What to learn - part 1

Sun, 31 Aug 2014

When I was a child, we played a game of counting cherry stones: “Tinker, tailor, solder, sailor”.  The idea was that the number of cherry stones in your bowl determined which of the 8 careers you were going to have.

As crazy as the game now seems, it does tie in with historical reality.  The vast majority of people were assigned one of a limited number of careers by circumstance, and that career choice determined what qualifications you needed, what you would learn, and the work you would do.

The learning was difficult.  It may have been through a long apprenticeship, through university or through a slow rise up the rungs of a company.  Learning was tougher and less efficient, as regulations and lack of technology stopped you customising learning to their own interests and the work they wanted to do.  Qualifications served to protect and help the existing members (if you qualified, you were pretty much guaranteed a living), rather than the community or those learning.  On the other hand, deciding what to learn was easy - you learned what your qualification required you to learn.  And motivation was pretty easy - when there’s no choice and learning the material is the only way to earn a living, you just do it.

Times have changed, for better and for worse.  Not only will most people change employer multiple times in their career, I expect most will change field at least once.  And within any field, the range of work people do varies massively.  In most fields, the concept of qualification no longer has the same meaning - the majority of the learning we do isn’t required to ‘qualify’.  On the positive side, this means that we’ve got opportunity to shape our learning to what will be useful for the work we want to do.  And technology makes learning cheaper and better than ever before - we are continually learning more about how to most effectively teach concepts and skills.

The downside is that there is no longer any guarantee that with some set of learning, we’ll be guaranteed a job.  We have to make up our own mind about what learning will make us useful - this is a huge challenge in a fast changing world.  And, with the lack of certainty that any additional piece of learning will make a significant difference to our usefulness, it can be extremely difficult to motivate ourselves to keep learning.

It is easy to consider this situation in abstract, but it is highly relevant to my career.  I do find the university course I studied relevant to my current work, but I wouldn’t call them qualifications, either in the sense that I need them or that they entitle me to the job.  And I often have to think about what to learn and how best to learn it, in order to ensure I stay useful and to improve the quality of the work I do.

This forms the introduction to my next blog post, in which I'll discuss some of the things I’m currently considering learning, partly in the hope that mentioning them will motivate me to complete them, and partly to see if some of my readers have suggestions that will improve how I go about learning them.