Pouring money into your headWe wrote last about how learning is important and that there are the traditional and new opportunities to learn.  Today, I want to talk about why learning is important.

There are two reasons to learn something new:

  • To gain knowledge
  • To gain a new skill

Knowledge is learning how the world operates – everything from mundane facts about the weather, history, war or any other field of study to a complete understanding of a subject to be able to make predictions of what will happen in the future.  It’s mostly what we did in school which is why so many of us hate learning – “This fact is important, and you must memorize it for the test.”  Unfortunately, most learning of knowledge is of this nature with no explanation of the why it’s important or how it will help us in the future.  It’s culturally dictated meaning that someone decided it was important and that everyone should know it.

Gaining a skill is being able to do things in the world – Driving a car without killing ourselves or anyone else, operating a machine, making an omelet, teaching a craft – all those activities that make the world operate and allow us to achieve.  Some of these are taught in school – at least the basics; some are taught by family as we grow up; some are the result of specific classes or training; but most are the result of us observing and trying until we can achieve useful results.  In other words, most skill gains are the result of trial and error – more trial and mostly error with humiliation being the primary method of motivation.

The real problem with learning is that most people have any enjoyment beaten out of the learning process before they reach adulthood – and if you’ve been subject to that painful process for that many years it’s a hard attitude to overcome.  At the same time, we all mouth the platitudes about how important learning is – listen to most any politician talk about education – without really demonstrating that we believe what we are saying.

When was the last time you learning something new?  For most people in the American culture, you learned something new because you were:

  1. Humiliated in public,
  2. Told to learn it, or
  3. Forced to learn it to avoid being embarrassed.

When I started working in the Washington, DC area in support of the Air Force, I discovered that everyone used Microsoft Office products – I had been using WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and Harvard Business Graphics.  All the shortcuts, menus and just the way of working were subtlety different – enough to make me very inefficient.  I checked out how-to videos of Excel and Word – watched them all over the weekend – and was reasonably efficient by Monday morning.  Of course, I kept improving and today I’ve been a teacher of Office products and the on-the-spot expert called on to solve problems.  But it started because I didn’t want to be shown up by anyone else in the office.

But learning has been a source of joy when I started to seek out learning just for learning.  I learned that learning new things helps with:

  • Understanding more – A recent course on the Science of Extreme Weather helped me to see how increasing energy in the atmosphere creates more intense storms.
  • Enjoying more – A course on the geology of national parks helps me to appreciate the forces – and the beauty – that results from natural forces over time.
  • Doing more – A class with a world-class woodturner opened up the possibilities that splitting turnings, rotating and regluing them creates.
  • Doing better – A recent seminar highlighted opportunities to improve my company’s social media outreach.
  • Doing faster – A class in cooking offered the simple idea of heating your skillet when you first enter the kitchen to having breakfast on the table within a few minutes – cutting my morning breakfast routine in half.
  • Wondering more – Few people understand the modern marvels which fill our world, but learning about how machinery operates, how something is done, or, especially, why something didn’t work, allows us the opportunity to realize the dynamics of the world we live in. We sense the wonder of the world and everyday activities that would be magic to our ancestors.

Learning is a uniquely human trait.  Other animals can learn to a limited degree – mostly by cause and effect – but only humans take seemingly unrelated items and create something new.  It’s the source of innovation and hence our world.

There is one more effect that learning has – it breaks the mind out of its ruts and allows us to see new possibilities.  This is the most important aspect of learning for me.  Because the problems that we face today and in the future will not be answered by the solutions of yesterday.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.