingly obvious answer to them all is “no,” yet I did all those things anyway. And while some led nowhere, others now pay my bills. Often, the only way to get satisfying answers is to try, especially with foolish questions. The beauty of daring to ask them, rather than accepting the answers society gives you, is that you’ll have many more unexpected insights along the way.
Like that, today, the answers are always less valuable than the questions.
The Half-Life of Knowledge
In 2013, we created as much data as in all of the previous history. That trend now continues, with total information roughly doubling each year. Michael Simmons has crunched the numbers behind our knowledge economy:
You probably need to devote at least five hours a week to learning just to keep up with your current field—ideally more if you want to get ahead.
Bachelor’s degrees in most European countries consists of 180 credits (EU schools tend to use a quarter credit system as opposed to the semester hour system typical in the U.S.), and each of those credits is worth about 30 hours of studying time. That’s 5,400 hours. Sadly, what you learn from those hours starts decaying as soon as you’ve put in the time. Scientists call this “the half-life of knowledge,” a metric that’s decreasing fast.
A modern degree might last you just five years before it’s completely irrelevant.
Since new information is now generated more and more rapidly, it takes less time for said information to lose its value. Back in the 1960s, an engineering degree was outdated within 10 years. Today, most fields have a half-life much less than that, especially new industries. A modern degree might last you just five years before it’s completely irrelevant. Even with a conservative half-life estimate of 10 years (losing about 5 percent each year), you’d have to put in 270 hours per annum just to maintain those initial 5,400—or about five hours per week.
As a side effect of this global, long-lasting trend, both the time we spend attaining formal education and the number of people choosing this path have increased dramatically for decades. Years of schooling have more than doubled in the past 100 years, and in many countries, it’s common to study for some 20-plus years before even entering the workforce. In the U.S. alone, college enrollment rates have peaked at over 90 percent of the total population in the age group around secondary school completion already.
The larger our ocean of information, the less valuable each fact in it becomes. Therefore, the knowledge bundles for college degrees must get bigger and, thus, take longer to absorb. But the ocean also grows faster, which means despite getting bigger, the bundles don’t last as long. It takes a lot of time to even stay up to date, let alone get ahead of the increasing competition.
Instead of flailing more not to drown, maybe we should get out of the water.
A Scary Future to Imagine
While it’s important to dedicate time to learning, spending ever-increasing hours soaking up facts can’t be the final answer to this dilemma. Extrapolate the global scramble for knowledge, and we’d end up with 50-year-old “young professionals,” who’d retire two years into their careers because they can’t keep up. It’s a scary future to imagine but, luckily, also one that’s unlikely.
I saw two videos this week. One showed an unlucky forklift driver bumping into a shelf, causing an entire warehouse to collapse. In the other, an armada of autonomous robots sorted packages with ease. It’s not a knowledge-based example, but it goes to show that robots can do some things better than people can.
There is no expert consensus on whether A.I., robotics, and automation will create more jobs than they’ll destroy. But we’ll try to hand over everything that’s either tedious or outright impossible. One day, this may well include highly specialized, knowledge-based jobs that currently require degrees.
Knowledge is cumulative. Intelligence is selective. It’s a matter of efficiency versus effectiveness.
A lawyer in 2050 could still be called a lawyer, but they might not do anything a 2018 lawyer does. The thought alone begs yet another foolish question:
When knowledge itself has diminishing returns, what do we need to know?
The Case for Selective Intelligence
With the quantity of information setting new all-time highs each year, the future is, above all, unknown. Whatever skills will allow us to navigate this uncertainty are bound to be valuable. Yuval Noah Harari’s new book asserts this:
In such a world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all, to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.
The ability Harari is talking about is the skill of learning itself. The 2018 lawyer needs knowledge. The 2050 lawyer needs intelligence. Determining what to know at any time will matter more than the hard facts you’ll end up knowing. When entire industries rise and fall within a few decades, learning will no longer be a means but must become its own end. We need to adapt forever.
Knowledge is cumulative. Intelligence is selective. It’s a matter of efficiency versus effectiveness. Both can be trained, but we must train the right one. Right now, it’s not yet obvious which one to choose. The world still runs on specialists, and most of today’s knowledge-accumulators can expect to have good careers.
But with each passing day, intelligence slowly displaces knowledge.
The Problem with Too Many Interests
Emilie Wapnick has one of the most popular TED talks to date—likely because she offers some much-needed comfort for people suffering from a common career problem: having too many interests. Wapnick says it’s not a problem at all. It’s a strength. She coined the term “multipotentialite” to show that it’s not the people affected but public perception that must change:
Idea synthesis, rapid learning, and adaptability: three skills that multipotentialites are very adept at and three skills they might lose if pressured to narrow their focus. As a society, we have a vested interest in encouraging multipotentialites to be themselves. We have a lot of complex, multidimensional problems in the world right now, and we need creative, out-of-the-box thinkers to tackle them.
While there’s more to it, it’s hard to deny the point. After all, some of these thinkers work on some of our biggest problems. And we love them for it.
Jeff Bezos built a retail empire and became the richest man in the world, but he also helped save an important media institution and works on the infrastructure we need to explore space. Elon Musk first changed how we pay and then how we think of electric cars, and now how we’ll approach getting to Mars. Bill Gates really knows software, but now he’s eradicating malaria and polio. The list goes on.
The term “polymath” feels overly connoted with “genius,” but whether you call them Renaissance people, scanners, or expert-generalists, the ability they share stays the same: They know how to learn, and they relentlessly apply this skill to a broad variety of topics. In analyzing them, Zat Rana finds this:
Learning itself is a skill, and when you exercise that skill across domains, you get specialized as a learner in a way that someone who goes deep doesn’t. You learn how to learn by continuously challenging yourself to grasp concepts of a broad variety. This ironically then allows you to specialize in something else faster if you so choose. This is an incredibly valuable advantage.
To me, that sounds exactly like the person an unpredictable world needs.
A Curious Boy
In 1925, one year before he entered school, Isaac Asimov taught himself to read. His father, uneducated and thus unable to support his son, gave him a library card. Without any direction, the curious boy read everything:
All this incredibly miscellaneous reading, the result of lack of guidance, left its indelible mark. My interest was aroused in twenty different directions and all those interests remained. I have written books on mythology, on the Bible, on Shakespeare, on history, on science, and so on.
“And so on” led to some 500 books and about 90,000 letters Asimov wrote or edited. Years later, when his father looked through one of them, he asked:
“How did you learn all this, Isaac?”
“From you, Pappa,” I said.
“From me? I don’t know any of this.”
“You didn’t have to, Pappa,” I said. “You valued learning and you taught me to value it. Once I learned to value it, the rest came without trouble.”
When we hear stories about modern expert-generalists, we assume their intelligence is the result of spending a lot of time studying multiple fields. While that’s certainly part of it, a mere shotgun approach to collecting widely diversified knowledge is not what gives great learners special abilities.
What allowed Asimov to benefit from his reading, much more so than what he read or how much, was that he always read with an open mind. Most of the time, we neglect this. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how we learn.
In order to build true intelligence, we first have to let go of what we know.
The Value of Integrative Complexity
Had Asimov learned to read in school, he likely would’ve done it the way most of us do: memorizing or critiquing things. It’s an extremely narrow dichotomy, but sadly, one that sticks. Rana offers thoughts about the true value of reading:
Anytime you read something with the mindset that you are there to extract what is right and what is wrong, you are by default limiting how much you can get out of a particular piece of writing. You’re boxing an experience that has many dimensions into just two.
Instead of cramming what they learn into their existing perspectives, people like Asimov know that the whole point is to find new ones. You’re not looking for confirmation; you’re looking for the right mental update at the right time.
With an attitude like that, you can read the same book forever and still get smarter each time. That’s what learning really is: a state of mind. More than the skill, it’s receptiveness that counts. If your mind is always open, you’re always learning. And if it’s closed, nothing has a real chance of sinking in.
Scientists call this “integrative complexity”: the willingness to accept multiple perspectives, hold them all in your head at once, and then integrate them into a bigger, more coherent picture. It’s a picture that keeps evolving and is never complete but is always ready to integrate new points and lose old ones.
That’s true intelligence, and that’s the prolific learner’s true advantage.
A Matter of Being
Your brain is like a muscle. At any moment, it’s growing or it’s deteriorating. You can never just keep it in the same state. So when you’re not exercising your mind, it’ll atrophy and not only stop but quickly reverse your progress.
This has always been the case, but the consequences today are more severe than ever. In an exponential knowledge economy, we can’t afford stale minds. Deliberately spending time on learning new things is one way to fight irrelevance, but it’s not what’ll protect us in the uncharted waters of the future.
The reason the wise man can learn from even the most foolish question is that he never assigns that label in the first place.
Beyond being carriers of knowledge, we need to become fluid creatures of intelligence. Studying across multiple disciplines can start this process. It has many advantages—creativity, adaptability, speed—but it’s still not enough.
If we focus only on the activity of learning, we miss the most important part: Unless we’re willing to change our perspective, we won’t grasp a thing. It’s not a matter of doing but of being. The reason the wise man can learn from even the most foolish question is that he never assigns that label in the first place.
And so it matters not whether we learn from our own questions or the insights of others, nor how much of it we do, but that we always keep an open mind. The longer we can hold opposing ideas in our heads without rejecting them, the more granular the picture that ultimately forms. This is true intelligence. It’s always been valuable, but now it’s the inevitable future of learning.
Bruce Lee undoubtedly possessed this quality. By the time he died, he was a world-renowned martial artist, the creator of an entire philosophy, and a multimillion-dollar Hollywood superstar. All at only 32 years old. Long after his passing, one of his favorite stories captures both the essence of his spirit and how he became the cultural icon we still know and love today:
A learned man once went to visit a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher talked, the learned man frequently interrupted to express his own opinion about this or that. Finally, the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full, then kept pouring until the cup overflowed.
“Stop,” said the learned man. “The cup is full, no more can be poured in.”
“Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions,” replied the Zen teacher. “If you do not first empty your cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”