31 causes of failure #4: insufficient education

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.
John Dewey

This is a continuation of my series on Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich that began with this post.

Of the causes of failure listed by Napolean Hill, insufficient education is one of the simplest to overcome.

Too often the word “education” these days is confused with the words “school” or “college.” A common belief that education can only be obtained from school has made whole segments of the population of the Western world undereducated. Let’s face it – your college years are probably some of the worst times of your life for real learning. With the distractions available, a serious pursuit of academics is probably one of the last things on your mind. In addition, the learning in college is too often static. You may “learn to think” – a common expression for the supposed benefit of sitting around talking to your fellow classmates, etc. – but a lot of what you will learn specifically is going to be completely useless later in your life. Example? I learned Pascal in college. Now, it was a good course – it “taught me to think” around computers, and made me structure my brain in a manner that let me “think” in computerese, but I doubt those Pascal skills count for much these days.

Hill is talking about continuous education. You can acquire this continuous education in a few different ways:

1. Continuing your education in a semi-formal fashion. I don’t do this myself but I know many people who do – keep taking courses at your local college, university, community college or even just some community organization (churches, clubs, etc.) The courses can range from practical (technical courses to advance your career) to meaningless but enjoyable (in my case, something like early Soviet history or astronomy). I think this is very difficult for most people. With busy lives, children, spouses, work and frankly the creep of old age, taking a class “just for the sake of learning” reeks of self-indulgence. It shouldn’t feel that way, but it does.
2. Brief “burst” education (such as seminars). I’ve gone to a number of seminars, almost all of them professional seminars around my line of business (audit and corporate governance). Every time, I go into the seminar feeling superior and telling myself “I have nothing to learn from these hacks!” Every time, I come out of the seminar having learned SOMETHING. I’ve interacted with my fellow students; we’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve learned something about ourselves. OK, that’s a bit much, but you get the point. You can sign up for short, intensive training courses or boot camps and cram a lot of learning into a short span of time. The major objection to this is usually cost. I went to one course that cost my company $5000 for three days. “Holy Corporate Overspending, Batman!” I wouldn’t pay $3000 for a three-day course! But the skills I learned in that course made me invaluable to the company, secured a promotion and even beefed up my resume substantially when I jumped to my next working life, consulting. I have seen a tremendous return on investment from that seminar; but I would still get squeamish at doing something similar today. Ah, cognitive dissonance!
3. Reading. If you are reading this blog, you probably read more than your average person (and your reading tastes are exquisite, and you are charming and beloved by small children and pets, I imagine, Dear Reader). But in general, reading is tricky. I have a couple of bad reading habits: I like to reread books and I like to read novels. I just read the whole Earth’s Children cycle. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s an epic that covers about 20 years in the life of a cavewoman over about 6000 pages. I think the author has about 4 more books to go. I am not sure reading those books educated me. Sure, I know a lot more about what a novelist thinks cavepeople did in their daily lives (think hunt, sleep, eat and, er, the “other” kind of sleeping – a lot). But it didn’t educate me. At the same time I’m usually working my way through financial books, parenting books, productivity books, self-improvement books, etc. – not to mention 100+ blogs dailiy. Reading can be a form of education, but you have to keep a filter on it. But it is far and away the simplest, cheapest and often easiest way to keep educating yourself.

But the most important thing you can do with knowledge is apply it. I know a lot of Soviet history, for example. You know what I get out of that? Not education, per se. I enjoy it, reading good works probably helps me understand human history in general and Russia in particular (a matter of some importance to me since I lived there and my wife grew up in the Soviet Union) but it’s not exactly education. I don’t apply that knowledge – particularly towards getting rich. This is an important point: I think learning for the sake of learning is fine. Have fun. Learning is growth, and that’s worth something. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that reading something you’ve read before or reading a dopey novel or reading about the horrors of crime and terrorism in your paper make you more educated. No, no, no. What makes you more educated is learning something new that improves your life. Flower arranging blogs may make your life better just by bringing beauty into your life; but if you read and never DO anything with it it’s just entertainment – like watching “Lost” or playing video games. You have to DO something with that knowledge to make it REAL education.

But if you feel undereducated, you have no excuse to feel that way.
Between public libraries in most of the Western world, the Internet and even the creaky old print-on-paper the wealth of knowledge available today is staggering. If I wanted to learn about freaky astronomical theories or commodities trading it takes seconds to find them. Want to learn how to lose weight or build prosperity? A single click away.

So if you want to get rich – or even just have a better life – identify areas you like to study, and like to read about, and attack them. Take a seminar. Audit a community college course. Read 13 blogs and 5 books on the subject. But keep learning, because if you aren’t growing and learning, you’re just marking days off the calendar of your life.
Creative Commons License photo credit: clgregor