How continuous learning can help us make sense of the present and prepare us for the future
Here’s a little mental exercise for you: jog your memory back to an exam day in school. As you walk nervously towards the hall, you strain every cell in your body to retain all that you have stuffed inside your head. Your brain seems like an over-packed suitcase, ready to burst open. Your only concern is that the inevitable bursting open occurs on the exam, not before. With some luck, that is exactly what happens as you regurgitate it all on the answer copies and emerge feeling light and unburdened. Within a few days, whatever you had studied will all fade away like a dream, leaving no trace behind.
This simplistic example serves to illustrate the traditional lens through which learning is still viewed. The deliberate acquisition of skill and knowledge is expected to end once we step out into the real world. Any further learning (if at all there is any) is only a byproduct of the work we do in our chosen trade. However, we are now entering a phase of human history where accepted truths and the boundaries of what is possible are changing overnight. As a result, we have something akin to a classical evolutionary scenario: as environmental conditions shift, only species with specific traits will survive. In the case of modern humans, that salvaging trait will be the ability to continuously learn. The crucial difference, however, is that this time we will have to deliberately adapt — evolution will not silently do its work while we remain completely oblivious to the fact.
The good news is that our brains have an almost infinite capacity to change. Thus, it is never too late to commit to a learning mindset because learning must not, rather, cannot stop in a world where technology is redefining what it means to be human. Historian Yuval Noah Harari has coined the phrase ‘useless class’ for people who will be so far left behind by technological change that they will have literally nothing to contribute to society. Domains where humans will still have a role will become so specialized that only a small intellectual elite will be ‘employed’ in the traditional sense. Machines, driven by algorithms, will take care of everything else. One could argue that this scenario would not materialize within our lifetimes, but knowing that we are headed in that direction should jolt us into action. A learning mindset, like all habits, does not develop overnight so it serves us well to begin sooner rather than later.
Leaving the doomsday scenario aside, lifelong learning also works much like what Einstein called ‘the magic of compounding’. Anyone with a savings account knows that the interest you earn serves as a positive feedback loop and nets you even more interest in the future. Similarly, the more you learn, the faster you pick newer knowledge and the better you absorb it. This is a direct result of how the brain processes new information. Rather than getting stored in one place, newly-learned material is assimilated with existing knowledge in a web of connections across the whole brain. Every time we pull up something from memory, the stored data is again changed as newer connections and contexts are formed. Therefore, the bigger our knowledge base, the easier it is for newer knowledge to stick. The real advantage, however comes in the form of enhanced creativity as connections begin to form between new and old ideas. When you have more mental material to work with, you have a better chance of coming up with something innovative. As the Bible says: ‘For whoever has, to him more shall be given…’.
Further, self-directed learning and practice can help us transform our interests into our life’s calling. We all know that in any single domain there is fierce competition for a few spots at the top and ultimately the majority of the benefits (and riches) will accrue only to a few — think elite sportsmen, successful investors, and stadium-filling musicians. The 80:20 rule, or the Pareto Principle, is the most well-known expression of this phenomenon. For the rest of us, salvation could lie at the intersection of our varied interests. These unique niches can give us the freedom to experiment and create without the constant threat of competition that besets every other field. Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, has articulated this point through the concept of skill stacks — combining your less-than-perfect competence in multiple fields to create a unique capability. For instance, Adams might not have become the best cartoonist or the most successful business professional ever, but he did become the most successful cartoonist to chronicle corporate life. In his own words, he combined his above-average skills in both areas to create something where he really had no competition. However, in order to combine our multiple interests into a worthwhile niche, we need more than just a passing interest in them. After all, to create Dilbert, you actually need to be able to draw.
Broadly speaking, the world is becoming more complex in more ways than one, and simple narratives can no longer explain what is going on. This growing complexity is creating a divide between those who understand it and those who don’t. For instance, everyone seems to be talking about cryptocurrencies and AI (yours truly included!) but only a tiny minority actually understands them and can leverage them to their advantage. This knowledge gap will only widen because while we binge on Netflix and lust after iPhones, the billionaire creators of those products are banning gadgets for their kids and filling their houses with books. The onus, therefore, lies on us to build a basic grasp of concepts that might have a direct bearing on us, now or in the future. Our mental models of the world need constant updating, especially when the explanations of experts can no longer be accepted at face value.
All said and done, knowledge refines our mental models to be closer to reality. Whether our goal is to lead a more fulfilling life right now, or to prepare for the challenges of the future, a truer representation of the world is essential. No doubt our experiences teach us a lot, but that might not be enough anymore. Therefore, it is imperative that we commit to becoming lifelong learners because in a world that is always in flux, we can never truly ‘arrive’.