Pouring money into your headLong ago, I realized that my only hope to move ahead in this world was to learn something – anything.  In grade school, the only skill that enabled me to stand out was being able to catch the ball in dodge ball better than others.  But dodge ball has gone the way of the dodo bird.  But there was one other area that I could excel in – studying and taking exams.  So, yeah, I was a nerd in school.  I still am.

Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said that the only way to keep your riches was to pour them into your head – learning something, in other words.  In fact, Benjamin Franklin is the epitome of lifelong learning, even learning French late in life.

Now days, it’s assumed that you must go to school – college, university, trade school, whatever – to have a meaningful life – usually translated into making a lot of money.  But that’s a recent invention.  For most of history, learning was an individual affair.  Until the last 100 years, most people didn’t get to go to school for more than just a few years, if at all, and going to college wasn’t expected until after World War II and the GI Bill which enabled thousands of veterans to go.  Instead, people learned the “old fashioned” way by:

  • Apprenticing – learning from a master
  • Reading – a few books but they REALLY read them
  • Listening – To everyone carefully and with intent
  • Asking questions – to illicit the how and why
  • Trying – the ultimate way to test whether you can or cannot.

And it was by these processes that our ancestors created the modern world.  And these processes are still options even though their nature has changed – there are very few apprenticeships today.

Nearly 20 years ago, I read a column by Dr. Donald E. Wetmore who insisted that if you were to spend one hour a day intently studying a subject – any subject – in five years you would be a world class expert in that field.  He formulated his approach with the saying, “Yard by yard is really hard. Inch by inch is a cinch.”  Basically, he counseled patience which is in very short supply these days.

But this system works – it worked for our ancestors, it’s worked for me.

One necessary ingredient is humility – you will fail a lot and you can’t let that stop you.  Being humble helps because you realize there’s so much to learn and every failure helps you to understand a little more.  In fact, failure is nothing to be ashamed of – it’s the hallmark of a learner.  You’re trying new things and you shouldn’t expect to get it right immediately.

And today there are so many new ways to learn.  The “old fashioned” ways are still vital, but we have new technologies that capture the “wisdom of the ages” and provide it instantaneously via the internet.  Consider just the number of documentaries on YouTube as well as the countless number of videos showing how to do things.  There’s the Khan Academy for many academic topics plus many sources of educational content for little money.

But you must be discerning.  Will you watch a cat video or a documentary on the Crimean War or how to poach eggs?  This is an area that our ancestors had to deal with – if you could only afford to have just one or two books, which ones would you choose?

So, learning is important and can come from many sources.  Are you taking advantage of it?

More to come…

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.