How learning can get in the way of earning – A surprising confession (Part 1)

Common: Spending time, money, and energy on education without converting it to sustainable value.

Uncommon:Alcohol and many other drugs are addicting. You already knew that. But what I denied for a long time is how a seemingly positive longing for education can also become an addiction.

If you told me 5 years ago that too much learning could be detrimental, I would have sought the nearest soapbox to beam my message of opposition. But during these last two years, as I’ve spent an increasing amount of time online, I’ve realized how a deep desire to learn can actually become a liability at times.  Allow me to explain (with a rather surprising confession).

Years ago, a term was introduced by those in the tight circles of the self-help industry that was used to refer to clients and avid supporters who became addicted to self-help material and the positive environment that many such conventions provided.  These people were appropriately called “self-help junkies.”  Now, of course, the term has become mainstream.  These individuals get their “high” by attending personal develop seminars, bobbing around the nearest guru with ogle-eyes, and chain book-reading, among other things. These behaviors are fine… in moderation, and if balanced with application.

I am an avid supporter of constant personal improvement.  But in order for this process to qualify as “sharpening the saw” the saw must be used enough to require sharpening – otherwise it is more accurately described as “spinning your wheels.” At some point in time, priorities must shift to “doing” (as I will explain this further in a moment).

But first, let me point out that you don’t need to fit the typical “self-help junkie” mold to experience how learning can become a liability.

The lust of learning:

I love to learn new things. I still attend seminars (and speak at them), I read hundred of books, and I communicate with experts regularly. But I try to strike a balance of learning and doing, which I have noticed is becoming more and more difficult in this information age and the prevalence of the internet.

When I reflect on my year, I am very satisfied with what I have accomplished, but… I feel a constant, alluring pull to “read just one more article,” read one more book, watch one more TED video, ask one more question, learn about one more productivity tool, etc. Can you relate?

Many times I win the battle with sheer discipline, but sometimes, I don’t.  As I’ve reviewed this last year I’ve noticed a few alarming things:

  • All of the books I’ve read are non-fiction
  • All of my bookmarked sites are education based
  • All of my iphone apps are productivity or learning tools
  • All of the notes on my computer dashboard are key-strokes and short cuts and interesting quotations (so I can memorize them)
  • 94% of the audio content on my iphone are non-fiction audio books,
  • And yes, this list goes on.

Even when I watch a TED video I find myself simultaneously reading other articles to absorb just a little bit more. Pardon me, but I don’t think this is healthy.

So I here I am; I confess… “My name is Kent Healy, and I have a problem.”  (“Hi Kent” the room echoes.)

Anyone who spends time with me knows this is absolutely true.  My obsession for learning is more than obvious (and yet, ironically, I still loath my conventional education).  But, I’ve realized that I often correlate effectiveness with the amount of information I have personally gained and retained. On the surface, this may seem harmless – perhaps commendable – but herein lies the problem:

When learning becomes a yardstick for measuring progress, a false sense of efficiency and value ensues.

Thus, you are soon tricked into believing that anything that offers new insights, might still be time well spent. I now realize how flawed this mentality is. I’ll admit, it’s easy to rationalize this issue by calling the pursuit of learning purely a “healthy addiction.”  But I argue that learning for learning’s sake is not necessarily always a wise obsession. Why?  Well, it comes down to two words…


Opportunity cost:

And now for a message that stings for all type-A personalities:

As we engage in one activity we simultaneously rule out the pursuit of another during the time of engagement.

Sorry, but this means you cannot do (or learn) everything. For this reason, it pays to be very cognizant of your educational pursuits and the time you invest in them becuase it’s not only about what you gain, but what you turn away.

So what do we stand to lose/turn away? Two primary things: One, the opportunity to learn something different and two, the opportunity to put your knowledge in action.  (If you want to get philosophical, you may argue that you’re better off in “in action” because you learn and do.  There is definitely some truth to this, yet I still think there is an appropriate time for study and action – but, as this entire message suggests, it is all a matter of balance.)

But now the spotlight is on you. It’s time for three revealing questions that tug at the crux of this issue. If you’re like many well-meaning achievers, you may find some imbalance. Keep in mind, the value you receive from these questions depends wholly on your level of self-honesty (Few people, if anyone, will know exactly how much time you spend doing different things).  Below are 3 important (similar, but still, different) questions to consider.

  • Is what I am  learning the best use of my time?
  • Is what I am learning the most important/relevant ______ to my current ____ (fill in the blank: aspirations, goals, profession, career, interests)?
  • Has the lust of learning become an excuse to delay or avoid what is most important?

And remember, it’s what you do after all you learn that matters most.

NOTE: This is a somewhat complex topic/idea so I have broken this into 2 parts.

Your thoughts?

What are your thoughts on this topic? Post your comments below.

Stay uncommon,

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