Learnability is the key to future-proofing your mind. As the job market changes and AI and other technologies grow more competent and seep into every kind of career choice you can think of, your ability to adapt is of utmost importance.  But beyond the capacity to learn new things, you also need an idea of what’s worth learning. It will be endlessly frustrating if you learn a new skill because it’s in demand today, but it becomes obsolete tomorrow.

So what should you do to maximize your time learning? In a constantly shifting technological landscape, perhaps the best thing isn’t to chase every new skill that pops up but to cultivate a unique range that makes you one-of-a-kind. In this way, you won’t necessarily be eligible for those positions with the most job openings, but you will make yourself the best applicant for a particular selection of them. You’ll be the best in your niche.

But let’s talk a little more about determining what is (and is not) worth learning and when…

What is more effective, learning facts or processes in order to pass a test or get a good grade, learning every possible thing you can just in case you might need it someday, or understanding how to go about obtaining information you need when you need it?

Just in Case vs. Just in Time

The entire modern education apparatus is built on just-in-case learning.  Better know how to multiply fractions, just in case you find yourself tasked with preparing a report using it someday.  Better know when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, just in case…well I’m not really sure there even is a case for that one unless you want to be a guest on Jeopardy.  Otherwise, Google it.

Knowledge for its own sake is overrated

Knowing a bunch of stuff “just in case” isn’t that valuable.  Knowing what you need to know to solve a problem, reach a goal, or become a better version of yourself is hugely valuable.  Often this requires first figuring out what’s non-essential and ignoring it.  Conscious ignorance can also be hugely valuable. What you don’t waste time or energy worrying about — what you don’t memorize just for prestige or fear of embarrassment — are what determine how much room you have left to learn what actually does matter.

Two things are far more important than what you know. What you can learn, and what you know you don’t need to know.  We’re surrounded by information. The corporate space (probably every work environment) is jam-packed with people, assumptions, objects, ideas, processes, rules (written and unwritten), and data. The vast majority of it is not necessary for you to know in order to achieve what you want to achieve in that environment.

But a handful of things are absolutely indispensable. That’s why the most valuable skill for success in diverse circumstances might be the ability to quickly identify first what doesn’t matter. Discern what is not of fundamental importance and ignore it.  In my corporate capacity in Human Resources I repeatedly trained managers on subjects they didn’t immediately need to use. When the time came where they eventually did need that knowledge, they couldn’t remember what to do, so they came to me for help anyway.  It was a waste of time across the board.

Pain, Prestige, or Purpose?

Average people learn what they need to avoid pain.  Elite people learn what they need to get the grade, ace the test, win the award, gain certification, impress people, and obtain honors.  Ascendant people, those who are truly wanting to elevate to the most effective level, don’t care about accolades or awards or tests or stickers or stars.  They learn exactly what’s needed to solve a problem that matters to them, exactly when it’s needed.  No more, no less.  No sooner, no later.

If you want to be average, avoid pain and learn like a lab rat (i.e. the traditional educational system).  If you want to be elite, bulk up on tons of just-in-case knowledge so you’ll never look dumb and you can chase prestige and external validation.  If you want to be ascendant – the best of the best creators, dreamers, doers, and rebels – find meaningful challenges and projects, pursue them, and learn what you need to complete them.

When you have a vision for doing or creating something and you must find a way to solve it with imperfect pieces, your brain is stretched and your creativity awakened. It’s hard work that can even take a physical toll (I’m thinking of the backache I had when I attempted to complete the complicated circular peacock puzzle in a weekend last Fall). It’s frustrating. But it’s deeply meaningful and fun.  You’re on nobody else’s timeline. Real learning happens when you’re absorbed in solving a real problem, one that matters to you (even if they are “play”.

Don’t be Prepared, Be Hungry

It’s not about what you know, or even who you know.  It’s about what will improve your life, how to learn it, how much of it to learn, and when.

Goals and dreams are better than grades and information.  Meaningful tasks and challenges are better than memorized facts and textbooks.  This program is all about being who you want to be, so keep doing cool stuff that will help get you there.  When you need to learn to take the next step, you will.  And it will be better than any arbitrary data-cram for any class.

Average people can learn the basics when shoved.  Elite people can learn that plus a bunch of other stuff that’s meaningful to others, not them.  Ascendant people - that’s you - discover who they are, who they want to be, and learn what it takes to close the gap between the two.