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Are You in It for the Learning?

You don't need an education to learn. But you do need to learn to succeed.

'My Boy's Wicked Smaht'

Good Will Hunting is one of my favourite films. Incredible cast, great script, compelling story. What's not to love?

There's one scene that, for me, stands out the most: the bar scene. Ben Affleck, playing a working class Bostonian, tries to schmooze up to Minnie Driver, only to be interrupted by a smug MIT undergrad who proceeds to embarrass him.

Then, in steps Matt Damon.

He skewers the pompous student by highlighting his plagiarism and how he's just parroting the book he's most recently read. Then comes the killer line:

'You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on an education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.'

Education Is Not the Same as Learning

Education and learning are two different things. They function independently of one another.

Education is a system. Learning is a process.

Sometimes, we use one word when we mean another. Sometimes we say we're learning, but we're actually involved in a system of education. Sometimes we say we want an education, but really what we deeply want is to learn.

There are different motivations behind our desires for education and our desires for learning.

We are most often motivated into education because it is frequently required of us: there is a legal obligation to finish school, we need adequate grades to gain access to a university, we need a degree to get a graduate job, or we need specific qualifications to perform specialised functions (accountancy, law, medicine et cetera).

Although often similar, our motivations to learn are quite different.

We are motivated to learn because we dream of how we can change. We are motivated to learn because we want to solve a problem. We are motivated to learn because we are inherently curious, and have an itch we desperately want to scratch.

Many of us spend the first twenty or so years of our lives learning inside a system of education. For many of us, they become one and the same, forever fused together.

So what happens when we leave that system?

Education Is External and Structured

'He’s in it for the education, not the learning.' - Seth Godin

We all received an education at school. Many of us chose to continue this education into university and, sometimes, beyond to graduate school.

I want you to think of a time you were involved in some kind of education, and recall someone who learnt more than you in that time. Now think about someone else, who learnt less than you.

You were receiving the same education, but achieving different levels of learning. How did this happen?

It happened because education exists outside of us. It carries on doing what it does, whether or not anyone is bothering to learn from it, effectively or otherwise. It's a structure, set up to do a certain set of things, and how we choose to interact with that structure is largely up to us.

Among other things, education does the following:

  • Teaches students as part of a curriculum or syllabus
  • Tests and ranks student output via standards and grades
  • Grants titles, gives certificates and confers degrees

All of this is well and good. We need systems of education to teach large populations. Tests help students and teachers to improve learning outcomes. Titles, degrees and certificates provide useful proof and barriers of entry where necessary.

But there are two big mistakes that people make along the way, and afterwards:

  1. 'I can't learn without education.'
  2. 'If I am educated, I have learnt.'

Learning Is Internal, Flexible and Fallible

Imagine a factory. In one end, raw materials enter. At the other end, finished products emerge. Often in any number of variations. Inside, a process occurs.

Now imagine that factory is your mind. In one end, raw materials enter: courses, books, videos, degrees, lectures, seminars, conversations. At the other end, a finished product emerges: knowledge, understanding, ideas and wisdom. Inside, a process occurs.

This is the process of learning.

Is it an effective process that effortlessly leads to deep knowledge? You tell me. The real value of learning is not just what we learn but also how we learn it.

It's an active process that we have to engage in to build knowledge. If we attend a lecture and write nothing down, we will probably have forgotten it within a week. If we finish our degree with straight A grades, but can't explain the key concepts to someone else - what value is there in that, really?

The beauty of the learning process is that it is both flexible - we can adapt it to suit our needs - and it is subject to error.

Why is error good?

Error leads us out of our comfort zone. It helps us confront our biases. It highlights where we are incorrect, and what we can do to adjust course.

When we learn - truly learn - we turn information into knowledge, stretch our minds and - most important of all - accept that we might be wrong. Once we hit that point, the sky's the limit.

Learning Is a Skill We Can Improve

Processes can be improved. And if learning is a process, it follows that we can get better at it. We can improve our ability to learn.

The rather clunky-but-fancy term for the topic of thinking about how we learn is metacognition. The best (and first) book I read on the topic is How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens. You can read my notes on that particular book here. It's a good start on the topic.

I was inspired to write this article after reading this post by Seth Godin. If you're looking for further resources about how to improve your learning, I strongly recommend the articles of both Anne-Laure Le Cunff and Tiago Forte. They're both highly talented and influential thinkers and I urge you to read their work.

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