What’s there to learn?

I have my fair share of interviews. Back in the days when I was climbing the corporate ladders, I was obviously lucky to catch a few breaks here and there but ultimately it was also about me willing to try out different career options. My motto is: it never hurts to meet more people. There has to be something better out there. And once I got to a certain level in the corporates and now running my own things, I also have the chance to interview people. Many of them (big accounting firms is all about people). I don’t know how many exactly, maybe in the hundreds?

One of the things that stood out for me, especially in recent years, is that the candidates love to say, “I am here to learn!”. Or at least some variations of that (I am a fast learner, I am inquisitive, etc, etc.). And often these come from candidates who are actually the better ones.

Oh, of course, I have problems with this.

First, work is not school. You go to school to learn but you go to work to contribute. I am not running a university! Sure, in order for someone to contribute effectively, one must learn constantly and effectively. But that’s the means, not the ends. The focus should be on contributing.

This leads to another observation. As much as most candidates are into learning, most of them think they have learnt everything after just a couple of years, sometimes, even in a couple of months. What is wrong here then?

Well, partly this has to do with the Internet. With the Internet (more specifically search engines), it is very difficult for us not to know anything. How is an open heart surgery performed? Sure, just type that in Google, or better yet Youtube, and you will probably see a very elaborated video about it. What are the top five things Warren Buffett do in his own investments? Sure, just type that in Google, and some random answers, though most often fake, are there to be consumed. And the best ones are like, what is that one policy government should deploy that will change everything? Sure, there has to be a simple answer to that too! Either this party or that party!! We think this is the new way of learning. The junk food era in epistemology.

These days, to say “I don’t know” can be perceived as a lazy act. Can’t you do a Google search? Or just yell at Siri if you are that lazy!

With that as a background, people come to work, narrowly focusing on learning (not contributing), and at the same time thinking they have all the answers at their fingertips already. What gives?

The answer is they get bored and want to ‘learn’ something else. Let’s go for another job. This is why we have problems at work these days.

The truth is, yes, most things, including things which are pretty professional, can indeed be learnt in a much shorter timespan given our technologies. Especially millions of those ‘middle management’ roles which really contribute nothing but fake GDP stats. If one goes to a typical multinational company, take the middle 50% of the employees (in terms of rank), it is really not that difficult to learn what they do (mostly about replying some emails and attending meaningless conference calls anyways). And even for something more complicated, it does not take that much time to learn. Yes, one can really learn about 90-95% of most jobs in a really short time.

But there is a catch.

The really successful ones are not the 90-90% of the population. The successful ones are the 1% (or less). To learn 99% of a craft is nice but it does not make you successful because it’s all about that last 1%. The skills, patience and wisdom in honing that last 1% of the craft are reserved only to the special ones. And this elusive last mile is what all the successful ones strive for.

So what’s there to learn anyway? Maybe it should not be about learning about all. It’s about willing to get to that 1%. It’s the willingness to become someone that others want to learn from.

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